“The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives, overlapping and intertwining, until it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other starts. Each annual task is also a memory of the many times we have done it before and the people we did it with.”
– James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
December 2015 was the new warmest, most un-Decemberly, December on record. It took the time-honoured rituals and routines to provide reassurance that the world still turns, which is half the point of them I suppose. The customary midwinter feast followed by the midwinter break, punctuated only by Vi and Gary “beating the bounds” to make right any loose crop covers; then annual tool clean and renewal; the seed inventory and seed order.
Our seed store has, since our arrival here, shared a curious cupboard with the electrics: the fuse boxes, solar intake, meters, back-up generator. It was a temporary storage solution that now claims permanent status by virtue of customary use. It’s taken a while to realise it, but we couldn’t have provided a facility more fitting for the core of our sexual propagation efforts, had we spent days in the design and build. It is dark, cool, little disturbed, unglamorous, slightly industrial: in short, seedy. We’ve knocked up a couple of shelves, on which sit a frightening assortment of biscuit tins. Inside each tin, a choice selection of packets, housed according to family or “allied crop”. It is a shocking thought that the entire garden and its vast feast erupts from the nucleus of this closet, like a laughing Jack-in-the-Box.
This month the bean tins saw more action than usual, as we kept getting requests from members of Heritage Seed Library for the Climbing French Bean “Cherokee Trail of Tears” (see blog entry June 24, 2010): in the end Vi, Kate and Sandra were threshing the new crop to order. And gladly, as this means the bean, and its story, continues to live and breathe. We were reliant on the same network a few weeks ago, to replenish the carelessly depleted stocks of our rare local tomato “Essex Wonder” (see blog entry March 2, 2011). Whilst the latter day ritual of spending the Christmas period pouring over seed catalogues has its particular magic, the swapping of seeds is something else. It can have that spine-tingling quality, a sense of being wrapped into the thread that reaches back to the birth of cultivation, and the human exchange that cradled it.
Now, finally, frosty nights: the cold comfort of Winter. And in the nick of time: a fraudulent Spring had begun in the Lower Lea Valley, bringing snowdrops, daffs and wild plums into flower. Here, blackcurrant buds brought to bursting point, whilst Marco and Craig, his successor to the Vineyard & Winery Worker post, had to abort the winter pruning in early in the month as the sap was rising, the vines bleeding. In the second week of January we picked rhubarb for the box scheme. This is unprecedented (usually the blanched “Champagne” crop is ready by the end of February, and we wouldn’t start on the “maincrop” until a month later) and possibly unnecessary: Rhubarb relishes freezing conditions, but even the hardiest of souls can get frost-bitten where a lush spurt is suddenly pressed into ice.
We hear a lot about how climate change may benefit the wine industry, a lot less about those foods the land might lose. Blackcurrants, a mainstay of allotments and kitchen gardens, require a period of sub-zero temperatures to precipitate fruit production. Rhubarb, like Parsnips, Brussels Sprouts and Kale, has long been regarded as “improved” – sweetened and tenderised – by a good spell of winter cold. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find our “fruit”, though virtually unblessed by the white sparkly stuff, was neither stringy nor sour: good, in fact.
On the market garden, as elsewhere, the New Year is a time for looking backwards and forwards. Last week, the first harvest of the year: digging up Artichokes at the top of the Entrance Field with Gary and Vi. Peering down at the field, the glasshouse, the Lea Valley, London, and the future: the wavering uncertainties of the climate, the political economy and the wheel of fortune; and the bolstering certainties of a hard-to-shake faith in nature-as-teacher; and the power of community. It’s touch-and-go, but on a diamond-cut ice blue day, evening sun just lit, things look a bit better.