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Musings of an urban market gardener

A new book from OrganicLea, the food growing cooperative in East London, ponders the personal and political of growing food

November 20, 2014
5 min read

Organic Lea“We come together for the fun of working with nature, and the serious matter of making a contribution to a better food system, a better world.”

OrganicLea, a workers cooperative growing food in East London, formed in 2001 with the idea that more food can and should be grown locally, in London – and that it’s better to work with others than alone. One of their growers, Ru Litherland, has recorded their experiences in a ‘grower’s blog’ which reflects on the seasons’ turning and the joys and challenges of growing. He combines the personal and political in writings that are poetic, informative, funny and thought-provoking, providing a month-by-month chronicle of the life and times of a community food project.

OrganicLea have now published Seedlings From The Smoke – a gardener’s diary like no other, collecting together these ‘musings of an urban market gardener’ as a book with photographs and hand-painted illustrations by Marlene Barrett.

If you want to find our more or purchase a copy you can visit their blog. To give you a taster of the book, here is an extract dated from November 15, 2012.

Crop Revolutions by Ru Litherland

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.

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