A Question of Time

“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.

Sarvari Potato More

Friday the thirteenth’s “ Harvest of Stories” felt a fitting way to round off the summer. A public feast in the glasshouse, where it was exactly warm enough to sit for an evening. Although the changes had been rung on some of the beds, where mere glints of winter salad plants are making the first small grips into their incredible journey, all the climbing crops still stood tall and resplendant: in the candlelight they surely merged into deep curtains drawing into the night.

The stories, told by different voices, pertained to the different plant species and varieties grown at Hawkwood, now transformed into the fantastic feast. Some of these tales have been touched in previous Musings: others await their opening into these particular pages. The story of the potato, from Raleigh’s alleged introduction to the Great Hunger, leaves a shadow longer than most plants in our taught history. Marlene recounted a further chapter:

On the very evening that a full “Smith period” blight warning was declared in our E4 area, we were reminded of the work of Dr. Sarvari, a Hungarian who began breeding potatoes for high blight resistance and achieved some success. Potato blight is a dynamic, mutating disease. Whilst “conventional” famers can respond to this quality with repeated sprays –last year many will have applied copper-based fungicides up to twenty times – the organic grower eschews the long term damage this causes, relying entirely on cultural methods, a key one being resistant varieties. Yet so shape-shifting is the Phytophthora fungus that firm immune favourites such as Lady Eve Balfour have now become susceptible. Enter the Sarvari Trust.

Dr. Sarvari took his findings to Scottish and Danish potato growers, and a Trust has been established in Wales, developing the “Sarpo” range of potatoes to the point of commercial availability. The Sarpos are by all accounts, at present at least, extraordinarily dismissive of the crippling sickness. In the Entrance Field, the dense green foliage of our Sarpo Mira hasn’t flinched as the wind and rain tosses fungal spores this way and that, whilst under the protection of glass, our tomatoes steadily succumb. As we face a period of increasingly uncertain weather conditions, the Sarvari Trust are one of the Great White Hopes for sustainable spuds.

Last year, the unfunded Trust raised £10,000 through crowd fundraising to continue its research. Meanwhile, over in Norwich, the John Innes Centre Sainsbury Laboratory have secretively, unaccountably, spent £1.7 million of public money failing to develop a genetically modified blight resistant potato. Last year, campaigners from Britain and beyond, including a delegation from London’s Community Food Growers’ Network, visited the laboratory to tell them and the government the good news: we’ve found the potato you’re looking for! This year, their trials continue apace.

It’s not unusual, the sacrificing of commons sense on the alter of corporate profit, but examples such as this throw the matter into sharp relief. Sharp relief also the day of the banquet, when Paul and Ed dug up the first few tubers. Last year, the day of the great Potato Lift yielded but a few rotten, infested remnants: this year, a return to that primordial pleasure of finding Irish gold, “loving the cool hardness in our hands”, as the just late Seamus Heaney put it.

Sarpo Mira, it has to be said, doesn’t boast the wonderful flavour of a Pentland or the Arran Victory: they are not a panaceae: the quest continues for the holy grail of  the potato, or indeed any vegetable cultivar, which marries radiant health with superb flavour and impressive yields. But at least in three weeks, when we bring in the maincrops, we will have plenty in our winter store. They will each tell tales of summer sun, when roasted in months to come; of decent, honest human labour and enquiry; of working with, not against, nature, and all the full promises that brings.

Not One To Wine

It’s difficult to overstate the English capacity to not overstate things. When asked how we are, or what the weather’s been like, responses may range dramatically from “alright”, through “bearing up”, all the way to “can’t complain”. You could say it reflects a moderate, even fatalistic, streak which, like all cultural traits, can be charming at times, and at others infuriating: though we musn’t grumble, I suppose.

It’s this sweet moderation that has, on the one hand, put the damper on historical movements that brought us to within grasping reach of liberation; on the other, stemmed autocratic tyranny to a degree. Ultimately, like all traditions, at important moments  it is there to be thrown out. Now is one such: this growing season has been neither “OK” nor “not too bad”; neither “quite good” nor “better than a slap in the face”: it has been gob-smackingly, jaw-droppingly EXCELLENT.

Except for the slow start, we couldn’t have asked for more: warm, good light levels, regular deep rainfall. Growth has been lush yet balanced, inside and out. No pest or disease has run rife, and the biggest problem we’ve faced is working out just what, apart from the obscene, to do with all those cucumbers and celery sticks. This is, as they say “a nice problem to have” (The solution for the latter item has been, bizarrely, to sell them to organic box scheme operators in Norfolk and Devon. This certainly wasn’t the objective when we set up a food growing project in London, though it might represent some sort of a landmark in the development of urban production here!)

The dreaded late summer Salad Gap barely appeared, the winter leaves just gushed forth to replace the tired spring sown ones, with time to spare. The job is now to discourage  premature flowering. The tomatoes, odd spates of blossom end rot and splitting aside, have been truly madly deeply superb. The Old Kitchen Garden is awash with squash. And the Entrance Field tall stands, and clean: we are on top of the weeds as never before. Resting on laurels is never wise, especially not in the garden, but equally it’d be rude not to stand back and breathe the sweet, earthy smell of success, on behalf of all of those who have laboured to get the garden to this praiseworthy point.

With our horticultural training still in the holidays, and the crops mature and managed, the more intense energy on site at the moment – where the race is still being run – is around the harvesting. Joining the thick vegetable scoop are the fruits: raspberries and cape gooseberries; whilst our Scrumping Project once again welcomes would-be-wasted household apples and pears; meanwhile Marco and the vineyard team are putting the finishing touches to the winery just as the grapes get ready to glow.

The winery, our fairly obvious solution to the problem of just what to do with all the grapes, has already fermented into something a bit richer. Country wine is already on the menu, a surprising weight of free range bramble fruit being plucked from hitherto largely disregarded scrub and shrubs of our biodiversity areas. And we’ve launched the community wine making scheme. Through this, Londoners who have grapes growing in their garden, by happenstance or design, will merge their yields into one great mullti-varietal vintage (or rather, one red one white). More than celery to Devon, this marks the next small step for our alternative food system. All over the world, small producers come together to pool resources, be it in the form of grain mills, combine harvesters or marketing cooperatives: this tradition of mutual aid is a hallmark of peasant societies.

Time and again the experts of Right and Left have pronounced the death of the peasant mode of production. Yet  it lives: it not only, as Patrick Mulvaney of UK Food Group points out, continues to feed the majority of the world’s people, it also re-emerges in late capitalist societies such as ours, in the form of community wine making schemes, allotments, urban market  gardens. It keeps coming back, like the seasons. Like this gorgeous late summer sun, like the red of the raddichio, like that ripe hint at autumn.