Growing in A Time of Coronavirus

“March’ll search ye, April try ye,
May’ll tell ye, whether live or die ye”
English proverb

February rains flooded the dips and levels of land here, then March came in, unconventionally, like a lamb, soft and bright.
The gardeners’ barrow-wheel of the year took its next, dramatic, turn: the Winter Work Plan shelved, inevitably incomplete but not depressingly so; seed sowing stations multiplied; the glasshouse salads returned over new leaves; and we rushed eagerly to the Entrance Field, quick as draining water, to carry out that “stitch in time” weeding of amassed winter grasses and early ephemerals. Collectively, the gardeners and growers of this island, this continent, this hemisphere, took a deep breath as the nervous excitement of the growing season flushed upon the near horizon. Something else was on the horizon too, brooding, imperceptible even to those of us who have had intimate experiences with viruses like Cucumber Mosaic.

April brought, equally unconventionally, not showers but settled dry. Convention isn’t everything: this was perfect, utterly perfect, for bringing on the seedlings, setting foot, trowel and tractor onto the soil; and fattening up the early birds of the garden. Our most notable of these are the winter salads, allowing us, as they do, to bring in an income and commence our restaurant trade after the welcome, but expensive, winter lull. The kale in the Entrance Field, in turn, had its last gasp but its faltering notes were picked up by the spring garlic and those perennial favourites, rhubarb and asparagus, joined, I am delighted to announce, by a decent clutch of globe artichokes. These plants seem to have, after some years of difficult, protracted negotiations, finally resigned themselves to not only sticking around in this icky cold damp London clay when their hearts are so clearly in some elevated Mediterranean plain, but to actually offer up a modest rent of their delectable flower buds as early as March, and hopefully through the spring. These are great times.

glasshouse may 2020

The glasshouse in May: winter broad beans, spring garlic and summer’s tomatoes are level pegging


And this year, the blossom, the blossom, the fruit blossom especially, with its layered notes of immediate beauty and food to come, has drenched the air like, I swear, no spring before.
Nature, and the garden, doing what they do best, putting on the spring show, all played out, of course, against a backdrop of the ensuing global coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic that has shaken our society like a winter hurricane. It loomed on the horizon then broke hurriedly. Our hosting of the Annual General Meeting of the Organic Growers’ Alliance on 18 March, an honour we were relishing, was the first event to be struck off, and within a week our restaurant trade, which accounts for 50% of our income from produce, had collapsed totally. We started to grapple with the idea of “social distancing” (or “physical distancing” as we, and the WHO, prefer to call it); of enthusiastic cleaning of hands and surfaces.  Then came the official “lockdown”. Systems and activities that had taken us years to organically evolve, were swept away overnight.

I suppose the average landworker will have been more shielded than most of the population from the full impact of the crisis. But at OrganicLea, on London’s edge, our approach to growing has, by necessity and philosophy, been a social, even a crowded one. The team of paid staff, training placements and volunteers is large and they produce a range of “social goods” as well as fantastic fruit & veg. We had to carry out a controlled implosion. Now, many of us were classed as “key workers”, permitted to, and praised for, carrying out the “essential work” of producing and distributing food. There was certainly something affirming about our work – which we liked to think of as being useful – being officially recognised as such. As far as we were concerned our voluntary workers were essential workers also, but the emphasis had to shift firmly to work as opposed to participation based more on the softer social and therapeutic reasons, whilst paradoxically the health benefits of the work became more apparent. Public transport, such an important conveyor of volunteers from the city to the market garden, became a no-no under the restrictions, and tight restrictions on numbers became the order of the day.

The streets became quiet and the skies wonderfully empty. In contrast, the birds became especially noisy, or seemed so. You could almost hear the rhubarb buds burst, crinklingly; and the asparagus tips piercing the soil’s crust. Or, as Arundati Roy put it, “Another world is not just possible, she is on her way…on a quiet day I can hear her breathing”. It felt like an inversion of the “Silent Spring” prophesised by Rachel Carson, at the dawn of the modern environmental movement.

The calm and the clamour. In three weeks demand for our box scheme increased by over 50%, sales on our produce stalls showing a similar curve. For the first time since our arrival here ten years ago, it wasn’t just the odd keen bean making their way off the beaten track to our door to “buy direct”: the queue for the farm stall, hastily relocated to the farm gate, stretched to the next street.  (Albeit the Great British Queue has lengthened considerably now it has a two-metres-per-person spacing). Somehow, like the rest of the country, we have held it all together, whilst radically changing working patterns, covering lost staff, spending time drawing up all sorts of contingencies and the required rolling around like headless cabbages.

Parable about being careful what you wish for Part 45,706: Meanwhile, a perfect storm of the same food access issues that helped drive this demand, plus people spending much more time at home, plus the closure of garden centres, spiked interest in our hitherto charmingly below-the-radar seasonal plant sales operation. After years of encouraging and cajoling people to take more interest in good food, and the growing of it, it only took a few days of incessant demand for plants and compost – via our on-line home delivery “Plant Box” scheme, swiftly and elegantly developed by Marlene, Jon and Craig to compensate for the absence of plant hunters  at our cancelled Open Days – now swiftly sold before I began feeling like I should quite like to crawl into a large pile of compost and live out my days there, if only we still had such a pile to speak of …

Our Plants Boxes: Gardening and Food for Locked Down Londoners

…Because, whilst ideologically, morally and financially we wanted to say a cheery “Yes!” to as many folk as possible, the limiting factor for us was not just time and energy, but good, old-fashioned stuff.  We all, at least in this part of the world, interact with a global system, and for all we are about developing a local, self-reliant, resilient alternative, this is very much a work in progress, and in any case we are not anti-trade: the reverse, in fact. However, indisputably our biggest footprint, or Achilles heel – depending on which bit of the footsie you like to look at – is represented by our propagation media – that artificial rooting environment that forms one part of the “Intensive Care Unit” the glasshouse provides for our young plants, in order to give them the surest start before facing the tough love of the outside world.

