Making The Gardens Grow

“All those long shadows,
Your joy and pride
Was making the gardens grow again”
Robb Johnson, Making The Gardens Grow
The darkest hour comes before the dawn, they say. Just as we skid into Spring, a thud of wintry weather has stilled wind and time, so we sow our first seeds whilst frost lays on the ground. And in the last week, two gentle men who are part of the OrganicLea story, pass on. They’ll not meet the glimmer on the horizon: the warm spring breeze nor the apple blossom.
Campaigning journalist David Ransom was a mentor to Clare, our intrepid Training & Outreach Worker, when she was being intrepid in other ways and places. He came to interview us for a feature on Permaculture in New Internationalist magazine in 2007. In doing so, he validated our, at the time, outlandish belief that community food growing could have a role to play in the movement for global justice. The Food Sovereignty Movement, as it is now, was but a twinkle in his twinkly eyes. Later, he lent his weight and wordsmithery to the Foreword for our book, “Seedlings FromThe Smoke”. The last time I saw him was at that book’s launch, September 2014. He likened Hawkwood, with its gardens, glass temple and popular army, to Byzantine: it was a memorable image, an extraordinary speech.
Fred Whiting, my grandfather, is known at Hawkwood as the man behind our “Kondine Red” tomatoes (see “You Say Tomato”, March 6th, 2010). He taught me from an early age the value of just getting outdoors, and the possibility of holding independent ideas. He was a perpetual dissenter, but he also knew which way the wind blew. Post-War, he left London for one of the emerging New Towns, for better air, space and opportunities for his family. He also left the work he loved, seeing that the emerging industrial model of agriculture had limited need for his class, the agricultural labourers. These were wise decisions that, in my life, I’ve senselessly reversed. Though not without his tacit understanding. Everything cycles, after all.
Sometimes life cycles touch, though their beginning and end can appear poles apart. We are still unearthing the Jerusalem Artichokes – which have been fabulous croppers this year – as the time comes to plant them again. On Jerusalem Drive last week, Vi and her team were planting within seconds of lifting: if we’d been any quicker off the mark the whole thing might have descended into farce (albeit this would be a minor syllabic change to what this tuber commonly descends to). The remains of the tomato and chilli plants, carted off either side of the solstice, had barely cooled on the compost heap when trays of their embryonic descendents appeared on the propagation staging this month. A day without tomatoes is like a day without sunshine, and there are precious few of those here.

Alex sowing new seeds, 2015. Phot: Martin Slavin

Alex sowing new seeds, 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

Maybe, just maybe, this year will be the year without a “Garlic Gap”: our remaining dried stores continue to seep out into the farm stall and Wednesday lunches, whilst our early Spring Garlic more and more looks good enough to eat. In general, stores have scored: for the first time since records began – all of seven years ago – Hawkwood Harvest Hands have provided something for Box Scheme and stalls throughout January, the darkest month. These Tuesday mornings Gary or I have the treat of rifling through clamps, where our Beetroot and Black Radish are kept, needled in stacks of coconut fibre. Herein lies all the excitement and tactile experience of a Lucky Dip, with the weird twist that all the prizes are from a limited range of root vegetables. I always come away feeling lucky, millions wouldn’t.
It’s the tradition here to insinuate to all and sundry that we will be producing salad in early February, and then do nothing of the sort: they like a lie in, salad beds, so it seems. This year though, we were as good as our word: on the ninth of February, we opened for restaurant trade again. And rocket and mizuna are germinating, so here we grow. After the darkest hour; the burying of loved ones, the horizon shifts still. It’s only in our power to rake over the soil, to make the gardens grow again.

