What would the world be, once bereft
Of wet and of wildness? Let them be left,
O let them be left, wildness and wet;
Long live the weeds and the wildness yet
Gerard Manley Hopkins, Inversnaid
September, we suck on the pips of the last-surrendering of the summer’s soft fruits. A few blackberries, shockingly early this year, are left in the shadiest spots for the observant to browse on. But gone, from London’s wet and wildness, are their main consumers: the peasant army who descend on the marshes and the strips and patches of “waste” with their plastic bags and Tupperware and wicker baskets. Over, the mass annual reiteration of the right to gather from what is left of the commons.
For its mass appeal the bramble harvest remains unrivalled, but foraging through the seasons is experiencing something of a renaissance in these parts. Our friend John the Poacher has been transformed from a marginal outlaw figure to a now celebrated wild food tour guide, and artisan enterprises are employing wild hops, ransoms and alexanders in their brews and menus. Mushroom hunters continue to pop up all over the place.
Similarly, here at Hawkwood the blackberries and damsons are merely the purple patch in a Constant Non-Gardeners’ Calendar. We boast of a twelve-acre market garden but, to come clean, only one third of it is cultivated in any meaningful sense. The dandelion’s share consists of verges, meadows, hedges, scrub and woodland: our Biodiversity Areas that we spend but a few hours a year maintaining.
Biodiversity, the philosophy goes, is important in its own right, the more so in our extincting times. On our courses we advise even those with the smallest garden space to keep a portion of it undisturbed, so as to live out the sort of “stewardship” role that the human species might – and in their brighter moments, do – undertake on this planet. This is a matter of self-interest, not denial, as encouraging the sustained existence of a complex, balanced ecosystem in the garden allows us to sit back and let the native fauna do so much of the work of pest management and nutrient cycling.
Moreover our Biodiversity Areas provide shelter and pollinators for our crops; help make the Nursery therapeutic for volunteers and visitors alike; preserve a space for activities like our Forest School to grow into; and, to meanderingly return to the original point, they provide a small but very satisfying harvest for very little input. Indeed, there are times when, bringing back a bushel of nettles or a boxful of rosehips to the packing station, it’s tempting to wonder whether we shouldn’t all just sod this gardening lark for a game of hunter-gatherers. Just then a thundering voice booms, “In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat thy bread!” That’s us told then.
Across the year someone from the Tuesday harvest team is sent across the fields to gather nettles, daffodils, fritillaries, cob nuts, crab apples, mistletoe. The development of our herbal tea range has broadened our horizons further: an additional ten species of self-willed plants are clipped, dried, processed and married to our cultivated herbs, to bring such blends as Spring Clean and Cold & Flu Buster to our stalls.
Teresa, better known as Tree, our Herb Worker who bottom-lines this operation, is tasked this year with answering the formidable question How Much Is Enough? How much yarrow can we wrest from our wild without causing a population decline? This should then set limits on our tea production, or we commence propagating, planting, and weeding around yarrow plants in order to increase available yield. This is what we’ve already begun doing with nettles and damsons. So, in one small garden in one short space of time, history’s terribly great step from nomadic grazer to settled farmer is experienced.
Too much experience can be wearying: our wild foraging terrains allow us that time and a space to return to childlike innocence. A good garden should, I think, dance between innocence and experience: be both magical and solid. Long live the weeds and the winter crops yet.