The Asparagus Rush

The harvest team were assembling, as ever, on Tuesday morning.

“So, are we mining?”, asks Vi.

“Yes, we’re mining”.

Alok, one of our Salad Starters, might be wondering if there’d been a terrible misunderstanding when he applied for the role. No one had mentioned anything about excavating the earth for mineral deposits, up until now. No need for alarm though: the “mining” in question was the extraction of Miners’ Lettuce, Claytonia montana, from the depths of the glasshouse.

As discussed here in “Miners Support” (April 13th 2011), this juicy-leaved plant acquired its common name after achieving popularity with gold miners rushing to the west coast of the US in the 1850s. Now it gilds our salad bags with its subtly sweet sparkle. For the migrants, it must have been precious indeed: a vital source of vitamins and minerals in a rocky, inhospitable terrain devoid of farmers and markets. It was green gold, a wild vegetable salvation. Nowadays, we cultivate it, or rather, attempt to: this year we’ve fared better than most, producing an overabundance, but the species remains highly feral. It grows best not where we’ve carefully sowed, fed, planted and nurtured it, but in the “wrong places”, where it’s managed to set seed the previous year and has risen up free as a weed.

This does inevitably lead to the slightly ridiculous spectacle of growers at Hawkwood carefully weeding around the Miners Lettuce in one bed, before going on to ripping it out of the next one. So even organic gardening, for which “work with nature not against it” is a guiding maxim, can lead you to do things that verge on the contrary: we humans are crazy.

Its rebellious nature does, however, qualify it not just as a totem plant for gold miners, but all miners: the Free Miners, who have earned the ancestral right to freely unearth coal and iron in the woodlands and commons of the Forest of Dean; and our coal miners, those underground upstarts whose flowering spirit waves of state repression could not stop self-seeding. The links between miners and veg growing are also literal: miners were amongst the most fervent of allotmenteers in the during the “Golden Age” of allotments; and it is said that the shorter handles of British gardening tools, in relation to the rest of the world, lies in their evolution from mining tools, where people dug on their knees.

The emerald shoots, of Claytonia, and more besides, flooding the glasshouse and bursting out, declare the end of the latest Winter of Discontent. Like so many good things, Spring takes a thousand bated breaths, an age of anticipation, to arrive, and when it finally does, it comes yesterday, stares at you like it’s been here all along. The gage trees that envelope the glasshouse, now in bloom, have always been jaw-dropping; the litany of leaves that sprout from eternities of seed, bud and branch, is always a miracle: Spring just pings back our eyelids to see it raw.

Such romantic observations are of little interest to the supermarkets, for whom this moment of the year is defined by the battle to increase market share by being the first to get UK-grown asparagus on the shelves. The Guardian recently reported that, whilst traditionally St. Georges’ Day – 23rd April – marked the start of the season, Marks & Spencer have gone as far as cultivating the space-costly spears in polytunnels to have it ready for Valentines Day. The rest  rely on the breeding of ever-earlier varieties:  the latest great green/ white hope is “Jubilee”, which hit Tesco shelves on the 9th April

Whilst for OrganicLea such commodification and competition ought really to be beneath us, it’s also true that we could pick a fight with supermarkets in an empty room, so I can’t help wading in here. With asparagus, and some of the other eagerly anticipated seasonal fare (strawberries, broad beans, wet garlic) we don’t lag too far behind, though our prime aim is to be timely, rather than first, with everything: we began cutting asparagus on Friday 15th April. As a footnote to the myriad benefits of growing food in London, this can be added: the city provides, through its radiant heat and thermal mass, a microclimate that advances and extends the growing season impressively. Community Food Growers’ Network have done great work with Just Space to campaign for a greater prioritisation of food growing in the London Plan, in time for the local election. The link to their petition calling on London mayoral candidates to support food growing can be found here

As the CFGN slogan goes “Our City, Our Land”. In April in the South of England, the people return to the gardens, and the gardens return to the people. In the city as in the country, on a bright day, the cool breeze carrying wafts of nectars, to dig is golden.



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