Season With Garlic and Time

Sometimes we seem to speak of the growing season as if it were like the football season: a defined term of set fixtures with a fixed start and end date. But plants’ life and death is not a matter of football: whilst we can comfortably generalise that plants stop growing once ground temperatures fail to score six celsius, each year is, like a snowflake, a person or a radicchio, unique. That said, I’m sure League games never used to start as early as this, the first weekends of August. But perhaps they did, and believing otherwise is just one of those signs of getting older, like thinking the police are getting younger, or that shop-bought tomatoes are tasting blander.

 
Of less irrelevance to a gardening column is the further point that one of the many stunning beauties of a diverse farm or garden is that, like Russian dolls, there are growing seasons within growing seasons, and beyond, like Ukrainian ones. Turn, turn, turn. At Hawkwood, it is summer: our twelve heritage varieties of tomatoes, which I swear blind are less bland than ever this year, are flooding out of the glasshouse; the french beans are in their pompe; and life is, at last, a peach. At the very same time, this week the air is smelling fairly autumnal, and the garlic’s long trail reached the winter stores.

 
In terms of land area, little garlic is our biggest vegetable this year, occupying the whole of the Old Kitchen Garden’s soul, or, to be precise, going twos-up on it with a spring undersowing of white clover and yellow trefoil. It’s a risky business this undersowing: timing is of the essence. Sow too early and the green manure will compete with, and therefore dwarf, the garlic; too late and it barely establishes, rendering the whole exercise somewhat pointless. Time it to perfection, and you’re a liar or a show-off. This year, nice, plump bulbs stood firm amongst exquisite drifts of flowering shamrocks, something the gardeners here kept drawing my attention to: in particular, how the latter made finding and harvesting the former a bloody nightmare. Romance might be on the ropes, then, in this corner of the garden, but in practical terms, the soil here now has a vital emerald carpet of protection going into the off-season. There’s a fulfilment in reaping the fruits of your labours, and not having to look back and contemplate the emptiness that follows.
Spread out all over the glasshouse for their final cure, the garlic looked and smelt glorious, but I was fearful we’d never manage to crowbar it all in to the cool safety of the Ambient House. This Thursday though, Aimee and I wedged the cloves in there tidily enough. Doing so turned out to be one of the great sensual gardening tasks: the reassuringly bone-dry, papery rub of the pale pungent skins a real contrast to the glossy, yielding ripeness that is August’s dominant meter: the gages, nectarines, damsons, courgettes, toms, peppers, raspberries, all looked slightly askance.

 
They’re still a rough, unready five o’clock shadow of the white garlic you see on stalls and shelves around the whole globe. The finishing touch before market is the topping, tailing, and stroking off the outer flakes of soiled epidermis, to call forth that lighter peel. This takes time rather than timing, and I’m sure on a big scale it’s mechanised in some way, but really, if you have to employ machines, for pity’s sake don’t give them all the best jobs. Garlic sorting becomes a warming, convivial indoor option on the rainy and blizzardy days to come.

 
Shedding skin: it’s not just for reptiles then. Buddhists speak of the “Onion Game”: the process of peeling away layer after layer of self: somewhere deep down is the egoless void, the Eternal Season. Geologists refer to “Onion Skin” weathering, the flaking off of the outer crusts of rocks. This is one of the first stages of the forming of soil, and with this the emergence of life herself, and the levelling of mountains into fertile plains. This too takes time, time that precious, slippery wisp of a thing which, however much the capitalists try to enclose and privatise every aspect of human and natural life, they seem unable to control and commodify the raw materials of.

 
Having just spent a timeful week’s break in France, I am touched again by their institution of “Appelation d’origin controlee”. This certification, covering Puy lentils, Nyons olives, Provencal lavender, Basque paprika and animal products as well as, most famously, wine, recognises specific time-honoured production processes as well as the associated origin of production. The origin is the terroir, which translates into English as both “region” and “soil”. In food terms, then, terroir refers to particular quality that the wedding of a particular soil, to a particular climate, to a particular cultivation method lend to the foods that arise from them. Terroir can’t be outsourced; trucked or flown in; continually expanded; or relocated to areas of cheaper labour. As such, it provides one alternative discourse to the homogenisation of the neoliberal market. A market whose peddlers in government are seeking to push into insane areas with the latest proposed trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

 
Savour the flavour of our garlic, from the legume-enriched Palaeogene marine mudstone clay of the Upper Lea Valley: 2014 is truly a vintage year. Resist the TTIP. Fight back against the War On Terroir.

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Crop Revolutions

In Yorkshire – where my local food ideas were formatively pruned – the tradition is to plant garlic on Guy Fawkes. Burnt to death on countless occasions, Mr. Fawkes’ standing has recently risen, phoenix-like, thanks to the success of V For Vendetta and the Occupy Movement. Even before this, there was always some sympathy in God’s own county for a West Riding lad having a go at the centralised power of Westminster, and planting garlic seems a better act of remembrance than many others on offer.

I like this interweaving of the horticultural, festival and political calendar, and Guy remains my garlic guide. But here in the belly of the beast at Hawkwood, London, we’re working 2,300 garlic plants into six different rotations: a tall thin order even if we gardened through the flare-lit night. This year the aim was to get the garlic- and all the outdoor veg – in the ground by Zapatista Day, the birthday of the EZLN (17th November). Formed in 1983 by a few disgruntled Mayan peasants – people like us, sort of – the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation) launched their revolution in 1994 not with dynamite, but cut-out wooden guns, balaclavas, corn, poetry and bravery. Since then, they have maintained control over their communities in Chiapas, Mexico, and influence far beyond: the Zapatistas remain a potent symbol of land–based people revolting against the cultural bankruptcy of capitalism. Beneath the drying maize plants I planted fava beans in their honour, in their hour.

Three beds each of broad beans, field beans and garlic planted, then off the field by Zapatista Day, with time to spare. Sure, there’ll be weekly forays out to pick Kale, Cavallo Nero, Brussels Sprouts, Raddichio. But largely, we stand back from it, let it rest.

It’s been a tiring year for the Entrance Field: a silty clay, still fairly low in organic matter, when it’s wet it stays wet wet  way after the skies dry, making it difficult to work and prone to compaction. Even though we operate a bed system and use only light machinery if any, there are times this year we’ve trudged out, the plants ready but the ground not, knowing we risk setting back the soil’s development in doing so.

Fortunately, the rotation will come to the rescue. On the field, we run a ten course rotation, designed not only to optimise pest, disease, weed and fertility management, but also to improve soil structure. Key to this is the two year green manure ley, the Sabbath, or winter, of the rotation: time of rest. Active rest, mind: right now, still in vibrant leaf and flower, the clover and alfalfa are the liveliest of all the beds on the field.

We may be a while from the Gregorian Calendar New Year, but Halloween marks New Year in the Celtic calendar, and the autumn plantings usher in the next year of the annual rotation. And so the crop rotation becomes a kind of clock, a calendar, splayed on the land: as real, for the grower, and more deeply felt, than any digital display.

I remember my woodland and green building friend, Adrian of Wholewoods, once expressing his frustration at not managing to find a settled home, by saying, “I’ve only got a few coppice cycles left”. Vegetable cultivation has blessedly quicker returns: every year, we sink garlic cloves and lift garlic bulbs, but the earth moves under our feet, and in the misty atmosphere of autumn you catch yourself thinking, it’ll be another ten years before we next plant garlic in this spot, all things being equal.

All things being equal. Rotations; small revolutions. Long term thoughts like fireworks in long nights.