East And Eden

“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”.

Holy Basil, Ocimum tenuiflorum: On Your Knees Now.

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.


Land of Hope and Dreams

Great bodies of water have passed under the Lea Bridge since lines last lapped onto this blog page. Some troubled, some tides of comfort. Still we garden, we re-create. As Tomas Remiarz, the permaculture teacher-activist whose life and work forms part of the rich rhizosphere at OrganicLea, put it last year: “The conditions change, but the task remains the same”.

That task – the reawakening of community and the transplanting of it back into natural substrate, continues, at the slight rate of our oak trees, even as the salads and asparagus now grow before our eyes. It’s been a good start to the growing season: April was suspiciously warm and dry, allowing us easy access to the land for clearing and weeding. Just as drought impended, the pendulum swung and May’s welcome rainfall inched the needed moisture back in to the clay.

This weather pattern has been kind to the garden as a whole, then, and the Spring Field in particular. The Spring Field is named not for its workability in that eponymous season, but rather, for the gurgling influence of what clinical agronomists would term poor drainage (and also for a little place down the river that has served as a spring board for many OrganicLea folk). This makes our decision to place our latest growing development, the Demo Farm, there, all the more deliciously risky. The idea is to provide a comparative area where the emphasis is on mechanisation rather than human power. But tractors, being heavy, can be detrimental to wet soils. Danny, Theo and Ximena – the Spring Field team, can now look over sweet rows of beetroot on beds of decent tilth, with relatively few headaches and delays en route.

Just next door is the Old Kitchen Garden, with its Ten Year Cycle. This year is Year of the Parsnips. They said we couldn’t grow root crops on this heavy ground and, after a couple of unhappy attempts with carrots, we grudgingly conceded. But last year’s trials of the squat, stumpy-rooted Halblange White cultivar of parsnips showed promise. And anyway, Gary, Vi and I love roasted parsnips. So caution is now somewhere downwind, whilst we complete the sowing of 17,000 pasrnip seeds this week.

I suppose from the outset, this project has been a bit of a stab in the dark with a garden fork. There was little apparent appetite for localised food production, or trend for cooperative organisation, when we started out, but we planted up, set out our stalls and set off in hope. As Gary Younge wrote after last Thursday’s election night: “Hope, when given the encouragement and space, can be a force more poptent then despair. The leap of faith it demands, in imagining a future that does not yet exist…necessitates risk”.

Every season, every week, the community market garden goes forward with new hope, new risks. With an alliance of the young, the veteran, the people-who-haven’t-done-this-sort-of-thing before, the marginal; and with a bit of good weather, here we grow.