Walking Talking Plants

Our plant sales season comes to a close, as nature’s rhythm subtly breaks from birth/ germination to growth/ planting out. There’s not much we do all year round, only drink tea, ponder the weather, and mixed salad leaves. The latter remain constant, though constantly changing. Not for us the monotony of year round tomatoes. Variety is the spice, after all; chilli varieties, the spiciest.

For the plants season though, which basically runs between the two May Bank Holidays, I’m proud that we continue to operate as a plant nursery. In doing so, we honour our forebears, the council gardeners at Hawkwood Central, as it then was, in the days when local councils had the power and pride to be this country’s chief employers of horticulturalists.

Adopting the fine glass roofed infrastructure from this era, we feel the sense of responsibility to make the facility a resource for the burgeoning urban food growing scene of which we are a part. In particular, many gardeners in our crowded town have little access to protected places to bring on tender vegetables. Our intensive care unit, as I call the glasshouse staging, is on hand.

Then, every so often, our plantlets find themselves in some unexpected and wonderful London scenes. They’ve been handed out as free gifts on the streets of Brixton, for example, and supplied a summer holiday’s worth of activity for Somerford Grove Kids’ Gardening Club. Last Thursday, Brian and I drove (actually, Brian did the driving as I can’t, though I did help by nodding knowingly whilst looking at the map, on  more than one occasion) over a thousand young vegetables down to the South Bank. Here, Wayward Plants are planting up the Queens Walk Window Gardens, for this summer’s “Festival of Neighbourhood”. It’s estimated that some eight million visitors will cast their eyes over our “Cherokee Trail of Tears” french beans; thousands will catch our “Carters Golden Sunrise” tomato glowing at Waterloo Sunset. No pressure then.

Jarred Henderson of Wayward Plants came to us because he wanted their contribution to an event purporting to be about London communities, to be grown by a London community organisation. This might seem obvious, but people with that sort of clear vision, and courage of their convictions, are thin on the ground. Likewise, the chefs we work with – those at Friend’s House, Manna, Nice Green Van and Table 7 the most longstanding of them – have sought out, and risen to the challenges, of our local, seasonal produce, where others might be happier to just talk the talk.

Walking the talk: at our Open Day on Sunday, Iain Tolhurst gave a talk and joined the site walk. He is one of the “pioneers”, who read Silent Spring in the early 1970s and decided that heading to the countryside to establish an organic farm was one vital way to confront the horrors of industrial agriculture, and present an alternative. Thirty seven years later, his “stockfree” system, fully developed at Hardwick, near Reading, has informed and inspired the next generation of organic growers, some of whom are taking the fight back into the cities. Maybe see you there.

Into the Blue

Super busy.  The myopic May focus on urgent sowing, cultivation and planting requirements often shields you from the garden’s  unravelling beauty  surrounding  you. But you can always rely on something from sideways knocking you sideways, out the blue.

A lot comes out the blue in late spring. Makes you wonder if the blue is a little congested the rest of the time. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it’s our fallows at Hawkwood that often surprise me most.  In the green manure beds under glass, phacelia and buckwheat are in head-turning bloom right now. The latter joined flowers of chervil, mustard, watercress, rocket and calendula in this week’s edible bouquets crafted by Pretty Delicious. These went with three hundred potted plants including wild rocket, cornflower, lemon balm, mint, oregano, alfalfa, nasturtium and  viola, which we raised, at shotgun speed, to adorn the tables at Deesha and Vishal’s wedding on Saturday. Chives and borage never looked so happy as when I pushed them down the glasshouse aisle in the Danish trolley. Just the right amount of better and worse weather.

White petals of bird cherry and apple are starting to confetti the soils now. Four beds of squash are planted up. The plants were willing but the air a little bleak. They need a bit more warmth to grow or they may perish: every burst of sunshine is to be greeted now, and on Wednesday we did our version of a sundance, planting out sunflowers amidst the chicory on the Entrance Field. Sunflowers famously follow the sun as it arcs through the sky, so perhaps there is a tiny reverse attraction. It’s a long shot, but so is the sowing of tomato seed in freezing February.