I take great pride in our compost mixes, as you will hear me explaining to anyone who hasn’t been swift enough to see me coming and dash out of the glasshouse pretending to have spotted a bird of prey or a really interesting flower. They’ve taken years to develop, and from the off we were standing on the shoulders of giants. At best, they represent a meeting point, a bridge, between the scientific, but somewhat reductive, recipes of John Innes – producers of the first “proprietary” substrate in the 1930s, and a benchmark for all mixes since; and the homespun recipes of noted – and less noted – organic gardeners (like Pauline Pears, Joy Larkcom, Mark Fisher, daisies be upon them) which are infused with a touch of alchemy, steeped in the peasant/ witchcraft tradition of plant raising that John Innes and his ilk sought, consciously or not, to commodify or destroy.  A fusion of the material, the mystical, and the emotional, that’s what our compost mixes are about. They contain esoteric ingredients like wood mould; leaf mould; ash from our woodstove and bonfire frivolities; seaweed from some wild coast and sweat from our brows as we mix by hand. They also contain shedloads of stuff trucked in from all over the place. And for a while, the supply just dried up, at the moment when demand for plants and compost from us seemed insatiable: our plant nursery was literally losing its foundation.

Of course, during this period most plant nurseries, to say nothing of child nurseries, shut down: there but for the grace of food go we. For sand, an essential ingredient in our mixes, Belle took a break from wrestling with the difficult present and future of our training programme to heroically queue up at the hardware store and buy it sack by individual sack, under the pretext of primarily coming in for an “essential item” like wall brackets. Quite why wall brackets are deemed an essential item and sand not is possibly a moot point. Plenty of us have crunched through enough of the latter during summertime seaside picnics for it to be classed as a foodstuff. So much of the human story comes down to such lines in the sand…

This sudden surge in interest in local food and grow-your-own could be entirely explained as a rational attempt to secure nutrition in a time of uncertainty. Perhaps also this basic physical need is intersecting with psychological, emotional, and even spiritual needs. Londoners, whether they were furloughed, working from home, shielding, self-isolating, exposing themselves to risk as key workers and/or plain scared, needed a sense of connection, groundedness and control. A combination of the garden and the farms up the road were there to afford this, as they always are. As during the World Wars in this country, food growers are once more elevated to the status of heroes, and gardening becomes a pillar of the national effort.

And, though our days in the sun here may appear comparatively peachy next to the awesome efforts of our NHS workers, perhaps we are heroes, after all, in the sense that anyone who faces up to adversity with courage, dirt under their nails and the occasional bit of humour and kindness is an ordinary hero. Just before the lockdown, there was an emergency assembly of our cooperative. A question was asked about whether OrganicLea would or should focus, for the time, on food production and distribution, i.e. those “essential services” as identified by the government. One response was that OrganicLea’s Aims are stated as growing and distributing food; supporting others to do so (through education, training and “outreach gardening”); modelling cooperative ways of working and working for wider change, and that all of the Aims are as equally essential as ever.

This idea, that the social/ community element of our work would be totally locked down, quickly proved off the mark, as ordinary heroes innovated and adapted. Adult learning courses in process continued, remotely, our Hawkwood garden a light at the end of a portal; Tim went as far as devising an accredited on-line course to guide people through the principles and practices of growing one of our home-delivered “Balcony Collection” plant boxes. Giving out food plants and aftercare tips to the needy became our contribution to the borough’s approach to survival and recovery. Our gardeners continued to maintain school and community gardens; similarly, areas of our site given over to young people and refugees continue to be gardened, with them always here in spirit. Even our “Chef Supported Agriculture” restaurant partnerships grew on: Ottolenghi being generous enough to continue to employ Sara to maintain their kitchen garden at Wolves Lane, whilst at Marsh Lane, Vi is now helping the furloughed staff of Clove Club to grow veg for their domestic kitchens, rather than the restaurant’s. Produce Coordinator Tsouni started the “Neighbourhood Salad Scheme”, whereby, in the absence of restaurant trade, neighbourhoods can bulk buy our vitamin-rich, immune-boosting leaves.

Let us not rose-tint the situation. Quantifiably, thousands are dying. With restrictions on funeral attendance, the healing balm of collective grief is rationed. Unquantifiable is the mental health impact of the lockdown. The economic impact of the COVID crisis is being paid for, will be paid for, by the poor. It may be a brave new world, it is also harsh as the old hell.
Somewhere between heaven and hell, swifts, sand, organic fertilisers, and green waste compost, all once lost, now returned to us. On Friday, Izzy and Zoe spent their day blending, shovelling and bagging our mixes for sale to a hungry public, casting only the occasional wistful glance at the more picturesque gardening work going on: the rising, virus-beating gardens of East London in their hearts and elbows.

That more picturesque work included the sowing of parsnips, the planting of lettuce, the netting of cherries. These are jobs to do that, in doing them year after year, generation after generation, become also rituals that we do to honour the earth, the ancestors and each other: a dance, is you like, that we have only just now discovered can be performed at a spacing of two metres. Exactly the spacing you should put winter squash out at.

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