We like to try things out in the garden. We’ve had a go at crops for fibre and grain: flax and wheat grew well and an ancient type of barley, bere, was successful – though was then eaten by mice. We’ve also sown nuts and legumes from the grocer; the walnut and pistachio trees are doing well and we got a tiny handful of chick peas this year originally from a pack of dried ones. They shrink to nothing – and are too precious to eat anyway. We grow Asian herbs and leaves such as shiso, pineapple sage and tree spinach – and coriander, of course. We’ve also had some success with sweet potato.
We’ve had failures. I’ve never managed to get saffron crocuses going and the ginger I tried rotted, the tea seed never germinated and every year I failed to grow melons. I’d sow them in the richest soil in the most sheltered spot and they always defy me.
This spring I found an old packet of water melon seeds from Lidl. There were 2 left in the packet so like Jack (of the beanstalk)’s mother, I just chucked them onto some soil without much hope of riches. This is how it went.
It’s long been my ambition to make a record of all the ‘weeds’ growing along Mare St. I say ‘weeds’ but really I want to rehabilitate them and rename them as wild plants. Finally we got round to it. We roped Annie Chipchase, a local urban ecologist, in to lead a group of us to look at, identify and draw what we found. We started at a short stretch of unprepossessing road round the corner from the garden: Weston Walk. It’s more of an alley — often strewn with hair from the salon that backs onto it, as well as chicken bones from the chicken shop, dumped rubbish bags and occasionally furniture. I’d noticed, though, that a leaking pipe had provided an environment for moss to grow so I thought it would be a good place to begin our hunt. In this short road we found 23 varieties of plants growing in the cracks and up the walls. We were so absorbed, we hardly had time to explore or record what was growing on Mare St. We wondered at the resilience of these plants growing in the most hostile environment – and will never look at the cracks in the pavement in the same way again.
Visitors from afar…. well outside London. Bicester, Oxfordshire to be exact. Azul, Jason, Kate, Mark and Claudia from Grassroots Bicester and Banbury Community Action were on an awayday to find out about setting up a community growing space. We talked about what Cordwainers has done (and some of the mistakes), did a tour of the garden, spent a lots of time watching the frogs, drank tea and ate cake (of course) and did a quick bundle dye session – a great way to get people interested in plants and growing. In return I found out about their projects which include community orchards and setting up Incredible Edible Bicester – making community-grown fruit and veg available to ANYone who wants it, based on this excellent principle started by Incredible Edible Todmorden – and Jason gave our fruit trees an overdue prune.
There are several ways of getting warm. We tried three. The first was to make a small fire.
The second was to eat cake.
And the third was to go into the shed and lick a chilli seed or two and learn a lot more. For our second Grow A Gardener workshop this year, we ran a session on basic seed-sowing followed by a master class by the knowledgeable, interesting and resourceful Raul Couselo. He grows chillies indoors but it is also possible to grow outdoor varieties in London (bring them in in the winter). Chillies are often difficult to germinate. They need a long period of warmth with a soil temperature of at least 18 degrees C. Raul has designed a fail-safe seed propagator using a bit of folded cardboard in which you put your seeds, wrap it in a plastic bag and put on somewhere warm. He gets 100% germination (as opposed to my rate which is about 30%).
Once the seeds have germinated, transplant them to pots and place them on damp cardboard in a mini greenhouse made from a croissant box placed on an electric blanket.
Raul gave us some brilliant tips.
Once they have grown and produced flowers, to get more even, bigger and better crops of fruits, hand pollinate with a paintbrush. It’s much easier than it sounds. Just move pollen from the stamen to the stigma. Use different brushes for different plants to avoid cross-pollination.
Soak cardboard beneath pots to keep plants moist.
Add good quality soil to water so that you are watering your plants with nutrients. Comfrey is too strong!
Prune chillies. They are perennials and benefit from the stress.
Save seeds from shop bought chillies as well as your own.They may not come true but you can experiment. You must!
We have invented a new tradition: Orange Day. It was inspired by our discovery that oranges were grown in Hackney in the 17th century in one of the grand houses that used to stand not far away from Cordwainers – Brooke House, in Clapton (who’d have thought?). Samuel Pepys (no less) was impressed: “Mrs Pen carried us to two gardens at Hackny (sic) (which I every day grow more and more in love with). Mr Drake’s one, where the garden is good and house and the prospect admirable. The other, my Lord Brooke’s, where the gardens are much better but the house not so good, nor the prospect good at all. But the gardens are excellent; and here I first saw oranges grow.”
As winter is marmalade and orange season and as February is a pretty dreary month, we thought we could combine all these orange things to cheer us up with an event (and colour) that anticipates spring: a seed swap. So we made orange cakes, punch, tea and marmalade and gathered in the biting wind to swap interesting (or otherwise) seeds and, perhaps more importantly, those we’d collected ourselves – and so were well adapted to local conditions.
The day was part of Our Grow a Gardener project (funded by Hackney Council), which supports people who want to set up or maintain community gardening projects. A few alumni from our 2015 course came along, including Raul who had an amazing collection of seeds he’d gathered from a wide variety of chillies, tree cabbage, dwarf tomatoes, giant Greek butter beans, achocha, amaranth and much more. Our plan is to start a local seed bank, gathering seeds from those plants that have adapted well to the unique east London conditions. In the meantime it was a chance for gardeners with a common interest to meet each other and talk about growing veg in general (Raul has a huge well of knowledge – some of which he was passing on to Derek), or growing in small spaces – yes, you can grow chillies on a windowsill; growing activities for children; how to get a TRA to get going and start a community garden on an estate; where to get wood to make raised beds and how to make orange punch.