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.

Into the Blue

Super busy.  The myopic May focus on urgent sowing, cultivation and planting requirements often shields you from the garden’s  unravelling beauty  surrounding  you. But you can always rely on something from sideways knocking you sideways, out the blue.

A lot comes out the blue in late spring. Makes you wonder if the blue is a little congested the rest of the time. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it’s our fallows at Hawkwood that often surprise me most.  In the green manure beds under glass, phacelia and buckwheat are in head-turning bloom right now. The latter joined flowers of chervil, mustard, watercress, rocket and calendula in this week’s edible bouquets crafted by Pretty Delicious. These went with three hundred potted plants including wild rocket, cornflower, lemon balm, mint, oregano, alfalfa, nasturtium and  viola, which we raised, at shotgun speed, to adorn the tables at Deesha and Vishal’s wedding on Saturday. Chives and borage never looked so happy as when I pushed them down the glasshouse aisle in the Danish trolley. Just the right amount of better and worse weather.

White petals of bird cherry and apple are starting to confetti the soils now. Four beds of squash are planted up. The plants were willing but the air a little bleak. They need a bit more warmth to grow or they may perish: every burst of sunshine is to be greeted now, and on Wednesday we did our version of a sundance, planting out sunflowers amidst the chicory on the Entrance Field. Sunflowers famously follow the sun as it arcs through the sky, so perhaps there is a tiny reverse attraction. It’s a long shot, but so is the sowing of tomato seed in freezing February.

Under the protection of the glass, the tomatoes are now shrub size, in need of their first sideshooting.  Hannnah here says tomato pinching season is wedding season: countless occasions she’s been sat at the banquet and asked to explain her green stained hands. I tell volunteers that the quickest way to aquire green fingers is to pinch out tomatoes. I think it’s true.

And on Friday the first of the spring- sown salads made it into the mix. It’s a lettuce, “Sadawi”, a deep red looseleaf type. It is buttery and full flavoured with no bitterness. After a winter without, I didn’t realise how much I missed lettuce, how good it can taste.

Soon we will be awash with the stuff, and we will start taking it for granted. Something else will jump out from the blue to be flavour, or colour of the month. The cuckoo is back, announcing t the season is fully under way, and young, stretched before us, the possibilities all but endless and only vanishing where the land meets the blue.