Under the protection of the glass, the tomatoes are now shrub size, in need of their first sideshooting.  Hannnah here says tomato pinching season is wedding season: countless occasions she’s been sat at the banquet and asked to explain her green stained hands. I tell volunteers that the quickest way to aquire green fingers is to pinch out tomatoes. I think it’s true.

And on Friday the first of the spring- sown salads made it into the mix. It’s a lettuce, “Sadawi”, a deep red looseleaf type. It is buttery and full flavoured with no bitterness. After a winter without, I didn’t realise how much I missed lettuce, how good it can taste.

Soon we will be awash with the stuff, and we will start taking it for granted. Something else will jump out from the blue to be flavour, or colour of the month. The cuckoo is back, announcing t the season is fully under way, and young, stretched before us, the possibilities all but endless and only vanishing where the land meets the blue.

On The Yellow Cress Road

“The best things in any garden happens by accident” – Monty Don

Our loyal box scheme members and market stall supporters will this week receive something very special in their salad bags: leaves of the Walthamstow yellow-cress.

I began trudging the Yellow-Cress Road at the start of this millenium. I had moved to Walthamstow, in the London Borough of Waltham Forest. The council there had marked the centenary of the death of its most celebrated son, William Morris, in 1996, and by the time I arrived they had still, quite understandably, not managed to bring themselves to take down the party decorations. His portrait was pinned to many of the town’s streetlights, like a Robert Mugabe or a Chairman Mao: for a moment I thought I might have stepped into some Arts & Crafts socialist utopia.

It didn’t take long to be disillusioned, yet here I stayed. I had come to pursue the vision of OrganicLea: “to sustainably rehabilitate the food growing heritage of the Lea Valley”, a vision to which, of all the landowners in the Lea Valley, only the aforementioned council had offered any practical assistance.

Around this time I was reading the latest book by Richard Maybe. The botanist and writer, perhaps still most famous for his seminal foraging manual, Food For Free, had published his epic guide to UK plants and their social relevance, Flora Britanica. Much of the book concerned plant lore from exotic rural locations I could only dream of, but one small entry leapt out at me:

“An up-and-coming cousin of water-cress is Walthamstow yellow-cress, Rorripa x armoracioides, a speciality of the damp wasteland round Walthamstow Reservoirs in London”

Magic. Our little unassuming corner of East London had, hidden away, its very own variety of watercress. Surely this deserved further investigation; bringing to light; celebration. Trouble was, the cress really was hidden away. The reservoirs were, or so I thought, the preserve of a few anglers, and even if I could sneak in under the pretence of fishing, I would end up scouring vast bodies of water for a particular, undescribed form of watercress: needles and haystacks came to mind, only with a higher likelihood of getting my feet soaked. The trail went cold for a decade or so.

Despite the hype, I, like many people in the Lea Valley, found nothing to thank the 2012 Olympic Games for: save the one, following, thing. Inevitably, a small portion of all the money being sloshed around was grasped to fund some interesting fringe cultural activities: one was a botanical boat cruise of the Lower Lea, narrated by none other than Mr. Maybe. Just like the sporting spectacle, tickets for this were hard to come by, but at least one deserving local got hold of one: my friend Nicole, a founding mother of OrganicLea.

