We seem to be coming to an end: leaves are turning to glow in the cucumber cool of morning, and at the day’s close that pure gold light passes through us, heading for the other side. Even looking back, it is hard to get the measure of summer. It comes in all sorts of sizes: short and long, mid and high, and, following the latter, at Hawkwood there is Tall Summer, when the Helianthus in and around the Entrance Field and Old Kitchen Garden reach their British City Limits, as the gardeners’ shadows (“the best fertiliser”, according to one Chinese proverb) lengthen across the beds.
Stature is an important consideration in a garden, even, or perhaps especially, productive ones. Trees, shrubs and hedges provide this for us, though mostly at the margins. Amongst the crops themselves, beyond the big top of trained climbers inside the hothouse, reaching for the sky has been a bit of a stretch for us. We’ve always grown (or rather tried, with varying but limited degrees of success, to grow) dwarf French beans outside: I consider the assembly and disassembly of all those strings and poles too much of a faff. Perhaps that’s a bit rich coming from someone who insists that we make all our own seed and potting compost from scratch, but with food prices so low, growers should embrace richness wherever they find it.
For a while, sweetcorn were the jolly giants of the field veg, but they’ve been grounded after 2012’s Squirrelgate fiasco. Since then, we have turned to those that turn to the sun.
The Helianthus in question are H. annuus, the sunflower; and H. tuberosus, or Jerusalem artichoke. The former are dappled about the Asteraceae beds, and only now bursting into flower: rising suns as the one in the sky wanes. Children sometimes remind us that this is one of the most cheerful sights, period. I’ve been equally cheered this year by Jerusalem Drive, our new row of artichokes that lines the approach road to the Nursery’s glasshouse and buildings, as if to a promised land.
They haven’t put out their mini-sunflower blooms yet, some years they never do. But they are taller even than their radiant ornamental cousins. A must for any ornamental vegetable garden, Jerusalems are a winter vegetable supreme, taken in moderation. Eaten to excess, or by the particularly prone, they inflict a flatulence verging on painful: you really can have too much of a good thing. People get wind of their windy reputation, so perhaps they will always be a delicious but marginal vegetable in polite society.
This probably explains the woeful lack of varietal choice. “Fuseau” is what everyone grows, as its tubers are large and smooth-skinned. But truth be told it’s a bit watery and we grow the red-skinned “Gerard”, whose stubby shape and firmer texture make them, I reckon, preferable but not more profitable. And they’re your only readily available options.
The planning of Jeruslaem Drive last winter presented an opportunity for exploring more obscure cultivars, something we generally have a good track record of. Helianthus tuberosus is native to North America, whose Native population cultivated it with gusto. You’ll find a colourful array of diverse looking artichoke roots on US websites such as that of Seed Savers International, but getting hold of exciting propositions like “Passumpsic” – a strain reputedly cultivated by the Abenaki people before Columbus and his followers brought a virtual stop to indigenous plant developments – proved to be unfeasible.
And quite right too. The acquiring of heritage varieties with a rich precious story should perhaps be something governed by the wide web of human relationships, not by the ability to pay in plastic over the internet. Jen, our Employment & Enterprise Worker, gladly agreed to add “artichoke mule” to her list of responsibilities when travelling love miles to the States at Christmas, but returned similarly empty-handed.
But it can’t end this way. Aimee, this year’s apprentice, had stopped off at Berlin’s Tempelhof community gardens during the 2012 PEDAL tour, a cycle ride from London to Palestine, sharing seeds and solidarity all the way. The gardens are set on West Berlin’s abandoned airport, and so have, at the very least, a symbolic vitality, as we try to combat climate change (towards which inappropriate air travel is a disproportionate contributor) through local food growing. She returned a year later, and recalls two Turkish, or perhaps Kurdish women, stuffing purple tubers into her hands. These were brought back and completely forgotten about, allowed to shrivel to within an inch of their lives until remembered like a distant dream and resuscitated in wet coir.
The Level 2 course planted out the four sunchoke “seed” in February, at the very entrance of Jerusalem Drive, and now the mauve stems tower above the Gerards, and pretty much everything else, at 3.9 metres, or 15’4” in old money. They’re every bit the distinct, enchanting new variety we were craving. More than that: they seem, in all their glory, to be touched by some weird magic.
If there’s a moral to this story, it’s mainly this: a good artichoke is hard to find. And also that, sometimes, not always but often, if you fix the intention sure enough, the universe provides. Often, from another direction than the one you were looking in. The winter’s evenings of wishing on a screen, and Jen’s mission impossible, maybe helped bring into being our new sky-tickling artichoke variety, not from the Wild West, but much, much closer to home, via a compassionate Journey to the East. All along, what I was searching for was squirreled away at the bottom of Aimee’s bag, and strangely enough this is simply beautiful thought.