“It is a curious fact that men shaped by poor soils, like vines in similar conditions, have a more stimulating, finer “flavour” than the members of rich soil communities” – Edward Hyams, Soil & Civilisation
The entrance to Hawkwood Nursery could be described as grand: you take a turning off Hawkwood Crescent, E4, and the shadow of the forest begins to darken the petering road. You pass through the plain grey gates and suddenly it opens up, the Entrance Field to the right, where rows of multi-hued vegetables rise up the hill in a kind of acknowledgement; to your left, the artichokes tower above you and the shrubbery at their backs. Ahead, the great glasshouse gleams and glitters.
It’s a curious fact, though somehow fitting, that to get in to the building you have to go round the back, whereupon your first impressions of impressiveness are immediately diminished as you come face-to-face with our compost heaps. You may pause to ask yourself which looks less inviting – the open pile of rotting vegetation, or the adjacent maturing mountains, covered as they are in tatty tarpaulin weighed down with car tyres. But all that’s gold doesn’t glitter: on garden tours I’ve announced that these are the most important part of the whole site, for this is where we grow our soil. And growing soil, more than growing plants, is the gardeners’ precious gift to the world.
In cooler times, turning our mountainous compost heaps provides a great opportunity to ponder such profundities – or perhaps not – for a big group of cheerful volunteers with pitch forks. Nowadays, when all hands are needed to plant and maintain the leagues of veg beds, it becomes a solitary task for one man and his tractor, who makes the most of this moment to ponder how our produce comes, not just from London bolder clay, but also from a rich unique blend of organic matter from a range of sacred sources. The neighbouring forest makes its contribution; as do the remains of the particular choice of crops we grow here; the weeds and wildflowers that happen to grow here; the shredded trees of parks and gardens in our vicinity; and the waste, or rather left-overs, from our vegebox scheme. In other words, the recipe for our growing media becomes progressively more peculiar to us, our way of doing things, our web of connections. This is the development of what the French call “terroir”. A slow, steady process, I think, as tractor shifts the hundredth bucketful of semi-decomposed plant material a few feet to the left.
The same people that gave us terroir also gave us vintage. Different years are, funnily enough, different, and a truly earthed society should embrace, even celebrate their different flavours. Up to a point.
Our totem early summer crop are strawberries. We are proud to grow terroir strawberries in an age when so much of this fruit are grown in bought-in compost from no-place, with a shelf life of one year. Similarly against the tide, we grow them out in the elements, and are proud to have, thus far, always had a decent show in time for Wimbledon. Unlike our players, they usually keep going into the final, but not this year. Neither this year, the craziness of “Peak Strawberry”, when they ripen faster than we can pick them, and we roam the streets pushing punnets on the unsuspecting. This year, I think we harvested as many fruit as ever, but mostly a quarter of the size. The lack of water in the soil at the critical time left them with good flavour but unswollen. I suppose we should have watered them, or accept that this was this year’s vintage: not a great year, but one with character. Short and sweet.