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.
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.