A year ago, slightly by accident, Anita Gracie – a member of the Islington Master Gardeners – came to do a workshop in Transition Dartmouth Park’s new food growing space at Highgate Newtown Community Centre. We were holding our first Seedy Saturday event which we hoped to use to generate interest in the project, but one of our workshops is cancelled at the last minute, and Anita kindly agrees to step in and fill the gap. Her ‘gardener’s question time’ proves to be one of the great highlights of the day, with people crowding into the sunny garden over lunch to draw on her expertise and ask question after question. The allotted twenty minutes turns into an hour, and at the end we invite her to come back when we actually start growing, to see how we were doing and give us advice for the next season.
Around six weeks later, our raised beds built and filled with compost, we begin planting but are somewhat deterred by a spring of endless rain, and Sunday afternoons consisting of our committed core of gardeners huddled in the community centre cafe, awaiting breaks between downpours to run outside and plant what we can, while most sane people stay home and keeep dry. Shoots appear but fail to grow, and our windowsills are heaving with spindly and fragile seedlings that will die if we plant them out. Anita visits the garden for a follow-up workshop, bringing with her peas and a pep talk. The weather holds, people show up, we make pea structures from willow and Anita tells us that gardeners must be hardy and tough, not worried about a bit of rain, and that we need to get cracking if we want anything ready to harvest by the summer.
The success of these workshops helps us to create the garden as a space of learning and we continue to hold monthly workshops – on container growing, medicinal herbs and permaculture, with a variety of visiting teachers. Each workshop brings people into the space, new plants and seeds, and helps us to meet others in our community who are learning to grow. We learn, share meals, and end up having a lot more fun and getting far more help than would otherwise be the case. The workshops transform our usual weekly growing sessions into a social experience, and a chance to find out how others are faring with the season’s unpredictable weather.
Anita returns for a final session of 2012 on preparing the garden for winter, and is impressed with how well our crops have grown. We harvest the last of the autumn produce, including sweetcorn and a large squash which has somehow survived in a tiny container on the path, and barbeque our pickings for a last shared lunch in the late September sunshine, before planting green manure and winter salad.
Winter passes (or so we think), and our hardy growers meet back to tidy and take a look at what has survived the cold. Perpetual spinach, rainbow chard and our perennial herbs are all still going strong, green manure occupies the middle bed, and the land cress in the end bed is deliciously spicy. Our worms are still being fed by the community centre kitchen, although are were far less of them than before.
On Saturday we held our second Seedy Saturday – a year on from the last – and invited Anita back for a spring gardening advice session. We plan to be out in the garden, giving visitors to the event the chance to do some planting, but awake to see a wintry scene of white streets and trees and still-falling snow.
Walking disconsolately through the blizzard of crazily twirling flakes, I see daffodils through the cemetary gates surrounded by a white blanket, and think of Narnia under the reign of the White Witch – always winter but never Christmas. Despite understanding the difference between weather and climate, knowing we have freak years, I can’t help but think of the melting ice I saw in the Arctic in September and wondering. The words of the scientists I travelled with come back to me:
"The ice is a big cooling system and the earth’s weather patterns depend on it. There will not be the same dispersion of cold and heat – for example, warm water currents will not move past Britain any more – making it less temperate. Britain is actually at the same latitude as Siberia and is made warmer by the North Atlantic current."
"The Arctic drives Northern Hemisphere weather patterns. Open water absorbs heat, which is transferred into the atmosphere, making the atmosphere warmer. This alters the movement of air, which changes the jet stream. The wind speed becomes slower, extreme weather conditions stay longer…"
Arriving at the garden, our beds are coated in white, the plants visible but no hope of adding anything new. We decide to go ahead with the event but stay inside, and amazingly more than thirty people arrive (far less than last year but still pretty brave). We set up the seed stall in the community centre cafe, and get cozy with hot drinks. People bring along homemade cakes and biscuits, and children make bean pots from carboard tubes and old newspaper, then turn their attention to wildflower seed bombs and lemon fairy cakes. By the time the workshop begins we’re enjoying the cake and blitz spirit, but somewhat dispirited at the thought of actually starting to grow anything in the never-ending winter.
But Anita is positive, telling us to get seeds started on our windowsills now, so that if April dawns sunny we have seedlings ready to plant out. Tomatoes, peppers and aubergines need to be started indoors now, to give us any chance of a summer crop, but other than that she tells us to ignore the suggested dates on seed packets and plant out when the weather is right. She also advises that as soon as the ground thaws we can cover the soil with plastic (old compost bags or bubble wrap are perfect), in order to warm it up for young seedlings. She ends by reminding us that if we were in Scotland, this would be the norm, and we just need to adapt and do the best we can.
The mood picks up, and after questions we seed swap with renewed enthusiasm, I discover purple mange tout, heritage tomatoes and bronze fennel, and plant marigold seeds in a newspaper pot. Returning home later, I find that a neighbour has abandoned a parsley plant by the front door. It joins the fronds of trailing mint, and aloe vera on the kitchen window sill, and together with my newly planted seeds and the mustard microgreens donated by Susan, it almost looks like spring.
Pictures of the garden http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.317404658298445.71943.267406573298254&type=3