Storing Seed And Freezing Fruit

“The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives, overlapping and intertwining, until it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other starts. Each annual task is also a memory of the many times we have done it before and the people we did it with.”
– James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life
December 2015 was the new warmest, most un-Decemberly, December on record. It took the time-honoured rituals and routines to provide reassurance that the world still turns, which is half the point of them I suppose. The customary midwinter feast followed by the midwinter break, punctuated only by Vi and Gary “beating the bounds” to make right any loose crop covers; then annual tool clean and renewal; the seed inventory and seed order.
Our seed store has, since our arrival here, shared a curious cupboard with the electrics: the fuse boxes, solar intake, meters, back-up generator. It was a temporary storage solution that now claims permanent status by virtue of customary use. It’s taken a while to realise it, but we couldn’t have provided a facility more fitting for the core of our sexual propagation efforts, had we spent days in the design and build. It is dark, cool, little disturbed, unglamorous, slightly industrial: in short, seedy. We’ve knocked up a couple of shelves, on which sit a frightening assortment of biscuit tins. Inside each tin, a choice selection of packets, housed according to family or “allied crop”. It is a shocking thought that the entire garden and its vast feast erupts from the nucleus of this closet, like a laughing Jack-in-the-Box.
This month the bean tins saw more action than usual, as we kept getting requests from members of Heritage Seed Library for the Climbing French Bean “Cherokee Trail of Tears” (see blog entry June 24, 2010): in the end Vi, Kate and Sandra were threshing the new crop to order. And gladly, as this means the bean, and its story, continues to live and breathe. We were reliant on the same network a few weeks ago, to replenish the carelessly depleted stocks of our rare local tomato “Essex Wonder” (see blog entry March 2, 2011). Whilst the latter day ritual of spending the Christmas period pouring over seed catalogues has its particular magic, the swapping of seeds is something else. It can have that spine-tingling quality, a sense of being wrapped into the thread that reaches back to the birth of cultivation, and the human exchange that cradled it.
Now, finally, frosty nights: the cold comfort of Winter. And in the nick of time: a fraudulent Spring had begun in the Lower Lea Valley, bringing snowdrops, daffs and wild plums into flower. Here, blackcurrant buds brought to bursting point, whilst Marco and Craig, his successor to the Vineyard & Winery Worker post, had to abort the winter pruning in early in the month as the sap was rising, the vines bleeding. In the second week of January we picked rhubarb for the box scheme. This is unprecedented (usually the blanched “Champagne” crop is ready by the end of February, and we wouldn’t start on the “maincrop” until a month later) and possibly unnecessary: Rhubarb relishes freezing conditions, but even the hardiest of souls can get frost-bitten where a lush spurt is suddenly pressed into ice.

Grapes ripening in the Hawkwood vineyard, September 2015. Photo: martin Slavin

Grapes ripening in the Hawkwood vineyard, September 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

We hear a lot about how climate change may benefit the wine industry, a lot less about those foods the land might lose. Blackcurrants, a mainstay of allotments and kitchen gardens, require a period of sub-zero temperatures to precipitate fruit production. Rhubarb, like Parsnips, Brussels Sprouts and Kale, has long been regarded as “improved” – sweetened and tenderised – by a good spell of winter cold. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find our “fruit”, though virtually unblessed by the white sparkly stuff, was neither stringy nor sour: good, in fact.
On the market garden, as elsewhere, the New Year is a time for looking backwards and forwards. Last week, the first harvest of the year: digging up Artichokes at the top of the Entrance Field with Gary and Vi. Peering down at the field, the glasshouse, the Lea Valley, London, and the future: the wavering uncertainties of the climate, the political economy and the wheel of fortune; and the bolstering certainties of a hard-to-shake faith in nature-as-teacher; and the power of community. It’s touch-and-go, but on a diamond-cut ice blue day, evening sun just lit, things look a bit better.

Midwinter Bonfire, December 2015. This New Year of growing we are more likely to produce unfamiliar outcomes. Photo: Martin Slavin

Midwinter Bonfire, December 2015. This New Year of growing we are more likely to produce unfamiliar outcomes. Photo: Martin Slavin

Look Back Entangled

Cumulatively, gardeners spend five years of their lives entangling and disentangling hosepipes, wire, string. At least that’s one estimate (mine), not exactly based on a statistically valid methodology, but extensively peer-reviewed. Reviewed by many a supportive volunteer as I utter it from within a giant quadruple-knotted web of despair at the futility of it all. But looked at from another perspective, what is life – eating, sleeping, working, learning – other than a process of making a mess of things, then tidying them up again to make a mess of them again? Shouldn’t this be cause for celebration, these pendulum swings that lie at the heart of the human drama, behind the magic backdrop of the seasons?
It’s surely not that long ago that we rolled down the thousands of strings in the glasshouse to support the leagues of climbing and clambering plants in their journeys to the sun. French Beans, Cucumbers, Tomatoes, Sweetcorn, Cucamelons, Morning Glory, Cape Gooseberries, Chayote. And all the while cursing those before us who hadn’t tied the twine last year with the “Hawkwood Hitch” slipknot, so that we had to spend time we didn’t have on impatiently unpicking fractions of the whole trellis. These last few weeks, under this November’s grey fug, we’ve been unpeeling the once-lithe mass of dessicating plant matter from the redeemable polypropolene weave, freeing up ground space for winter salads and summer earlies. “Solemn days”, Martin, the Apprentice Grower, called them. Especially solemn for him, as his dedication to the cordon Tomatoes this season has seen his name morph into T’Marto. The garden party is over: all tidied, bare. This is why our land-based forebears created the Festive Period: to remember. And to forget.


