Strawberries Are Here: It’s Love All

I don’t follow the Chinese calendar – I can barely keep up with my personal diary – but if I had to guess, I’d suppose that this is the Year of the Tortoise. Still to pick up any apparent momentum after an excruciatingly slow start, yet somehow it is getting there. People are moaning about the “lack of summer” (as if we ever, or would ever not moan if, we get three months of unbridled heatwave). But summer IS HERE, only it’s shuffled in so cautiously most of us haven’t noticed yet.

People who work outdoors tend to notice these things quicker, which is surely only a fair trade-off for having to spend so much time appreciating, first freezing hand, how bloody cold winter actually is. Mind, there are more bright heavenly days in winter, Horatio, than are dreamt of in warmed offices.

Me, John and Paul couldn’t fail to notice on Friday: we were on the first strawberry pick.  A full month later than 2011’s, but the commencing of the trawling of British Summer’s flagship berry on the very day of the summer solstice seemed spot on. What’s more, once again, our strawbs are ripe in time for Wimbledon. In an age when virtually all of the UK’s commercial strawberry production has been pulled indoors – and worse, clear of the soil – it makes me proud, very proud, to be raising sweet red joy from our cold hard clay, in the western winds, in time for the opening day of the summer fruits & sports season.

Regular spectators will know that the highlight of the summer sports season here at Hawkwood are the midsummer Horticultural Games. This year, the day was glorious in every way. With over 70 in attendance, Adam, freshly returned from representing the newly formed UK Land workers’ Allince at the quaternal Via Campesina Conference in Jakarta, hurled his way into history with a win in the Men’s Salad Tossing. Jo avoided the spectacular pile-up at the finish of the Sack Race to grab a plant pot trophy for the otherwise underachieving Fruit team. The big upset was that the Weight Lifting – a discipline of strength and skill, where contestants, having lifted the garlic dumb bell must go on to guess its weight – was won not by any of the stall workers, box scheme packers or harvest hands, but Brian, our mere Funding & Council Liaison Officer.

For once, the Potato & Knife Race was not marred by revelations or accusations of “thumbing” by leading athletes, and Ippy (Team Salad) was a worthy winner in the Women’s event. The Tug Of Peace was high drama indeed: the passion and grit with which participants in the Final heaved for Vines and Vegetables was moving. In the end, the Vines team, as Marlene said,  pipped it, in doing so, prising the overall Team Trophy. Fitting, in a year when the first grape harvest is due to enter a newly fitted Cooperative Winery.

The Hawkwood Games then, and its lesser relation, the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championship, are trumpeted as heralding the red letter start of the summer fruit season. What’s less considered is that every start starts with an end, or is it every end ends with  a start? I always get muddled. Anyway the point being that, in the endless breathtaking rally between seasonal superfoods, strawberries bounce up exactly where rhubarb and asparagus leave off.

So on Tuesday, there was  a subtle poignancy with which Vi hung the asparagus knife back up for the good; and when Gary weighed out the last bundle of crimson sticks, I was half expecting the credits to start rolling. Sad, but right: the early excitement of each delicacy has worn off: no rhubarb whatsoever sold on our stalls last week . And the crop is equally tired of being picked. It’s their time to grow unchecked. So on we go…

Starts and ends, leaving things behind and taking things forward, was the theme beautifully addressed by our Outreach Worker Liz, in the solstice ritual she devised for the post-Games after-party for coop members and trainees. The plant world, and so our life, turns on subtle, tortoise-like shifts, punctuated by the occasional Big Leap. This time is closer to the latter.

It’s by no means perfect, but this is our summer. So go forth and taste good, local, organic, love-grown, strawberries, wherever they may be.

Anyone For Squash

It doesn’t seem to take all that much in the end. After all the dreaming and scheming; all the sweat and worry and tears; just a bit of love and care and then, when finally Warmth and Light arrive, muttering their apologies and looking slightly shifty, everything else just falls into place: plants grow by themselves.

It was a rollover year for the great Hawkwood Bean Sweepstake, as last year everyone’s Big French Ones stopped short of the two metre high top wire. This year, it was over in a flash: well, a fortnight. A young “Neckargold” stalk, backed by an only-slightly-older-but-much-smaller  Ronan, aged six months, shot to success bagging Ronan the £17 jackpot. Summers youth: a long takes a little time.

Still far to go though. Full four weeks after planting, the squash in the Entrance Field are only starting to suggest an interest in “getting away”, much to my relief, as we did the BIG planting of squash, across the whole of the Old Kitchen Garden, on that cool damp Wednesday last week.

One way or another, this year will be a squashy one.  On top of its moment in the “all or nothing” kitchen garden rotation, there are four beds in the Entrance Field, plus we’re trailing some, Tuscan-style, through the vineyard.

As is The Rule here, we’ve gone largely for tried and tested cultivars: the rich orange “Uchiki Kuri”; the dense, chestnutty “Buttercup”; “Sweet Dumpling”, our lovable tagine grenade; and “Blue Ballet”, which is as weirdly gracious as it sounds. New entries for this year are the ornate eye-candy of “Turks Turban”; the naked seeded “Retzer Gold”; the heritage wild card and Billy Bragg favourite “New England Sugar Pie”; the elf-sized “Jack Be Little”. And of course there’s “Hawkwood Hybrid”, the first step on our journey to breeding a wonderful Waltham Forest winter squash..

There’s more to this breeding lark than meets the eye. During high-level roast vegetable meetings myself and Sean decided that, whilst the butternut persists in being the nation’s favourite squash, it is inferior, in flavour, keeping quality, and comical wartiness, to something like a “Green Hokkaido”. The simple act of marrying Hokkaido and Butternut, then, would, if not change the world, look forward to a New England. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture”.

The useful plant we’ve added at this point is not a better-flavoured butternut, but a bastard that looks and tastes nothing like either parent, and is twice their size. We’ve created a monster, albeit a tasty one. With scary inevitability, scientific progress presses on this season, as I attempt to inbreed two Hawkwood Hybrids in the confinement of the East Wing of the glasshouse. We have a long way to go before we can release a stable, open-pollinated OrganicLea variety on a world that didn’t ask for it in the first place. But somehow what started as a sideline summer shenanigan may  be becoming a life’s work.

I suppose that feeling – that despite a project being neither wanted, needed or requested by anyone, there is somehow no turning back –  is something that the biotech people can relate to, but that’s where the similarities end. The new EU “Plant Reproductive Material Law” is the latest naked, vindictive attack on home gardeners and small growers by the biotech corporations pursuing a stranglehold on the very stuff of life. Quite where it leaves us, with the Hawkwood Hybrid and our living library of heritage beans and tomatoes, I’ve still yet to fathom, though it’s likely to be, if not on, then close to, a sticky wicket, much like the rest of the planet.

Squashes remain a beacon of hope amidst such corporate control freakery. They are the very picture of promiscuous, rampant, diversity. The vision of our stalls and stores cascading in nine contrasting shapes shades and sizes at the end of summer is as liberating as it is seductive. It’s now approaching midsummer though, and all we have to show for this vision, all our work so far, is a few pale green leaves on the ground. Now back to nature.