Outside Inside

“When a great ship is in harbour and moored, it is safe, there can be no doubt. But…that is not what great ships are built for” – Clarissa Estes


  “And smoke never lies, in truth
it’s better outside, but the proof
took time, took spring to mix water colours, took
summer for the land to laugh out land again”


  Ru Litherland, “Outside Inside” (1999)


Whilst the general synopsis for this winter is, thus far: mild; alternately damp and soaking; and firmly on the miserable spectrum, there have nonetheless been some glorious days in the garden. In last week’s afternoons we and the sleeping beautiful plants were bathed in that base gold limelight that only comes through this season’s narrow window. I tend to associate it with those dramatic, sharp, frost-tinted January moments, but am glad to recount that even in the absence of freezing temperatures, being caught in that grace gifts you the sense that the Great Outdoors is the greatest place to be.

That said, the indoor environment, now at the limit of its annual swing from stuffy to cosy, is currently a delight too. Jonny and I have been pulling beetroot out of the sheltered store: denuded of leaves but as firm and vibrantly flushing as when we tore them from the Entrance Field tilth on that bustling T-shirted Harvest Day at the end of September. That’s the power of clamps: an ancient method, rather than fixed design, of storing root crops in the off-season. In harmony with everything else here, our clamps are a late urban twist on rustic tradition, fabricated with branded builders’ sacks, pallets and coconut fibre in place of field trenches and straw. Clamps don’t have to be indoors, but ours are: specifically, in the Ambient House, as we have Dubbed the cool storage section of the building.
This is the first year of the Ambient and its attendant clamps. It was constructed as part of a significant building development that we embarked on after confirming our thirty year lease. The works also included the decommissioning of the oil-fired boilers; installation of a walk-in chiller; and creation of the Beetroot Office (where the Distribution and Infrastructure workers are clamped), in a programme called, somewhat uninspiringly, “Building Phase Two”, as the Maoists already had dibs on “The Great Leap Forward” and “Let A Thousand Salad Leaves Unfold”.
So presently the greater weight of produce emanates from the Ambient House rather than directly from the ground. From there we’ve moved most of our squash mountain, and garlic and potatoes trickle onto the Farm Stall. Meanwhile inside the House of Glass there is much movement: storage systems are overhauled, capillary sand replaced, pot and trays sorted, glass washed, preparations made for new beds and vent maintenance.
It’s the spaces inbetween that are often the most interesting, and its exactly on the threshold between in and out that Theo, our new-ish Site Development Worker, seems to spend much of his time: installing cabins for firewood logs, and erecting the peach protection frame against the glasshouse, which will keep all this dirty British drizzle off our fine Mediterranean friends. It’s painted a fitting Italian azzurro: it’s functional and beautiful. Around the corner, against the East Glasshouse “wall”, he’s engineered a hardening bench, a brilliant development that will dramatically reduce the damage to our plants during that critical week in the halfway house between the “intensive care unit” that is the propagation area, and the cold beyond-the-pale light of day Out There: the wild soils, the uncertain wind- and slug- swept shores; the manhandling of the commutes through our plant stalls.
After the builders, the gardeners: we’ve laid down the capillary, the black geotextile “floor”, and set out hardy green plants in a semblance of order. And it looks, we look, to all intents and purposes, like a proper plant nursery. Looking at it, no visitor would guess that, indoors or outdoors, we’re just playing.

Birds, Floods and Resolutions

Returning to Hawkwood after midwinter’s Long Pause, I’m relieved to find little wind damage despite the Christmas and Boxing Day Gales. The crop covers had blown clean off the naked brassicas in the Entrance Field (I say “brassicas” as if we grow an extended family of greens, when actually they’re all minor variants on the kale theme, such is the present popularity of this ancient superfood), yet no bird damage evident. This serves as a reminder that wood pigeons are like the rest of us, featheriness and bulging eyes aside: they’re creatures of habit, and once they’ve established their feeding stations it can be surprising for how long they will overlook better dining options right under their beaks.

 This was just one theme addressed at the Oxford Real Farming Conference last week, attended by a dozen-strong OrganicLea delegation. Not that of pigeon protection (or not in the sessions I attended at any stretch) but of human habitual behaviour. When asked, a large slice of the population pie want their diet to be  more local, organic, community-led, yet when offered this at reasonably competitive prices, many of us manage to switch our shopping habits as swiftly as the proverbial oil tanker.

 Which is one of a number of factors coming together to whip up climate change, which is one of a number of factors coming together to prise open the floodgates, alongside soil management, increased hard landscape and loss of flood plains. It’s not just winter – nowadays it seems like a week doesn’t go by in Britain without some poor village somewhere getting flushed out of their homes – but in another example of human limitations, I tend to consider things more when they are right in my face. The Thames had burst into Oxford city centre as the Real Farming Conference, and its “business as usual” counterpart, the Oxford Farming Conference, proceeded; and back at Hawkwood every bit of ground is thoroughly waterlogged, and new springs spring forth.

 Maybe it comes from approaching middle age, but lately I find the most uplifting moments come in weather-beaten. In a field blistered with puddles, the resilience of the red radicchio is fortifying. The small supergreen shoots of overwintering garlic, and the swelling rose buds of rhubarb, are enough to bring a tear to the eye. Yet even these purest of gifts, the ability to gaze on harbingers of spring, are not always without conflict. It’s been a very wet, very mild winter, and I’d sooner see a decent cold snap to knock back pest and disease and make the temperate plants feel more at home. If the last decade is anything to go by, winter and summer tend to mirror eachother: bright cold winter followed by bright warm summer, mild damp leading to mild damp. Time will tell its own tale.

 On reflection, “natural purity”, untainted by worries such as climate change and flooding, is an ideal we can never realise. The Earth is awesome, wonderful, terrifying, messy, dirty and gorgeous, and humans are of her and crawl over her. Perfection is beyond us, but still, there is scope to behave in ways, and push for social institutions, that facilitate a more kindly, sharing, lighter presence on the planet. As we are still in the time of resolutions, let’s plump for some of these.