The Ghost of Hawkwood Just Past: winter sun on the last of the tomatoes, December 02015. Photograph: Martin Slavin

The Ghost of Hawkwood Just Past: winter sun on the last of the tomatoes, December 02015. Photograph: Martin Slavin

My solemnity these days is compounded by finding it hard to get “into the spirit” due to this warm, dull, bland mediocrity of the late autumn/ early winter. You can’t warm a cockle that isn’t cold in the first place, is my Thought for the Day, and seeing slugs and glasshouse whitefly bound around like spring lambs whilst all their predators, and the plants, lie sleeping due to low light levels, is perfect justification for muttering “Bah Humbug”. Any of us that might have quietly thought that climate change might have a bright side are being shown up as fools on a number of levels.
All this, as our world governments meet in Paris for the COP21 climate talks, trying to address the matter but falling short, because the way the world’s economy is organised presents such a huge barrier to cooperative action for climate justice. Meanwhile outside, members of OrganicLea are amongst those forging, in the heat of resistance, counter-summit and street food, a different way of doing things.
Triumph and despair, swings and roundabouts, are the headlines from this year, in case you had to ask: austerity and anti-austerity; climate change and action for climate justice. At Hawkwood, a great year for Cucumbers, up to Number 1 in our annual “Top Of The Crops” chart of yields; a terrible time for Sweetcorn and Peas, both popping out of the Top 30. Potatoes and garlic improving on last year, whilst Beetroot and Broad beans set back, for reasons known and unknown. Cavolo Nero and Florence Fennel placed disappointingly, but got rave reviews from colleagues and chefs. Perennial vegetables and fruit – Rhubarb, Artichokes, Blackcurrants and Oh, the Apricots! – are starting to come into their own, repaying years of faithful labour, but then the Perpetual Spinach, in the end, didn’t have long for this world.
All in all, we made a mess of quite a few things, untangled an awful lot of string then tangled it up again, and wound up smiling. A decent year. A joyful, jinking orbit of the sun spent raising plants and letting them go, gaily swinging our eggs in all manner of baskets. In my more hopeful moments I like to imagine we can be chalked up as another example of “the resilience of diverse systems”. I think we need more of these now.

Heroes Of The Waste

The eleventh hour approaches. There will be a high level of interest and debate as to the colour of flowers, namely poppies. Hues include not just red for the British Legion, but also white for peace; and our local community textiles organisation Significant Seams are stitching green ones for mental health, and purple for the role of women in WW1.

Few poppies, few flowers, will be in full flush by then, in garden or field. Our poppies at Hawkwood have gone to compost, every one. They were Papaver somniferum “Sokol”, white breadseed poppy, an underplanting for tomatoes. Their petals fine and pale as confetti, and as transient, which is one face of the multifaceted poppy legend: that of short life, or eternal youth. As one of the War poets put it: “They shall not grow old, as we that are left to grow old/ Age shall not weary them”. The tomatoes above them matured, but were a way from wearing by the time we gathered in the crop of poppy seed, for which I can’t quite recall what the plan was, dishonouring another face, that of remembrance. The poppy seed “remembers” how to germinate, for at least forty years, over a century by some accounts.

Overlaying other ancient associations of the poppy with life and death is, of course, their dramatic surge across the fields of Flanders in the immediate aftermath of the First World War’s bombing and churning : nature’s first aid.
The poppy does not have monopoly on such symbolism. By the time of the next World War, aerial bombing had become a feature of combat, so death and destruction need not be confined to “some far-off corner of a foreign field”, but something to be endured regularly by civillians. In population and manufacturing centres across Britain, buildings and streets were decimated and, with rebuilding not a priority, renovation was again in the lap of the plants.

Rosebay willowherb, a plant that loves to follow fires, rose tall from the ashes, its light purple spikes giving many embattled residents a redemption sign. Blooms after the booms. A poll by the charity Plantlife found that, in 2002, nearly a half century after the end of the War, Londoners’ favourite wildflower remained Rosebay, or “Bombweed” or “Fireweed”, as it is equally well known.

A similar poll carried out in the eighteenth century would have likely got a different result. In 1666, the Great Fire of London blazed through the city’s streets. A major disaster, but the golden lining was that the inferno appeared to do away with the Black Death. The golden flowering was Sisymbrium irio, or London Rocket, appearing everywhere. Previously unrecorded as a weed, it was believed by some to have appeared spontaneously. A native of the Mediterranean, it is more likely that it had been around, coming in with grain or spice, and had quite sensibly lain low until something appraching warm ground was made available.

To this day, it smiles on the odd industrial site and road verge, and now at Hawkwood, where it is to be found “keyhole” beds on the West Bank Salad Terrace: an occasional addition to the mixed salad. It is smaller, tougher, but otherwise not dissimilar to the Wild Rocket that is a mainstay of our salad. Hawkwood wears its London Rocket with pride.

London Rocket,West Bank, September 04 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

London Rocket,West Bank, September 04 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

The eleventh hour, the eleventh month. We realise too late how vital is peace, is harvest, are flowering plants. At Hawkwood, the Indian summer having burnt to a cinder, it is likewise the flowering plants that we look to for remembrance. In a matter of weeks the Entrance Field has changed completely: the potatoes, squash, celery, beetroot and lettuce that dominated the view all season, have left the stage, to be enjoyed by Londoners alongside the faltering fruit of tomato and bean flowers. In their place, bare ground; the rotted remains of the dead; and the just visible outline of an army of seedlings, as if by magic, stirring together, with their fragile promise of a brighter tomorrow.

