New From Old

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”  – Arundhati Roy

 This week the smell of spring is unmistakable. A mild surprise, as there’s not been a “real” winter. There’s been plenty of weather alright, but that’s not quite the same thing. We’ve held back from resuming our weekly salad deliveries – they can only restart once a year – on the guestimate that, going on recent times, this land and its flora will be held in an icy grip at some point. If Jack Frost is still planning a visit, his fashionable lateness is now way beyond cool: crocuses are out, the dawn chorus are tuning up, and the overwintering rocket is going to flower, its frost protection fleece lying crumpled, barely worn, at its feet. It’s time we begun.


There is a freshness to everything now:  the resinous waft of the wood chip mulch laid down to protect the soft fruit; the clean slate of the black bare of just-planted artichoke bed;  the annual tidiness of the propagation benches. The ol’ garden is, of a sudden, new. This is The Thing about gardening: resurrection is not a utopia or a religious belief, it’s an event.  It happens once a year in a big way, with small revolutions occurring every month, week, day…


This month, in our crooked corner of this built-up city, I will be one of the thousands of new gardeners sowing new seeds. There are old and new volunteers helping to rekindle the growing season at Hawkwood, where our latest attractions include Jerusalem Drive, the Walthamstow Yellow Cress Welcome Bed, and an exploding World of Chillies. Some of these will join the hundreds more across the borough who now have access to an allotment. Waltham Forest has created 200 new food growing plots in the last year, and reduced the allotment waiting list dramatically, as part of its Food Growing Strategy. A lot more people are talking about food growing now, but as yet few local authorities have seen fit to exercise their statutory powers in support of local production.  I am proud of Waltham Forest, and OrganicLea’s small part in effecting the zeitgeist and the political will.


It’s time to get out there, effect small changes.  Create the new garden, either literally, turning run-off hard landscape into a porous plant paradise, a flood of relief; or reclaiming and redeeming the battered waste ground which last year you once grew. And from that garden we climb, tendril by curly tendril, onwards and outwards: conversations over the allotment fence; swapping seeds with the world at the community garden;   walking straight past Tesco with community-grown, wildlife-friendly veg. Gardens are a retreat from the world, and also a reconstruction of it; a Spring board to a redeemed economy based on nature and nurture; to a renewed architecture – beautiful, socially useful. Worms turn, badger crossings, land liberated.


Time to pick up the trowel you threw in last Winter of Discontent, and Dig In for victory.


 “Whether you have never gardened before in your life, or are a gardener of fifty years’ standing, makes no difference: stop reading this and get outside. Happy new garden”  –  Monty Don


Dark Skies, Shooting Stars of Crumble

“What good is land without its bit of encircling sky?” asks Gill Baron, koan-like, in this winter’s issue of The Land. Our piece of sky here at Hawkwood can’t rival the Big Blue of the East Anglian plains, at whose centre our partners Hughes Organics stand; nor the distant hillside panoramas that cradle so many “Back-to-the-Landers”, but it’s ours, special and wonderful in its own way, and at this time of year it’s as wide and open as it gets.

The loss of leaf canopy all round sees the trees throwing starker shapes, and expands the aerial environment surprisingly, stretching it out past the old hornbeam pollards as far as Yates’ Meadow to the north, and over the reservoirs to the grey & glass rises of Ponders End and Freezy Water, now districts of Enfield both, to the west. In between, more space and time. It’s a phenomena that I believe is known to that section of people who don’t actually live in urban river basins as a “view”. Not much call for it round ‘ere.

Another atmospheric feature that us folk in The Smoke find equally splendid but unnervingly agrophobia–inducing is something they call “the stars”. On a clear night we’re lucky enough to get the odd twinkle here in the Darkness On The Edge Of Town, but the Milky Way is drowned in the street lamp glow and retail glitz, and with it that valuable reminder of our tiny place in the universe. A profound loss. It’s the oral exclamations of the creatures that claim the space when home time comes for Hawkwood workers, that we rely on to tell us we’re not alone here: the rutting deer, the wailing fox, the questioning owl. And our sowing and planting schedule is directed by the lunar cycle, so we know when it’s a waxing moon even when we can’t spot its light shed.

Globally, the International Dark Sky Association campaigns for peoples’ right to starlight, and has declared parts of this island, among them Brecon Beacons, Exmoor and Galloway Forest, as “International Dark Sky Parks”, islands of low light pollution. Doubtless I’d get short odds on East London being one of the last areas to achieve such status, but a small patch of our site now has its perpetual black ceiling on: the “Cockney Blanching Benders” are now over the Timperly Early rhubarb, removing their light for a couple of moons so as to yield, from next week, “Champagne rhubarb”. The pink stems of which are so prized, in the past for an early source of fresh fruity vitamins; in the now for its tender, sweeter, melt-in-the-mouth quality.

As much as it is welcomed, there are understandable mixed feelings about this “veal of the vegetable world”. Undoubtedly, the blanching process stresses the plant, though the work of the gardener is to stress it but not stress it out. And this rhubarb race, like the humans that grow it and eat it, is anaemic, fatigued, pale from constantly stretching for the sky, the stars beyond. Yet from these tortuous tunnels come patterns of great beauty, hope in the darkness, new forms of delicacy.

And the best kind of crumble.