Anyone For Squash

It doesn’t seem to take all that much in the end. After all the dreaming and scheming; all the sweat and worry and tears; just a bit of love and care and then, when finally Warmth and Light arrive, muttering their apologies and looking slightly shifty, everything else just falls into place: plants grow by themselves.

It was a rollover year for the great Hawkwood Bean Sweepstake, as last year everyone’s Big French Ones stopped short of the two metre high top wire. This year, it was over in a flash: well, a fortnight. A young “Neckargold” stalk, backed by an only-slightly-older-but-much-smaller  Ronan, aged six months, shot to success bagging Ronan the £17 jackpot. Summers youth: a long takes a little time.

Still far to go though. Full four weeks after planting, the squash in the Entrance Field are only starting to suggest an interest in “getting away”, much to my relief, as we did the BIG planting of squash, across the whole of the Old Kitchen Garden, on that cool damp Wednesday last week.

One way or another, this year will be a squashy one.  On top of its moment in the “all or nothing” kitchen garden rotation, there are four beds in the Entrance Field, plus we’re trailing some, Tuscan-style, through the vineyard.

As is The Rule here, we’ve gone largely for tried and tested cultivars: the rich orange “Uchiki Kuri”; the dense, chestnutty “Buttercup”; “Sweet Dumpling”, our lovable tagine grenade; and “Blue Ballet”, which is as weirdly gracious as it sounds. New entries for this year are the ornate eye-candy of “Turks Turban”; the naked seeded “Retzer Gold”; the heritage wild card and Billy Bragg favourite “New England Sugar Pie”; the elf-sized “Jack Be Little”. And of course there’s “Hawkwood Hybrid”, the first step on our journey to breeding a wonderful Waltham Forest winter squash..

There’s more to this breeding lark than meets the eye. During high-level roast vegetable meetings myself and Sean decided that, whilst the butternut persists in being the nation’s favourite squash, it is inferior, in flavour, keeping quality, and comical wartiness, to something like a “Green Hokkaido”. The simple act of marrying Hokkaido and Butternut, then, would, if not change the world, look forward to a New England. As Thomas Jefferson said, “the greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture”.

The useful plant we’ve added at this point is not a better-flavoured butternut, but a bastard that looks and tastes nothing like either parent, and is twice their size. We’ve created a monster, albeit a tasty one. With scary inevitability, scientific progress presses on this season, as I attempt to inbreed two Hawkwood Hybrids in the confinement of the East Wing of the glasshouse. We have a long way to go before we can release a stable, open-pollinated OrganicLea variety on a world that didn’t ask for it in the first place. But somehow what started as a sideline summer shenanigan may  be becoming a life’s work.

I suppose that feeling – that despite a project being neither wanted, needed or requested by anyone, there is somehow no turning back –  is something that the biotech people can relate to, but that’s where the similarities end. The new EU “Plant Reproductive Material Law” is the latest naked, vindictive attack on home gardeners and small growers by the biotech corporations pursuing a stranglehold on the very stuff of life. Quite where it leaves us, with the Hawkwood Hybrid and our living library of heritage beans and tomatoes, I’ve still yet to fathom, though it’s likely to be, if not on, then close to, a sticky wicket, much like the rest of the planet.

Squashes remain a beacon of hope amidst such corporate control freakery. They are the very picture of promiscuous, rampant, diversity. The vision of our stalls and stores cascading in nine contrasting shapes shades and sizes at the end of summer is as liberating as it is seductive. It’s now approaching midsummer though, and all we have to show for this vision, all our work so far, is a few pale green leaves on the ground. Now back to nature.

Changing of the Gourds

“We are changing the rhythms of nature by which we have live our lives and planted our crops and written our poetry for the last 10,000 years” – B. McKibben

In this age of carbonated climate insecurity, all the more tear-jerking the joy when the seasons turn to show a recognisable face. We did have a summer after all, late and glorious for a’ that.  Yields per acreage are down, but not out, in many areas; in some they have held: nature is, as ever, more forgiving and generous than we have the right to expect. The beetroot and tomatoes have been fantastic in every way, and the high-rise sweetcorn have ripened, which didn’t seem highly likely a couple of months ago.

The golden cobs are, as we speak, being enthusiastically endorsed by Epping Forest’s grey squirrel population. This is not the result of any nature-inspired unexpected generosity on our part, only of our inferior wit. The tussle between human and rodent intelligences is one of gardening’s timeless spectacles. It is, variously, endlessly fascinating or rather tiresome, depending, frankly, on whether we’re winning or not. The rats have been driven out of the glasshouse, but this year the squirrels have won the Hundred Maize War. Fortunately, growing veg is, as Bradley Wiggins said of the Tour de France, “not the World Cup”: it comes around every year. Next season, there’ll be all to play for, and we hope to have the Jolly Green Giant on our side.

More joyfully, the shift from summer to autumn happened bang on the equinox, ancient textbook fashion, a cold wet front arriving just as night drew level with day. And this week, the changing of the gourds.

A seemless Hawkwood relay.

This is us at our best: Adam picked the last of the “Suyo Long” cucumbers on Tuesday afternoon. Mary’s team cleared to compost their wrinkly plant remains on Wednesday morning, and after lunch Dean and Steven planted brassica salads in their wake. These snake-like cucumbers have been our rising stars: they come with a flavour subtle and surprisingly sweet, in a range of comical shapes and sizes. Slow food restaurants and farm stall customers have preferred them to our mainstay “ridge” type. Its trump card, though, is that it is one of a precious few vegetables that you can not only eat, but also drink (in Pimm’s) and wear (as scarves, necklaces, bracelets). Build a shelter out of them and that’s all your basic needs sorted.

As the last of these versatile reptiles lies coiled on the farm stall, I see Dean stand back from its compatriot replacement, Oriental Mustard, as Ed passes by carrying the first of another Eastern-East End delight, a crate of “Uchiki Kuri” pumpkin, freshly picked from the Entrance Field. It dawns on me that there could be few more fitting events to mark the autumn equinox: the cucumber, which gives us moon-like discs of liquid cool to balance thirsty summers, is eclipsed by its cucurbit sister, the fiery red squash, whose bright globes warm our hearts and bellies into the winter.

The earth has turned. For one more year, we can live our lives, plant our crops, write our poetry. Amen.