A World To Wean

We savour the seasons, and from our Bird’s Eye Chilli view here at Hawkwood, we catch some of the intricacies of their turnings and twistings. On the black canvas of soil surfaces the hatching of the chickweed cock-crows Spring’s pale green dawn; whilst the splattering of worm casts like mushrooms murmur the mellow mulch of autumn. Yet there is a strong tendency to push everything to the two poles, the monoliths of Summer and Winter.

Most of our crops we refer to as belonging to either Summer or Winter, their resulting meals being light summer fayre or “winter warmers”; our clothing is similarly annotated. As if every movement is triangulated with the two ideals. By this measure, we are now Winter. The box scheme’s veg bags have already featured a substantial proportion of that season’s hearty menu – Leeks, Kale, Brussels Sprouts – and there are only a few residual summer crops left to clear from our beds and our minds. Basil, cucumber, potatoes, celery, all gone. Gone, to muted last rites of soft sighs and muttered gratitudes, in the short while before the new, hardier plants – endive, watercress, early peas, perpetual spinach – are relayed in. “Don’t mourn, organise”, said Joe Hill, and this is what we do. I dreamed I saw Jerusalem Artichokes last night.


cavolo nero under its protective cover, September 2015. Photograoh: Martin Slavin

cavolo nero under its protective cover, September 2015. Photograoh: Martin Slavin

Cavalo Nero, a kale as dark and long as a December night, is being brought down from the Old Kitchen Garden, by Eddy and Martin, in dense volumes now. In the Glasshouse recline the squash, having slipped from the Field and the jaws of the first frost. This week, our tricolour stand of beetroot will undergo its unusual metamorphosis from Summer to Winter food: pulled from the Entrance Field, shorn of their bright leaves and tucked into their cosy winter clamps, they somehow manage to beet around the binary: from tender bunches of superfood to robust roots for roasting.

Only the salad harvest continues, ever onwards to victory. Twice a week, all year round, bar our religious midwinter hibernation, salad bags stream out of our bit of the Lea Valley and into the wider Thames Basin. But there is a sweet sleight of hand, a trick or treat, to this feat. Since the Solstice, every week has seen us replace beds of Summer leaves [sic] with “Winter” ones. From July, the latter begin to infiltrate the mix, little by little, week by week, tweak by tweak. So that the change is almost indiscernible.
But by the time Gary, Vi and Susanna set to picking this week, the revolution was all but complete. A mix governed, in June, by the soft tones of lettuce and heady fragrance of basil, is now sharply in the gloved hand of mustards’ heat and chicory/ endive bitters. A precious few – wild rocket and chards chief among them – manage to swing with the swing.

My son Blake, in the sixth moon of his weaning, has taught me much about food and eating along the way. And that weaning is not just a chronological path between the diametric diets of liquid and solid. Right now, those of us who try to really eat, not merely consume, are in the midst of a gorgeous, nostalgic, sometimes sad, epic journey from one pinnacle to another, in time to turn around and head out home again. We are in the middle of a Big Wean. It’s called Autumn.

A Ballad to Salad

This week, we again find ourselves in the finals of the Urban Food Awards, run by SUSTAIN’s Jellied Eel, the essential journal of ethical eating. A change of format this year sees the award categories based on product, so there’s recognition for the best cheese, sausage, beer, bread; whilst growers’ interest will be focused on the “London Leaves” contest.
In recent years, we have seen the emergence of the mixed leaf salad as a concept and a product, from supermarkets to farmers’ markets, from gourmet restaurants to pub grub. This new thing is, as is often the tradition with new things, in essence bone-creekingly old. The earliest humans, and their primate predecessors, grazed on a range of edible leaves: for the earliest Britons, these would have included wild celery, chervil and cresses. As we shifted from hunter-gatherer to cultivation, salads were among the first cultivated plants: here, beet leaves and sorrel would have been key parts of the diet, whilst Romans later introduced lettuce and endive.

Renaissance gardeners developed new varieties of salad, and in the seventeenth centurythe herbalist Culpepper made much of the health virtues of “salading” plants. John Evelyn, one of our earliest garden writers, wrote Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets in 1699, committing to the posterity of print the oral tradition of the cottage garden, a cornucopia of plants intermingled, with no sharp distinctions between ornamental, vegetable and medicinal, neither in the garden nor on the plate.
It’s unclear to me at what point the decisive shift from saladings came. What can be said for certain is that, by the 1970s, one particular salad combination had become utterly dominant. This is, of course the trio of crisphead lettuce, tomato and cucumber. Note that the latter two items are not leaves but fruit, and form the basis of Lea Valley glasshouse production from before the War to the present. Note also that, whilst this three-piece band may well be considered a classic, their period of hegemonic power coincides with the relegation of salad from a dish in its own right, to a side, treated by many as a garnish to be left uneaten.

