“Still there’s a light I hold before me,
You’re the measure of my dreams”
The Pogues, Rainy Night In Soho
“There seems to be a lot about measurement at the moment, said Rod, one of this year’s crop of trainees, and now Salad Secretary, on the West Bank terrace this Friday. He was referring to more than his numerically-challenging duties as “Weigh Master”, which entails keeping a fast track of the recipe-versus-actual weights of the multitude of different salad leaves as they pour in to the weighing station. We had just celebrated Midsummers Day in the blazing sunshine, this year with a Ceilidh: a hoe-down, or downing of the hoes, to observe the high-light of the year.
With religious discipline, we always cease harvesting rhubarb and asparagus by Midsummers Eve. Perennial plants like these need time to grow, flourish and feed their roots, if they are not to be overworked and exhausted. The solstice provides a natural landmark for this.
Elsewhere in the garden, the longest day is a yardstick not a boundary. To be bunching up beetroot in the same week as the annual Guess the Weight [of the Marrow/ Wet Garlic] contest is very early for us, one welcome result of the annual weighing up and tweaking of the planting plans. Tomatoes are ripening on the vines at the same time: this is becoming the new normal. This week it’s been the clammy heat, not aphids or slugs, that has lost us sleep at nights. Pausing to see where we stand, after the roll and tumble of spring, I think we are facing the right direction: we have orientated ourselves.
It is a curious fact that orientation, “the ascertainment of one’s true position”, derives from the Latin “orient”, meaning East. To face the rising sun. Whilst our local Orient FC seem to now be heading for safety, at least off the pitch, on the ground it is one East Anglian woman, and her journeys East, that has done as much as anyone to ensure the survival of small-scale organic growing in this country.
Joy Larkcom took a sabbatical from journalism in 1976 to take her family into Europe, in a caravan, for a year of vegetable spotting. Eight years later she headed easter to China, Japan, Taiwan on an identical mission. In the 1980s she wrote, in gardening magazines, about the plants and techniques she encountered. Above all, it was her reporting on “exotic” salads – endive, French sorrel, purslane in Europe; mizuna, mustards, shungiku, mibuna, and all those others that are still listed as “Oriental Vegetables” in seed catalogues, from Asia – that intrigued and excited gardeners and organic growers alike. At the time organic growers were struggling to find alternatives to wholesaling, and the low returns that entailed. The concept of the “salad bag”, enlivened by the kind of little-known, diverse, interesting and yummy leaves that Joy had chronicled, unlocked the potential for direct, good-value sales. It was a product supermarkets couldn’t really do, a product so special people would seek it out. Without the combination of the salad bag, and the Box Scheme, with which it co-evolved, most organic growers, ourselves included, probably wouldn’t be here today.
The latest addition to our 100-plus varieties of salad leaves is an Eastern mystic via the Heritage Seed Library network. A kindly man arrived one day last year seeking out our seed of Climbing French Bean “Cherokee Trail of Tears” (see July 24, 2010), and gave us some seed of Tulsi, or Holy Basil, in return. He told us that the woman who gave him the seed, approaching him randomly in a Tooting street, told him the plant was sacred and neither it nor its seed should be sold for money. Thus, our plan is to include it in the salad bags with the edible flowers – which go in after the bag is weighed – making them, and the Tulsi an “extra free”. Hayley, one of the stars of the Friday team, returned from the gardens of the Bhaktivedanta Manor Krishna temple in Hertfordshire with tales of Tulsi growing throughout their glasshouses. As a herb, It seems to be regarded as a panaceae: anti-depressant, anti-ageing, anti-anti-immunity, who knows maybe even anti-austerity: but Hayley told me “they don’t seem to use it much, they mainly pray to it”.
This all makes perfect sense. I’ve often thought of gardening as akin to prayer: we spend much of our time on our knees, orientating ourselves, mutter an occasional Ode to Joy, sometimes measuring our dreams.