“Come all you at home with freedom,
Whatever the land that gave you birth,
There’s room for you, root and branch,
As long as you love the English earth”
– Maggie Holland, A Place Called England
It’s July already! The season has seemed a muddled blur of weather and temperature. Yet the dandelion clock is never slow, and often the plants are less confused than we are. Here at Hawkwood, everything about us sings “Summertime”, from the swelling tree fruit to the blushing tomatoes, the stretching beans to the bolting rocket.
This year’s mild winter and damp summer has made it another great year for molluscs, and I can only wish courage and fortitude visit those new gardeners confronting the grim reality of a full onslaught of slugs for the first time. I’m often asked how to deal with them and, whilst I can suggest plenty of measures that will make marginal differences, under fierce interogation I usually break down and admit that there are few quick fixes in organic gardening, only slow and steady solutions.Snail-like, some might say. The Zapatastas of Mexico in fact revers the snail and “Lento, Pero Avanzo” is key maxim. There is much we can learn from these people, and there is at least something to be learned from even the most infuriating of pests.
So, it’s rare to see things happening right before your eyes. But the arrival of ladybirds in their droves – or whatever the collective noun for ladybirds might be – to feast on blackfly in the glasshouse here is has become one such event. Another is the Case of the Disappearing Aphid: this May, one entire bed of lettuce lost a literal infestation of peach-potato aphid overnight (quite what they think they’re doing eating lettuce, and not just peaches and potatoes as advertised, in the first place is something I intend to take up with someone upstairs at the next available opportunity). I can only put this down to the number of hoverfly larvae that were apparent on the leaves in the days prior, and this in turn I can only put down to the amount of coriander flowering in the adjacent bed. Coriander, probably the best hoverfly attractant in the country, according to Garden Organic.
Hoverfly larvae were, in this case, the most visible of predator species. But the “systems approach” to pest management entails a broad insurance policy, of providing food, drink and shelter for a wide range of species. Even those gardens and allotments that are not consciously following this approach will be encouraging biodiversity through basic elements such as ponds, hedges, compost heaps, flowering plants and untidy – or, less perjoratively – “naturalistic” patches. In so doing, we ensure that even the London sprawl is not made concrete desert, but a diverse patchwork of safe havens for creatures great and small: more friendly, in fact, than many of the more monocultural expanses of our isle, be they upland grazing or lowland prairie.
These animals don’t necessarily care whether a plant they associate with is “native” or not, as Coriander, that Eastern delight, proves. Our native flora – having only had since the Ice Age to go forth and multiply – is relatively meagre in numbers, which is why Brits have been such (sometimes violently) exuberant plant collectors, stocking our landscape with imports. Here at Hawkwood, for example, we grow over three hundred species of fruit, vegetables and herbs, and I can count on my grubby hands those which are considered “indigenous”. The UK is the world’s leader in apple cultivation, breeding over 2,000 cultivars, but we have Kazakstan to thank for the creation of the species, Malus domestica. Last week’s plantings were Lettuce, which came over here from Asia Minor via the Mediterranean; and from the Americas, Sweetcorn and Climbing French Beans. The specific varieties of the latter two being “Aztec Rainbow” and “Kew Blue”, both heritage cultivars – unregistered, illegal to sell, outcasts from the enclosures of the seed industry.
In the book Wild Swans by Jung Chang, the author tells how going fishing represents, in some Chinese cultures, a symbolic act: a gesture of disaffection with social affairs. For the British, the garden is often held to represent something similar; a withdrawal from “the world”. George McKay’s book, Radical Gardening, presents a very different narrative, more in line with OrganicLea’s long-held view of urban plots as social places. Places were we meet others: other organisms, other people, other cultures; and where we meet ourselves, our own nature. And meeting places are rarely end points. They are bridges, stepping stones, somewhere to move on from, bases from which we can transcend barriers and overcome obstacles.
Perhaps the meeting point for the two conflicting concepts of the garden – garden as retreat and garden as catalyst – would be that of the garden as refuge. Over the last month, after Brexit and its fallout, and the fallout from its fallout, the therapeutic value of Hawkwood as a space within a worried wider world has once more been keenly felt.
In the garden, whoever and whatever you are – human, animal, plant – refugees are welcome.