Hawkwood's hand-crafted salad mix, september 2015

Hawkwood’s hand-crafted salad mix, september 2015

Turn and face the strange: I believe London, our increasingly unfair city, does right now happen to be one of the most exciting places in the country for salad, though I do realise that using “exciting” and “salad” in the same sentence may seem a little contradictory, even to those this side of  the Garnish brigade. That’s why, whoever wins this week, to paraphrase the football pundit’s cliché, “at the end of the day, salad growing’s the winner”.
Whoever wins, Growing Communities, one of the other nominees, deserve much of the credit for London’s salad growing renaissance. When I arrived there at the turn of the millennia, salad leaves were already recognised as their key product, in terms of impact if not land area. I assisted Brian Holden, to whom the salad bag was so much a vindication of permaculture gardening; and was encouraged and directed by (appropriately enough) Director, Julie Brown. Her application of the permaculture concept of zoning to food production, posited, amongst other common sense things, that urban growers could and should concentrate, first and foremost, on highly-perishable, highly intensive salads and leaves, whilst the right place for bulky field veg is, naturally enough, the hulking fields of the “rural hinterland”.
This schema, the “Growing Communities Model” of legend, prompted, in 2014, a reorganisation of the GC’s Urban Market Gardens, so that they grew almost entirely salad leaves. This required me to devise a salad rotation, to seek out new leaves to fill that rotation, and trial and error a range of approaches to cut-and-come-again, successional sowing and relay cropping. Almost as breathtaking as such horticultural jargon were the advances in techniques and blend recipes. When Hawkwood happened, I tried to take all the learning up the Lea and continue to push on there, where our 89 varieties of leaf and 42 edible flowers that made up the mix last year, only tells half the story. Meanwhile, Sara; Paul; Sophie; the Patchwork Farmers and the committed volunteers, have made GC salad a firm fixture in their box scheme and many shops in and around Stoke Newington, and last year scooped a national Soil Association award.
Spreading like wild rocket, now all community gardens that have an enterprise element, and many that don’t – from Sutton to Acton, from Crouch Hill to Enfield – have drawn inspiration from these East End pioneers, or from a broader zeitgeist, and developed their own methods and mixes which, arising from their particular soils and situations, have resulted in salads the same but different, all as unique as the boroughs they grow out of.

London Rocket. September 04 2015 Photos: Martin Slavin

London Rocket. September 04 2015 Photos: Martin Slavin

Here at Hawkwood, we welcome in the autumn equinox , and the winter leaves: the chicories, mustards, baby kales, begin to replace some of the softer summer offerings. Our range and proportion of different types has stabilised since the early exuberant days of experiment and discovery, though there’s always another trial or tweak: Sculpit and Caucasian Spinach here, an extra bed of watercress there. Our salad bags span the entire history of salads, from the Chervil and Celery leaf of prehistory, through the Romans and renaissance plants: the endive and rocket, to recent introductions such as Texel Greens and Shungiku. From the well-known lettuce to cult classics like sorrel and corn salad. From “exotic” novelties like ice lettuce and ceylon spinach to London peculiars like Walthamstow Yellow Cress, London Rocket and Amaranth “Tower Hamlets”. It’s a vegetable item, then, that is broad, deep, rich, deep and dynamic. Salad days need never end again.

Tomato Catch-Up

As citizens (or perhaps subjects, but that’s for another constitutional debate) in a post-industrial society, the Agrarian Age may seem many steps removed. Yet so much of our culture and institutions are steeped in it, as evidenced by everyday phrases such as “one bad apple ruins the barrel” and “she knows her onions”; to idiosyncracies like the twice yearly moving of the clock; to fundamental foundations, like the great midwinter feast and rest-up now known as Christmas.

Some might say such cultural resonances are the tip of an oak tree: that Homo sapiens are creatures of the Earth, and are drawn, as if by a force, to encounter the natural world even though it is no longer “necessary” or profitable to do so. When we speak of staying somewhere “nice”, that quality of niceness is so often bound up with a sense of closeness to nature. Conversely, the increasing incidences of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and the now recognised condition Nature Deficit Disorder, highlight what can go wrong when that tie is sorely frayed. It’s worth mentioning that people do go a bit lunar-tic on full moons, and this is borne out by NHS hospital and police crime statistics. Worth mentioning, that is, not because it adds much to this discussion, but because it’s one of those facts that seem quite amusing until you realise it basically means people getting hurt. Ouch…

September’s a funny one in this regard (that is, unfortunately, funny in a peculiar rather than a ha-ha way, but fortunately in a harmless, not unfortunate way). Even as schooling became universal and compulsory, there was no point trying to impose it in the summer, when many children were needed to help bring in the harvest. Even at the great dawn of the Comprehensive system, thousands of children in East London spent their late summer holidays picking hops in Kent.

