Blackthorn Winter & Damson Spring

This week, we’ll be planting damson trees, one of them in the name of our son, Blake, now five months old.

 
Our main fruit areas at Hawkwood: the Vineyard, Orchard, Cherry Bank, Raspberry Row, Quince Orchard, Entrance Field Espaliers and Mediterranean Fans: are all established, but need all the care and netting we can spare them if they are to progress to cropping well for us. For that reason, the once-touted notion of veg and fruit steadily bleeding into each other, spiralling in to a polycultural paradise, remains in its infancy. But last year, yields of feral fruit were as impressive as many of our cultivated kinds, and we’re accordingly developing the foraging potential of our extensive zones.

 
Damsons and cherry plums are at the rough, tough end of the stone fruit family, and should tolerate, better than most, being left to their own devices in the scrubby waste land we’ve upcycled into our wildlife corridor. Indeed, damsons were favoured plants for inclusion in hedgerows and orchards in Shropshire and Kent. Only, curiously, in the other great damson growing county, Westmorland, is this custom reversed: damsons are planted, free-standing and spaced in prime production locations, and sheltered, around the town of Appleby, by apple windbreaks.

 
We know that damsons barely feature in growing and cooking beyond Britain, yet the lineage of the fruit is shrouded in mystery. Botanically it was named Prunus damasccena as it was believed to have originated in the antique town of Damascus in what is now Syria. But this doesn’t necessarily prove anything: Cape Gooseberries are, like Paddington, Peruvian; if Capsicum chinense are from China then so am I; and our London Plane is, botanically speaking, Platanus x hispanica: maybe its not a Londoner. The Romans or the Crusaders are variously said to have brought back the small dark plum from the Middle East, yet archaeological excavations show it was enjoyed by people in the Alps 4000 years ago, as well as by York’s diaspora of marauding Vikings. It may well be that damsons are in fact native, like their cousin Prunus spinosa, the blackthorn, a plant most celebrated for sloe fruits of gin fame. Perhaps, like “England’s mountains green” in Blake’s Jerusalem, the claiming of a biblical connection serves to sanctify that which might otherwise be belittled.

 
The difficulty in nailing down the damascena lies in the sheer abundance and diversity of sloes, bullaces and other wild plums that populate the gardens, hedges and woodland edges of this island: species, varieties and cultivars have crossed and backcrossed over so many generations that we now barely know who’s who anymore. But we do know that this provides us with the annual gifts of iconic early spring flower, and a deep, wide, resilient gene pool that should ensure these feral stone fruit survive longer than humans do.

 
A couple of weeks ago, the white marzipan froth of the Lea Valley’s sloe flowers burst forth with the first brave notes of Spring warmth. In folklore, and more often than not in our material world, this heralds the “blackthorn winter”, a bitter cold spell before the true Spring flows. This year has been no exception, the northerly winds blowing us back a season. But our peaches and apricots will open up soon, then the plums, then pears then apples, the whole blooming roll call, and winter will surrender, save for its last gasp spasms of late frosts. These can visit as late as the end of May in these parts, wreaking ruin for tender vegetables and hardy fruit crops alike.

 
So in many ways the growing season seems stalled and short, though in childhood summer seemed a never-ending flow. I have a sense that the wisdom of a garden lover has something to do with managing to unify these apparently opposing realities. And that the expression of this wisdom is to eat fruit, and plant fruit trees: for now, and for ever.

Another Season Is Possible

Standing astride two seasons. Two worlds. Never before and never again will the difference between our protected growing space and our al fresco areas be so fully stark. Not until the next time the winter light is thrown widest. Under the glass glorious glass we slice at the tall rocket, cress, Texsel greens: all soft and verdant, and look no further for our winter salad mix: the official Salad Terrace still suspended in winter, hard and bare. Only the Lambs’ Lettuce there resembles something that’s not terminally ill (organic writer & researcher Pauline Pears once wrote that this plant “will grow on ice bergs”, a titanic claim but one I have yet to have grounds to challenge). But what is not dead will grow stronger with the spring. The spring, unimaginably close at hand…
…We smelt it and felt it on the terrace on Friday. The southerly wind of change was charged with long-lost plant perfumes from the nearaway farby. Quite by chance we timed it to perfection: myself, Marlene, Roya and Vince were completing the last leg of the winter fruit pruning & mulching marathon on the first sighting of spring. Just south of us, Gary and team kept at another of the ongoing “big winter projects”, the salad bed renovation. Meanwhile Sandra and Pierre performed a definitively spring-like task, that of pruning back the dead stems of the re-emerging herbaceous perennials. Standing astride the seasons.
The said overhaul of raised beds on the West Bank merely notches up the latest model in an area that has hosted the largest range of beds in Chingford outside of the Furnitureland. The 2015 Winter/ Spring selection are constructed of shining aluminium panels, looking, as Aimee observed, somewhat Space Age next to what has become the classic urban community garden construction – the veg bed boarded by reclaimed scaffold boards. Similar-but-different concrete boards lie awaiting their retrofit; whilst this year saw us abandon our pleasing-yet-ultimately-impractical efforts at homegrown edging, both the “dead hedge” and woven willow versions. These have been replaced by keyhole beds unshuttered, demarcated by either stepping stones or hopping logs. Also unshuttered are examples of the simplest and most ancient of raised bed methods: those Long Mounds where we  ritualistically buried the rhubarb crowns, on the terrace heights.
Finally, we come full circle to where we stand: the final fruit to be treated are the worcesterberries, raised in between two retaining dry stone walls of stacked concrete rubble, the latter by-product of opening up the ground in the glasshouse. These beds are not the prettiest nor the most stable, and there’s no evidence yet of their providing a specific snake habitat – one of their original design justifications. But they’ve held up reasonably well for the last five years. And I like them, they remind me of the Cuban Organiponicos.

 

For those unfamiliar with the tale of “Cuba’s Green revolution”, here goes something: In 1989, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost its key trading partner. Coupled with the ongoing US blockade on exports to the country, many commodities became desperately scarce overnight, and the “Special period” began. One feature of this was a government drive to encourage and facilitate citizens to grow more vegetables locally, as one response to food and oil shortages. In Havana, organic market gardens rose first from the rubble of high-input hydroponic facilities: the original Organiponicos. With compost in vogue and the soil rising to meet it, the people, in the photos I’ve seen, grabbed the nearest things to hand: cement tiles, building rubble: pieces of the decaying modern to scaffold the return to paradise.

 

Few would deny that the Cuban system, or even its attempts to grow a low carbon food system, are imperfect. Fewer can deny that its social development indicators since the 1959 revolution are impressive: in relative terms it spends more on education than any other state; and its health care is universal and free, meaning it ranks above the USA when it comes to key health stats like infant mortality and life expectancy. It is a “Third World country with First World welfare”. Yet the winds of change blow: having pursued an alternative, self-reliant “path to development” in the face of almighty hostility from its neighbouring superpower for the best part of sixty years, Cuba is now attempting the fine balancing act of withdrawing some state control whilst still pursuing social welfare and equality. Straddling the Worlds.

 

The venerable Leon Rosselson sang, “Cuba’s not a place…It’s an idea in the mind/ it’s a fragment of far seeing/ It’s the hope we keep alive in the corner of our being”. In the mind of the guerrilla gardener and the barefoot horticulturalist, Cuba’s organiponicos, and other food growing efforts, from street level to farm scale, are woven into a story that is more about dignity and possibility than it is about ideology. It’s a story heartening and necessary as we stand on the precipice and wonder what to do, now, with the garden, with the climate, with the modern decay. I like our raised beds.