Learning From Nature

Very few gardeners are not also garden visitors: to a point, the converse is also true. In this way gardening, more than, say, Formula One Racing or the Opera, offers numerous fertile pathways between democratic participation and the Spectacle. As with any broadly creative pursuit, garden creators can be too immersed in the subject to see it in its entirety, in the moment, as the outside observer can. For the latter, the land can be still, a snap shot, whereas for the site worker it is all process, never a finished piece. I enjoy regular recreational walks round our little cultivated clearing in the Forest, but don’t always capture an unobstructed view of the wood for the trees, the garden for the weeds, the field for its soil needs.

I make it my business, then, not to mind my own business now and then throughout the season: visits to farms and gardens form part of my work plan: this year, Shillingford and Chagford in Devon; in London Town, Sutton Community Farm, St. Matts and Kynaston Patchwork sites, have had to suffer pokes from my big nose. It’s not just the odd new plant or new trick I’m sniffing around for, but to experience a growing space as it is, naked of to-do lists.

This is not to say satori moments don’t happen to me of the other gardeners here at Hawkwood, only, the stars have to be aligned and the plant combinations have to reach their moment of supreme poise. A moment in a million, just a few times a season. After a few years on the land though, you start to sense it coming. And any minute now, I know I’m going to blunder into the glasshouse and be stopped in my tracks by a picture of perfection.
Here, the flowering strips, and the cordon tomatoes intercropped with mixed lettuces and herbs, are on the verge of greatness. It’s noteworthy that these early beds were sown and planted by the Level 2 Gardening course: a fact I take great pleasure from. When I formally studied horticulture, much of my class’ practical assignments were rotavated back into the ground the following day, whilst others were tucked out of sight of the public garden, receiving little ongoing maintenance between sessions. We learnt, the hard way, the value of regular irrigation, and that plant pests didn’t actually take Easter breaks.

At Hawkwood, we wanted to do things a little differently: to fully integrate course participants into the garden work schedule. Sure it takes some coordination, but we wanted the garden and the learners to get the most out of each other. And, after many terms of extra-curriculur work by Clare, our Training & Outreach Worker, I think we have symbiosis. Last year, fifty six people completed the Level One Practical Gardening Skills course here, graduating back to the land in myriad ways whilst making a real contribution to the local food economy through their structured practical sessions.

In nature news, we appear to have pied wagtails nesting in the glasshouse, alongside the two magpies, who I’m still not sure are one hundred percent welcome. The rare Nathusius’ pipistrelle bat is one of five species recently monitored flashing across our fields after sunset, and last week I opened the warehouse door to find myself face to beak with a tiny blue tit, nesting material still wrapped around its tiny feet. This year, the tits nested in the tool shed: a source of intense squeaks and wonder. Then, after another fledgling was spotted in the glasshouse, peering in on the coursework, on Friday, it all went quiet.

End of May, 2014. Learning to fly.

Spinach, Cartoons and the Flower Moon

Next week’s full moon is, in the Native American lunar lexicon, the “Planting Moon” or “Flower Moon”, denoting the time when, for overwintered plants, there is a seismic shift in balance: from spring’s leafy lush energy rush, to May days’ more power to the flower.
Indeed, it’s cheers and cheerio to the last of the bolting winter salads, and, out in the Entrance Field, to the spinach.

Adam lobbied hard last year for more spinach to fill the Hungry Gap, so we’ve held back on the following beetroot crop, and are still picking hard for the box scheme, and it’s still giving, generous plant that it is. Brandon, the newest and youngest member of the production team, has probably picked more of the stuff in the last month than he’s ever eaten. But everything has its limits: the stems are lengthening with the days, so flowers will surely follow: I think this full moon may ceremoniously mark their total eclipse on the Produce List.

The town of Alma, Arkansas, self-declared “Spinach Capital of the World”, has at its centre a bronze statue of Popeye the Sailor Man, in honour of his unparalleled contribution to the growth in popularity of this green goosefoot. And rightly so: there can be few characters, fictional or otherwise, who have so raised the profile of any particular vegetable to such an extent. Jack sparked considerable curiosity in climbing beans; Bugs Bunny unashamedly and unstintingly product-placed carrots; Bodger and Badger waxed lyrical of their love for mashed potatoes. Charlie Brown and friends pushed pumpkins at Hallowe’en; sports scientists’ latest performance enhancing’s dug beetroot; and recent advice from nutritionists has seen kale sales through the roof in the last year. But since the 1930s, we’ve all grown up knowing that spinach gives good guys the strength to overcome brute evil, with Olive Oil at the side.

It’s no mere comic fable either: the leaves are phenomenally rich in potassium, calcium, iron, sodium, carotene and folic acid, so can certainly “contribute to physical health and fitness as part of a balanced diet”, as a modern remake of a Popeye cartoon might be required to disclaim. For a naval officer, spinach in the tinned form makes an ideal nutrient source for long voyages with limited cooking fuel. Note also how sea beet, the mother of our perpetual spinach, grows most profusely in coastal areas, including on this island, where its wind-resistant glossy shields throw themselves gleefully around in the strong salty winds. Here, it has surely been utilised as a vegetable since the dawn of the human age, and certainly way before cultivated forms emerged in the first century AD.

Yet here and beyond lies confusion. The hardy, reliable perpetual spinach, or leaf beet, favoured by so many gardeners and growers for its ease of cultivation, is in the same family, but a totally different storm-kettle of fish to the mild, tender, baby leaves of “true spinach”, Spinacea oleracea, so beloved of chefs. The latter is a fussy plant, prone to bolting without regard to what the moon might be, and yellowing without regard to Adam’s box scheme requirements.

On the other hand, true spinach is soft, buttery, sweet and delicious raw, where leaf beet is a tad metallic and coarse, and certainly, in my view, better off cooked. So the debate rages back and forth between the cultivators and the cooks as to which is the “best” type to grow. In recent years, us organic growers have probably not helped matters by marketing both ubiquitously as “spinach”, causing crushed expectations in kitchens around the country. In mitigation, this is a time-honoured, cross-cultural conflation. I’ve talked to Bengali allotment gardeners to whom “saag” is spinach or, when it comes to it, any old green leaf that cooks down quickly. Carribeans sometimes toss the term “callalloo” about just as freely, bewildering those of us who have learnt from our “World In Your Kitchen” cook books that the term refers simply to leaf amaranth. And us Limeys are on no moral cliff-top here: for years we’ve lumped a cornucopia of wonderfully distinct edible flora into the sloppy serving of “greens”.

Perhaps then, we should not worry unduly about getting ourselves into a spinach spin, and make a virtue of the ambiguity. After all, both versions have a similar vitamin and mineral make-up, and I’ll bet Popeye would chuck either down his throat when called once again to leap to the defence of Olive Oil. Like yer mum said, just eat your greens. True story.