For me, Back to School meant the end of summer, of freedom and boundless days, and a return to the strict discipline of walls and clock. As a grower, the situation is slightly reversed. The summer is a vital and magical time, the scarce months into which our entire year’s efforts are largely funnelled. It’s also manic, hard, and embroidered with impossible deadlines. We are simultaneously playing a number of spinning games of Catch Up: with the weeds, the gluts, the watering, the pest and disease, and the beautiful social processes inherent in operating as a workers’ cooperative; and falling behind in every damn one of them. Come September, we’re finally getting even. It’s not that we’ve got any better, but that everything else, other than the aforementioned beautiful processes, is slowing down. The bar has been lowered or, in that adage from Amenity Horticulture, the playing field levelled.

Our tomatoes have been great this year, truly. 2015’s rainbow nation of heritage varieties runs as follows: Carter’s Golden Sunrise, Golden Queen, Schimmeg Cregg, Green Zebra (the Washington-bred cultivar which, for the second year running, won our lunch time Tomato Taste test), Tiger Tom, Darby Striped, Mirabelle Blanche, Paul Robeson, Black Russian and triallists Ivory Egg and Weisse Schonheit. That’s eleven squad members in what is becoming a more or less settled, high-performing for team for us, after many seasons of trial and fun. Those who have been enjoying them Here (at lunches and off the Farm Stall); There (through our box scheme and market stalls) and Everywhere (Hornbeam Café, Walthamstow; Opera Tavern, Covent Garden; Three Colts, Buckhurst Hill), are probably at least agnostic to the idea that Too Many Tomatoes can exist. But on top of everything else, and Daylight Saving Hours or not, there have been sometimes barely the hours in the day, or the outlets in our phonebook, or the superlatives or swear words, for when we scale up the Three Peaks of tomatoes, cucumbers and beetroot.

This week, the supersonic speed of growth and ripening is gently easing with the diminishing light and temperatures. Full sized specimens no longer appear overnight. We have the measure of the crops and we know we have homes for them. We have caught the dropping fruit.
Then there’s the weeds. Plant plant plant, until midsummer that’s much of what we do. We are, after all, a Plant Nursery. Plants in, and only in the last three weeks have we managed to devote the dandelion’s share of our time to dealing with all the plants-in-the-wrong-place. Last week, as we were getting around to tackling knee-high nettles in the Old Kitchen Garden, Martin, our photographer in residence and former jobbing gardener, commented, “you’re like me, ideas above your station”, meaning with weed issues like this you’re probably trying to manage too much land.

Olly cleans up the salad beets, West Bank Salad Terrace. August 21

Olly cleans up the salad beets, West Bank Salad Terrace. August 21

Yes and perhaps no. The Old Kitchen Garden brassicas have now been weeded, and are looking pretty “clean”, as is the West Bank Salad Terrace, which a few weeks ago would have been best described as “overgrown” only if you’re trying to be polite. Cornelia is not that polite about it, but she has been instrumental this year in keeping the most aggressive weeds in check. Now we are catching up. And for the next couple of months, we’ll go through all the vegetable beds with a fine trowel. Sowing, Planting, harvesting, pruning, blanching, supporting, feeding and all the other seasonal joys will now provide the punctuation rather than the prose in the Gardeners’ Diary. It’s quite normal for us to begin and end the season with hardly a weed in sight. In between those tidal marks, the wildflowers often run riot: troubling sometimes, but maybe not the worst way to run an ecological growing system…

The Old Kitchen Garden, August 28

The Old Kitchen Garden, August 28

…An ecological growing system which, right now, weeds or no weeds, looks splendid in the golden light and misty morning dews of late summer. On the Entrance Field, runner beans dress our rustic arches handsomely, the squashes run to the hills and back again, spilling brass balls in their scramble. Borlotti beans, chicory, raspberries and apples are seeping to sunset pink. The feared “Salad Gap” – the sparse transition from summer to winter leaves – lasted only a week: a mere hiccup, a real triumph. Meanwhile, on the Old Kitchen Garden, the Year of the Brassicas: all the beds and green manure undersowings have been weeded; the winter radish thinned. Last Tuesday, the great harvest commenced: Vi, Gary, Robert, Jae and Jess uprooting the first of a thousand kohl rabis. I root around beneath the prose and punctuation for some poetry, and the last prophetic lines of Betjeman’s “Slough”:
“The cabbages are coming now,
The earth exhales.”

High Summer

When, in 2003, we brought out our Fruits of the Forest report, proposing a local food scheme for the London Borough of Waltham Forest, it might have been filed, close to News From Nowhere, under “Local Interest/ Utopian Fiction”. Some time ago it was relocated to Non-Fiction, the space it vacated providing a brief resting point, on the same journey, for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Leadership Bid. I still have to pinch my sideshoots when I see the unfolding of food growing enterprises in the city: our campaneros at Forty Hall, Sutton Community Farm, Growing Communities’ Patchwork Farm, and closer to home, Brandon & Michael’s Cheney Row site; and our nascent Farm Start programme.

