Death, the Universe and Parsnips

“It is so hard/ And it’s cold here/ And I’m tired of taking orders
And I miss old Rockford town/ Up by the Wisconsin border
What I miss you won’t believe:
Shovellin’ snow, and rakin’ leaves”

               – Tom Waits, The Day After Tomorrow

You can say what you like about frittering away your hours messing about in the garden, but it’s nothing if not grounding. There aren’t many moments out there when you are not confronting the fundamentals: the earth; the web of life; the trophic pyramid; growth and decay; mortality and eternity.  All before lunch.

December is all about death and decay. The last of the summer – the skeleton towers of tomatoes and peppers – are put out of their misery and consigned to the Great Recycler Beneath the Sky – the compost heap, replaced with long dark blanks of sleeping soil, in a gothic glasshouse where time stands still. Outside, we mulch paths, we rake up leaves and yes, this year we have been shovelling snow. There is nothing more satisfying than grim satisfaction, and there are few things in life more grimly satisfying than these, THE winter gardening tasks to try before you die.

Snow has a habit of gently tittering at all our best endeavours, and food growing is no exception. Whilst picking outdoor salad was a write off, harvesting Jerusalem Artichokes was merely comically time consuming…and also a bit festive. Having located the plant stems protruding from the field of white, I had to go ahead raking off the worst of the drift, while Rod, Terry, Kate and Giovanni followed, turning the soil over to what looked like scattered slices of marzipanned Christmas Cake, making the artichokes appear as alarmingly nobbly sultanas.

Now is also the time for reflecting on the year passed. As climate change renders our already unpredictable island weather patterns even more chaotic, so every good, balanced growing season we experience requires us to bow deeper in gratitude and reverence: 2017 was one such – for us in South East England,  at least – whilst growers in the North West are packing up after another year of deluge-induced debt.

Last year our Hawkwood “product range” increased to 60 key crops. Of these, 33 saw increased (kg/m) yields this year; 17 saw drops in yield; 26 products (43%) recorded their best ever yields, amongst these 9 new crops. Importantly, most of our “flagship” crops – tomatoes, salad, cucumbers – showed increased and record yields, as did our “long term investments” of perennial fruit and vegetables. Box scheme members and stall customers may not feel they have seen more Hawkwood produce than previously: this is because everything else – including sales of veg bags; at street markets and to “ethical eateries” is growing steadily too. Reasons to be cheerful all round.

These facts and figures also don’t manage to capture some of the other triumphs of our market garden last year. How the site has been a teacher to increasing numbers of young people through our Alternative Educational Provision and Special Educational Needs programmes; and how our volunteer and traineeship programmes never cease to surprise and inspire all those involved.

 

Apprentice Grower Giovanni celebrates the Year of the Parsnip, in the shelter of the glasshouse

Every year at Hawkwood is flavoured by that season’s One Big Crop that is planted, in the “Open Field” system, in the Old Kitchen Garden. 2017 was our Year of the Parsnip. Whilst we have never avoided winter vegetables, the dormant season has always had a characteristically lean, austere feel about it. Not so this year, as every Tuesday and Friday the harvesters haul back crateloads of gleaming white chunky roots to the packing house. The cultivar is Halblange White: “Halblange” meaning “half-long”. So vegetable breeders in Germany have developed a stumpy-rooted specimen that makes growing this quintessentially English root crop on our otherwise impenetrable London clay, a viable option. In the Year of Brexit (as, perhaps unfortunately, it will be better remembered as than Year of the Parsnip) this is the kind of participative, transnational cooperation worth celebrating.

Happy New Year: for the merry, not the few.

 

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