Common scents

So much to write about, so little time. The last three weeks have been hotter than a Bradford curry and as dry as  Yorkshire wit, bringing everything on in lamb-leaps and shire horse bounds. The strawberries ripened too rapidly, shortening the season and causing many to be left fermenting on the plant. Only too late did I recall the virtues of shade cloth for slowing down growth: it seems like a lifetime since we last had need to call on it.

Its dense green weave now drapes over most of the salad plants on the West Bank Terrace, as we try to brake lettuces’ urge to flower and reproduce once it gets into the 30s. Indoors, we work with leaves Who Love The Sun:  the tropical basils, amaranths, Malabar spinach, purslane, ice lettuce. Their exotic, soft sweet flavour and textures have changed the vibe of the salad bags irrevocably.

The Hungry Gap has exploded, and this week salad, strawbs, basil, beetroot, broad beans, French beans, new potatoes, blackcurrants, cut flowers, celery, cucumbers, courgettes and tomatoes are all there for the taking. The growing pains and worries are a memory: our concerns now surround channeling the water flow to where it’s most urgently needed; casting shade; keeping ourselves cool, protected and hydrated; finding happy homes for the harvest; and conjuring up time to pick it all. So, much to shout about.

So many strawberries, so short a season: yet the fallen fruits are not wholly wasted.  Their sweet super-ripe fragrance follows you around the Entrance Field like, well, a bad smell. All over London, wherever flowering plants are tolerated or encouraged, similar heady oils are driving back the stench of the City: honeysuckle consuming garden fences; meadowsweet wafting across the “wastes” of Walthamstow Marshes; Victoria Park’s perfumerie of petunias. The world is inverted, nature rising to the top again.

“Smell and memory are both processed in the same ancient area of our brain”, observes Richard Mabey in The Perfumier and the Stinkhorn. This must be why summer resonances swim so certainly on the garden’s tugging currents of vegetable smells at this time. The umami tang of pinched tomato stems; the crisp suggestion of a suddenly sliced cucumber; basil’s holy tones: all these now sizzle and echo through the glasshouse and pack house, excavating old recollections, and laying down new ones. So much to smile about, all the time.

The Whole Harvest

“Some busy ‘gin to team the loaded corn/ Which night throng’d round the barns becrouded door / Such plentious scenes the farmers yards adorn /  Such busy bustling toils now mark the harvest morn”

John Clare, The Harvest Morning

How to finish? Sometimes I feel like my life is but a series of short stories all with mildly disappointing conclusions, whether the backdrop is a bicycle race, a political campaign, or a gardening workshop. The art of finishing is one I can only hope to become proficient in before I go.

At least I’m not alone: none of us are born finishers, and few get to finishing school. Perhaps this is why harvesting – the grower’s finale – isn’t given half the head space or page inches of other gardening techniques, such as the ever ongoing struggles of weed, pest and disease management. When I offer to show someone how we harvest chard, it’s not uncommon to be looked upon with an expression of amusement and pity. Because, you just pick it right? What’s to talk about?

In fact, amongst leaf growers, there is considerable debate as to the true righteous way to pick chard, and the jury is out as to whether we’ve found it at Hawkwood. There is, though, broad consensus as to the range of considerations to be taken into account. These include: maintaining turgour; losing field heat; entry points for disease; contamination with soil; quality control; size of leaf; patterns of movement across the bed; rogueing out; inclusion or exclusion of other maintenance operations; proportion of chard to other leaves if picking for the salad mix; policy on bolting plants; handling minimisation; f tool selection; fiddliness thresholds; and choice of cycling methods for grade outs.

Needless to say, even just touching on this smorgasbord of issues makes for a bewildering induction, bordering on an alarming one, if you just happen to have volunteered yourself to pick chard as it was a job that needed doing and sounded pretty straightforward, and in any case you don’t care too much for chard anyway.

This is where Tuesday’s Harvest Hands come in. It’s a crack squad of skilled pickers, consisting, this Harvest Moon, of (clockwise, from far left): Adam; the Trainee Trio of Aimee, Kristen & Paul; Apprentice Gary; Jonny the Rt. Hon, Secretary for Salad; Kate; Naeema; Frank; and Paul Senior. I think that’s me behind Adam, looking quizzically at a chard leaf. The work is hard, and also a celebration. In the ever ongoing struggle of growing, this is what it means to win: a full trough of salad and crates of strawberries stacked up in the packing bay. All the sweat and toil, all the brain and muscle energy, find a culmination here. On Harvest Tuesdays, a bowl of decorated salad is laid on the altar of the lunch table to honour this. Not in the text books, but in the songs and festivals of the land, the harvest is central.

So we are in festival season: strawberries and salad are literally growing faster than we can pick them, the beans are ripening on the vine, and the fat beets will kick into their sweet song next week. Routine maintenance never ceases, but there is an active shift from nurturing to gathering. The Spring Lean eats our dust.

Another kind of harvest was celebrated at our Open Day last Sunday. “I found the poems in the fields/ And only wrote them down”, quoth john Clare (1793 – 1864), a ploughboy who harvested his poems from the nature around his village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, and for a few years of his life, in the very Epping Forest that embraces Hawkwood.

His words chronicle the richness of the rural land and life, and the process of its impoverishment by The Enclosures: or what we might now call land grabs. His labours were not entirely in vain: his was not a final defeat. The poems provide information and inspiration for the work of reconnecting people and land today.

So, to mark Clare’s birthday, the day closed with readings, and the unveiling of a John Clare memorial, beautifully etched by Ian, at the pinnacle of a brimming Entrance Field, under the shade of the old oak, a spot dubbed Poets’ Corner after its contemplative aspect. A good place to finish.