Commercially speaking, we’re all just scraping by, but that counts as a commercial success in a sector, indeed a global economy, where producers are squeezed to within an inch of their lives, sometimes beyond.
The real growth businesses are not to be found out in town gardens, but indoors, cultivating the illegal herb Cannabis sativa for vast informal markets here. The illegality of the many weed growers presents something of a barrier to cross-fertilisation with their struggling vegetable counterparts. I assume the majority of operations eschew ecological approaches such as mixed plantings and rotations; and have an unhealthy reliance on glow lamps and hydroponics. But, peering through the closed curtains, there are a couple of lessons we could learn from them:

Firstly, drugs often work. Our weekly fruit & veg stall outside the Hornbeam Centre justifies its existence on various grounds, but its financial viability is quite possibly as dependent on its proximity to over-the-counter strong caffeine inside the Centre’s café as many of its customers. When folk describe our salad as “addictive”, I regard it as a complement: perversely perhaps, when you consider the lengths drink & tobacco manufacturers have gone to, to deny such accusations about their products.

Second, herbs are, by definition, powerful. We’ve harnessed the power by including culinary herbs in our salad mix and restaurant menu; last year Aimee developed our herbal tea range, based on herbs we were cultivating, or were growing wild on site. The launch of this year’s “Nourishing Nettle” blend took place with a herb walk and tasting on our last Open Day, to be followed into the cockle-warming season by our Calming and Strengthening blends. “Obtain A Yield” runs the permaculture principle. Biodiversity should be regarded as a yield in its own right, but there is great satisfaction to be had from our biodiversity areas also giving us a valuable crop from a light forage. Culture and wildness can be closer allies than we are led to believe.

Tree and our "Nourishing Nettle" Tea. Photo: Martin Slavin

Tree and our “Nourishing Nettle” Tea. Photo: Martin Slavin

If you’ll allow me to class garlic as a vegetable rather than an herb – and millions wouldn’t, but now’s hardly the time to get into an argument about it – then the cultivated herbs we grow and crop most of are sorrel and basil. Broadleaved Sorrel, in taste and appearance is only one small step for humankind removed from the wild form that you might stumble or munch on, hopefully both, on any stroll across acid grassland anywhere in Northern Europe. Yet our seasonal panel of Level 2 graduands awarded it Winter Salad Leaf of the Year 2014, and runner-up in the summer category. with its sharp citric twang, a mixed salad bag without sorrel is like a G & T without lemon.

Basil’s cultivation may be as old as culture itself. Native to India and the Middle East, it continues to be considered holy in Hindu, Buddhist and Greek Orthodox traditions. Our packing warehouse doesn’t resemble a temple, but there is something transcendental about the incense of basil that pervades the air there on summer harvest days. High on herbs and hope: Paradise on Earth.

The Holy Herb of Hawkwood, August 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

The Holy Herb of Hawkwood, August 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

A Rare Vintage

“It is a curious fact that men shaped by poor soils, like vines in similar conditions, have a more stimulating, finer “flavour” than the members of rich soil communities” – Edward Hyams, Soil & Civilisation

The entrance to Hawkwood Nursery could be described as grand: you take a turning off Hawkwood Crescent, E4, and the shadow of the forest begins to darken the petering road. You pass through the plain grey gates and suddenly it opens up, the Entrance Field to the right, where rows of multi-hued vegetables rise up the hill in a kind of acknowledgement; to your left, the artichokes tower above you and the shrubbery at their backs. Ahead, the great glasshouse gleams and glitters.
It’s a curious fact, though somehow fitting, that to get in to the building you have to go round the back, whereupon your first impressions of impressiveness are immediately diminished as you come face-to-face with our compost heaps. You may pause to ask yourself which looks less inviting – the open pile of rotting vegetation, or the adjacent maturing mountains, covered as they are in tatty tarpaulin weighed down with car tyres. But all that’s gold doesn’t glitter: on garden tours I’ve announced that these are the most important part of the whole site, for this is where we grow our soil. And growing soil, more than growing plants, is the gardeners’ precious gift to the world.

Good plants come from good soil. A seedling is planted into one of our raised beds. May 2015 Photo: Martin Slavin

Good plants come from good soil. A seedling is planted into one of our raised beds. May 2015 Photo: Martin Slavin

In cooler times, turning our mountainous compost heaps provides a great opportunity to ponder such profundities – or perhaps not – for a big group of cheerful volunteers with pitch forks. Nowadays, when all hands are needed to plant and maintain the leagues of veg beds, it becomes a solitary task for one man and his tractor, who makes the most of this moment to ponder how our produce comes, not just from London bolder clay, but also from a rich unique blend of organic matter from a range of sacred sources. The neighbouring forest makes its contribution; as do the remains of the particular choice of crops we grow here; the weeds and wildflowers that happen to grow here; the shredded trees of parks and gardens in our vicinity; and the waste, or rather left-overs, from our vegebox scheme. In other words, the recipe for our growing media becomes progressively more peculiar to us, our way of doing things, our web of connections. This is the development of what the French call “terroir”. A slow, steady process, I think, as tractor shifts the hundredth bucketful of semi-decomposed plant material a few feet to the left.

