As citizens (or perhaps subjects, but that’s for another constitutional debate) in a post-industrial society, the Agrarian Age may seem many steps removed. Yet so much of our culture and institutions are steeped in it, as evidenced by everyday phrases such as “one bad apple ruins the barrel” and “she knows her onions”; to idiosyncracies like the twice yearly moving of the clock; to fundamental foundations, like the great midwinter feast and rest-up now known as Christmas.
Some might say such cultural resonances are the tip of an oak tree: that Homo sapiens are creatures of the Earth, and are drawn, as if by a force, to encounter the natural world even though it is no longer “necessary” or profitable to do so. When we speak of staying somewhere “nice”, that quality of niceness is so often bound up with a sense of closeness to nature. Conversely, the increasing incidences of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and the now recognised condition Nature Deficit Disorder, highlight what can go wrong when that tie is sorely frayed. It’s worth mentioning that people do go a bit lunar-tic on full moons, and this is borne out by NHS hospital and police crime statistics. Worth mentioning, that is, not because it adds much to this discussion, but because it’s one of those facts that seem quite amusing until you realise it basically means people getting hurt. Ouch…
September’s a funny one in this regard (that is, unfortunately, funny in a peculiar rather than a ha-ha way, but fortunately in a harmless, not unfortunate way). Even as schooling became universal and compulsory, there was no point trying to impose it in the summer, when many children were needed to help bring in the harvest. Even at the great dawn of the Comprehensive system, thousands of children in East London spent their late summer holidays picking hops in Kent.
For me, Back to School meant the end of summer, of freedom and boundless days, and a return to the strict discipline of walls and clock. As a grower, the situation is slightly reversed. The summer is a vital and magical time, the scarce months into which our entire year’s efforts are largely funnelled. It’s also manic, hard, and embroidered with impossible deadlines. We are simultaneously playing a number of spinning games of Catch Up: with the weeds, the gluts, the watering, the pest and disease, and the beautiful social processes inherent in operating as a workers’ cooperative; and falling behind in every damn one of them. Come September, we’re finally getting even. It’s not that we’ve got any better, but that everything else, other than the aforementioned beautiful processes, is slowing down. The bar has been lowered or, in that adage from Amenity Horticulture, the playing field levelled.
Our tomatoes have been great this year, truly. 2015’s rainbow nation of heritage varieties runs as follows: Carter’s Golden Sunrise, Golden Queen, Schimmeg Cregg, Green Zebra (the Washington-bred cultivar which, for the second year running, won our lunch time Tomato Taste test), Tiger Tom, Darby Striped, Mirabelle Blanche, Paul Robeson, Black Russian and triallists Ivory Egg and Weisse Schonheit. That’s eleven squad members in what is becoming a more or less settled, high-performing for team for us, after many seasons of trial and fun. Those who have been enjoying them Here (at lunches and off the Farm Stall); There (through our box scheme and market stalls) and Everywhere (Hornbeam Café, Walthamstow; Opera Tavern, Covent Garden; Three Colts, Buckhurst Hill), are probably at least agnostic to the idea that Too Many Tomatoes can exist. But on top of everything else, and Daylight Saving Hours or not, there have been sometimes barely the hours in the day, or the outlets in our phonebook, or the superlatives or swear words, for when we scale up the Three Peaks of tomatoes, cucumbers and beetroot.
This week, the supersonic speed of growth and ripening is gently easing with the diminishing light and temperatures. Full sized specimens no longer appear overnight. We have the measure of the crops and we know we have homes for them. We have caught the dropping fruit.
Then there’s the weeds. Plant plant plant, until midsummer that’s much of what we do. We are, after all, a Plant Nursery. Plants in, and only in the last three weeks have we managed to devote the dandelion’s share of our time to dealing with all the plants-in-the-wrong-place. Last week, as we were getting around to tackling knee-high nettles in the Old Kitchen Garden, Martin, our photographer in residence and former jobbing gardener, commented, “you’re like me, ideas above your station”, meaning with weed issues like this you’re probably trying to manage too much land.
Yes and perhaps no. The Old Kitchen Garden brassicas have now been weeded, and are looking pretty “clean”, as is the West Bank Salad Terrace, which a few weeks ago would have been best described as “overgrown” only if you’re trying to be polite. Cornelia is not that polite about it, but she has been instrumental this year in keeping the most aggressive weeds in check. Now we are catching up. And for the next couple of months, we’ll go through all the vegetable beds with a fine trowel. Sowing, Planting, harvesting, pruning, blanching, supporting, feeding and all the other seasonal joys will now provide the punctuation rather than the prose in the Gardeners’ Diary. It’s quite normal for us to begin and end the season with hardly a weed in sight. In between those tidal marks, the wildflowers often run riot: troubling sometimes, but maybe not the worst way to run an ecological growing system…
…An ecological growing system which, right now, weeds or no weeds, looks splendid in the golden light and misty morning dews of late summer. On the Entrance Field, runner beans dress our rustic arches handsomely, the squashes run to the hills and back again, spilling brass balls in their scramble. Borlotti beans, chicory, raspberries and apples are seeping to sunset pink. The feared “Salad Gap” – the sparse transition from summer to winter leaves – lasted only a week: a mere hiccup, a real triumph. Meanwhile, on the Old Kitchen Garden, the Year of the Brassicas: all the beds and green manure undersowings have been weeded; the winter radish thinned. Last Tuesday, the great harvest commenced: Vi, Gary, Robert, Jae and Jess uprooting the first of a thousand kohl rabis. I root around beneath the prose and punctuation for some poetry, and the last prophetic lines of Betjeman’s “Slough”:
“The cabbages are coming now,
The earth exhales.”