“Horticulture is the last refuge of the unemployable”: this quote from James Sinclair was brought to my attention recently by the grower Sam Eglington. A quip it may have been, but a glance at the CVs, and shevelment status, of those labouring at Hawkwood reveal it to be almost a profound truth.
The paid coop members here are a motley crew of drop-outs, transplanted PANSiEs; rat race retirees and odd-jobbers. Most of us were happily playing with our food, until we somehow got stuck on the payroll. This gives us a slightly stunned demeanour, reminiscent of a seventeen year-old suddenly put out to perform at Wembley, by which we can be told apart from the volunteers. Of this latter group, who span the whole spectrum of “Employment Status”, a third “work full time”, or have a proper job, in old money, thus lending the project some air of respectability.
That is, up until now. This week, Hawkwood Community Plant Nursery is a featured garden on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time. This is the longest running gardening broadcast in the world, and one of the few horticultural institutions established enough to legitimately drop the “horti” bit. For some time now we will be able to bask in its reflected acceptability, a fact only amplified by our mention, on Monday, in that boss class rag, the Financial Times.
We won’t be the only ones basking in this Indian Summer light. Last week we marked the autumn equinox, that great turning point, in the way we know how: bringing the prodigal squash suns home, from the wild fields to the cossetted glasshouse where their life’s journey began.
It was a big, dramatic, nervy, logistical operation. The challenge: to get the maximum number of proficient pumpkin pickers out; bringing in all, and only, the mature specimens; with minimum damage to fruit, plants and soil; with as much anarchy and as little chaos as possible; in the four hours of official Work Day available.
In many ways, it was the mirror image of the Great Squash Planting Out. This occurred on a drizzly late-May day, at the end of which we looked back at the little plants, set out with their tall order to fill the large dark space of the Old Kitchen Garden. The satisfaction which we turned away with that day has returned, only the accompanying anxiety replaced with joy.
The squash, all nine spread-eagling varieties of them, are our biggest crop this year in every sense: covering the biggest land area (the whole Old Kitchen garden, four beds of the Entrance Field and their trialled two rows of the Vineyard), weighing in at up to fourteen kilos each, and now covering a sizeable portion of the glasshouse’s hard landscape. They’ve filled their allotted space, and some: the original harvest date had to be postponed for a fortnight, until the leaves furled enough to allowed us to see, and see our way to, the hidden orange/ yellow/ green/ blue/ brown/ red treasure.
As with the planting, we settled on the classic Pairs formation for the picking team, each unit making their own tendril-like song lines through the dense dance of the pumpkin patch. Squash superstars like Paul, Ed, Gary and Aimee played pivotal roles in this final reckoning, having gone the full circle from seed to feed to weed to reward, whilst more recent arrivals like Jess and Margo showed impressive strength in lifting the heavyweight trophies.
The number of people who participated in, and have come to marvel at, the squash harvest at Hawkwood, makes a mockery of the recited dogma that “people don’t want to work the land anymore”. People don’t want lives of drudgery and poverty, but working the land no more has to be that than does being a professional athlete, a computer programmer, or a postie: it’s just how our weird world has ordered it. So it can be re-ordered, little by little, step by step, bottom to top. “It goes on one at a time/ it starts when you care to act”, says Marge Piercy in The Low Road. Later, there will be pumpkin pie.
And I am proud of what we have here, the people, the land, and the riotous gathering of gourds that make the harvest festival display in the glasshouse. After the difficult growing season last year, they sum up this summer. Over a thousand strong, fully ripe, grown to Organic Standards and of good eating quality. For a little London garden, pretty respectable.