Agent Nicole was duly dispatched to make enquiries as to the whereabouts of the, now grail-like, wildflower, but the mission was an anti-climax. Maybe had no recollection of the Walthamstow. He stated, in his defence, that it had been a long time since he had researched the book. A fair point: but the fact that the yellow-cress had become extinct even in the mind of edible weeds’ most public champion, made my chances of finding the plant, and perhaps the plant’s chances of protection, that bit slimmer.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, a serendipitous meeting shortly afterwards turned things around, for good. Anaelle, one of OrganicLea’s garden outreach workers, had been training gardeners at the wonderful  “Living Under One Sun” community garden in Tottenham. For their end-of-course summer trip, they came to Hawkwood. Amongst their number was a botanist called Brian Wurzell, who was fascinated by our plantlife: not so much, I have to admit, by our resplendent vegetable cultivars as our rare forms of fungal disease: but that’s another story. Knowing, by reputation, that Brian had carried out ecological studies in the region for a number of years, I thought to ask him if, by chance, he had ever heard tell of the mythical yellow-cress. “Yes”, he replied without hesitation, I discovered it!” Cue bright light and choirs of angels.

Here, in the words of a subsequent e-mail from Brian, are the facts: “I originally found [it] close to the Lockwood Reservoir in 1971, was totally baffled and eventually, in 1974, was directed by the BSBI to send a specimen to Dr. Bengt Jonsell at Uppsala University, Sweden. He replied straightaway to give me its name, Rorippa x armoracioides, and its parental ancestors, R. austriaca and R.sylvestris. It was already known in Scandinavia but this was the first record for GB. The English name which commemorates its original site is again given in Clive Stace’s New Flora” [which is kind of the bible for serious botanists].

Immediately Brian seized on my interest in the plant, as he was concerned that it was seriously threatened in its current location. Thus it was on a bright Guy Fawkes Day 02012 that he took me to Walthamstow reservoirs, “our Lake District” as he calls it, and showed me the original site of discovery and, low and behold, more precious than gold. The flower of Waltham Forest.

He had eventually found the plant in two other London locations, both of which were since built on, and the original Lockwood colony has been reduced, first, by the building of a ring main over half of its extent, and now by the rapid encroachment of Himalayan Giant blackberry into the remainder. Having sought the permission of the Fishery, I dug up a number of rhizomes already struggling in the shade of the bramble, and set off to Hawkwood to pot them up immediately.

Here, they were brought on in trays, left outside through a harsh Scandinavian-style winter, then brought back in again to get it flushing early. The Yellow Cress was, alongside lettuce “Cerbiatta”, our first transplants of the year to go out, planted by myself Aimee and Jem one fine April day, in spring’s youth.

Although in the watercress genus, the yellow-cress neither shares a close appearance, nor the habitats, of the former. It grows in rough grassland, and looks not unlike the oriental salad Mizuna, with its light green colour, serrated leaves and slight hairiness. Though Brian himself had never tasted the plant, we assumed that any relative of watercress must have salading potential.

The yellow-cress has a mild, mustard flavour, that might be unpalatable if you were faced with a huge plateful of it, but adds a fine piquance to a bowl of mixed salad leaves. I’ve always felt that a mixed salad was a preferable ideal of a multi-cultural society than a melting pot: that different additions can complement, and temper, each other, creating something greater than the sum of its parts, rather than reducing them to a common denominator. In its finer moments, Walthamstow, a town of great social diversity with no one dominant group, achieves this.

At the risk of taking such plant-people analogies a little far, which is not something that has ever worried me before mind, I love the yellow-cress because it is a true Walthamstownian. Which is to say, like all East Enders, it is an immigrant to these parts. Brian posits that it most likely arrived here, as a piece of vegetative material, or seed (though most of the cress’ seed is sterile) on the feet of a bird migrating from Northern Scandinavia.  The cress might theoretically have settled anywhere in this green and pleasant land, or beyond, yet it found its niche here, in this rough patch of city earth, after the splendour of the fjords. Like I did, hailing from the rolling fields of Hertfordshire; or our Tuesday volunteer Nava, transplanted from the farmlands of Sri Lanka: we all find something of beauty, something worth living and fighting for, in this Dirty Old Town, though we may not have ended up here wholly by choice.

We hope you enjoy the taste of the Walthamstow yellow-cress, and that you may become as glad of this plant as we are: glad of our communities, our wild and cultivated places, our capacity to rescue one another, and our ability to surprise one another; surprise ourselves.