The same people that gave us terroir also gave us vintage. Different years are, funnily enough, different, and a truly earthed society should embrace, even celebrate their different flavours. Up to a point.
Our totem early summer crop are strawberries. We are proud to grow terroir strawberries in an age when so much of this fruit are grown in bought-in compost from no-place, with a shelf life of one year. Similarly against the tide, we grow them out in the elements, and are proud to have, thus far, always had a decent show in time for Wimbledon. Unlike our players, they usually keep going into the final, but not this year. Neither this year, the craziness of “Peak Strawberry”, when they ripen faster than we can pick them, and we roam the streets pushing punnets on the unsuspecting. This year, I think we harvested as many fruit as ever, but mostly a quarter of the size. The lack of water in the soil at the critical time left them with good flavour but unswollen. I suppose we should have watered them, or accept that this was this year’s vintage: not a great year, but one with character. Short and sweet.

Just picked. 26 June 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

Just picked. 26 June 2015. Photo: Martin Slavin

Of Brassicas And Kings

June has been all sweat and dust. The rains passed over our heads, and the skies barely spat until the 20th, when the heavens opened, giving us veg growers at Forty Hall’s summer solstice celebration two good reasons to party hard. Our very soils – so longingly crafted into a rich stitchwork of life through seams of organic matter and careful cultivation – revert to dust or baked rock, primordial states. It’s hard to establish crops in these conditions, even with the wonderful warmth. The planting is slowed down and we have to speed up to redress the balance. When God evicted Adam and Eve from Eden with the memorable line, “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat thy bread”, it wasn’t a mere quip: he meant it, man.

Don’t take this the wrong way though: these are great days on the community market garden, classic midsummer. It’s a buzz being part of a team that succeeds in clearing, weeding, forking over, mulching, levelling, planting out and covering a long bed of Black Kale, in time for tea, as we did on Wednesday. Perhaps it’s one of the ancient buzzes, that those of us who nowadays run half marathons or set off on epic journeys are out to recreate. Whatever, the tea tastes good afterward. Needing it gives it the flavour.

A few weeks ago on the radio I heard the Francophile reporter Graeme Fife reporting from the Transhumance in the Pyrenees. It’s the day in the year when the shepherds and goat farmers agree that the warmth has arrived, and begin, as one, their great summer migration from the deep valleys up up up the steep mountainside to the lush pastures in the clouds:

“When did you set out?” he asks one shepherd.
“Seven this morning”
“A long day, you must be tired”
“Toujours fatigue, jamais fatigue”.

Always tired, never tired. Having a baby this year has only accentuated that sensation of spending the lighter months feeling totally knackered and fully alive. Like Clare says, it’s because we don’t tire of it. Not the gentle breeze on our faces nor the spinning kaleidoscope of leaves; nor the cameraderie that comes with sowing seeds alongside someone; nor the exquisite produce that pours forth from our sweat and dust mixed with muck and magic. If you’re tired of London’s finest food, you’re tired of life.



Asparagus spears green and tender picked not a day ago; the unique salad bag with twenty plus varieties of leaf sprinkled with edible flower petals; broad beans popped from the pod and strawberries raised outdoors solely on soil and rainwater like so few are nowadays. You could say that though we’re poor we eat like kings, though this would be an understatement: our fayre is much richer than the rich’s. For, like peasants, gardeners and those who are on a level with their grower the world over, our solidaristic relationship with the land, its plants, animals and people, gives our simple vegetables a significance, a wholeness, that can neither be bought nor seized. A significance, a wholeness, the lack of which leaves a gnawing hunger in the gut, that can neither be named nor sated.
Glutinous and gnawed, they come at us for more, yet more, with their cuts, their austerity measures, their enclosures. They come on many fronts, but there are many ways to resist. Remembering that we have a wealth and power and dignity that cannot be taken is one way.

Namenia and Mizuna. Photo: Martin Slavin

Namenia and Mizuna. Photo: Martin Slavin

Last balmy Wednesday, in one of those accidental perfect circles, Reece and Martin began planting out the Black Kale “Nero di Milano” on the Entrance Field, at the precise moment that Ed, Grace, Jacqui and Nava started pulling up the skeleton frames of last year’s, to make way for the next course of the rotation. In the One Big Rotation, this week we start covering the Old Kitchen Garden in Cavallo Nero, Kohl Rabi, Winter Radish, for this is the Year of the Brassica, once only this decade. Brassicas, the Cabbage family, those vital, mineral-rich leafy greens grown and known the world over as “the medicine of the poor”. This is the year we get better.

Working last week in the Entrance Field. Photo: Martin Slavin

Working last week in the Entrance Field. Under the white mesh, the Black Kale. Photo: Martin Slavin