JUNE garlic & flowers
Yesterday I harvested my garlic. The bulbs had been swelling over the winter, and I’d nibbled at the strong leaves they sent up over spring, but I needed their container for some tomato and bean plants so it was time to dig them up. I tugged them out of the ground, shook off the soil, then spread them over the roof to dry in the sun. Later I packed them into a tight box and tucked them into a cool, dark cupboard. Every time I open it now there’s a faint garlic aroma.
I messed up when I planted them last year, sowing two entire bulbs whole, rather than individual cloves. Easily swayed by anything faintly exotic, I bought Italian garlic and so couldn’t understand a word of the planting instructions. The mistake means I’ve pulled up loads of garlic but the bulbs are all rather mini. Pretty though – neat bundles of cloves covered with a translucent papery white skin and veined with bright pink, smelling exactly as garlic should. I have so many little bulbs I’m thinking of pickling some and making my own antipasti.
I’m working from home these days which means a lot more time on the roof. Recently I’ve watched goldfinches dancing in my jasmine and tobacco flowers and become firm friends with London’s most dishevelled blackbird. He perches on the fence that runs round the garden, preening a coat that will never look anything but messy. He’s greying, has bald patches and his feathers poke in all the wrong directions. Sometimes he yodels and sometimes he shouts. He might stop by to eat a worm or a bug, other times he just sits and spies on all the other birds that are around and about. Every time I see him a smile cracks across my face.
There’s a bit of lull produce wise on the roof at the moment. I’m waiting. I have some tiny courgettes and the potatoes have flowers. The tomato plants are starting to get larger and the few beans that are still alive are finally at a stage when they should be safe from snails. I have a few salad leaves and herbs, but I’m waiting for more to get big enough to eat. The leaves had a setback in the shape of a digging squirrel, which means my wait is going to be longer than I’d hoped. All is on track but there’s not much to harvest as yet.
I found myself on the roof of the Bootstrap building in Hackney last week, which has been transformed into the Dalston Roof Park and will be hosting gigs, parties and film nights this summer. There’s a bar, a barbeque and oodles of veg. I can’t wait to go back there on a balmy evening and be entertained among the lettuces.
When you walk out onto the roof park for the first time you can’t help but be overexcited. It’s surrounded by London views and chimney stacks, and is filled with many lush looking plants of the edible kind. In comparison to my roof, Bootstrap’s is a well stocked Eden, but perhaps an imperfect one. It has a temporary feel to it that makes it more like an installation than a well rooted garden that will carpet the roof in green for years to come. They’ve used astroturf for that effect. I loved it though, it must be a joy to work in the building and be able to lunch there every day.
After exploring this sparkling new garden that’s been shipped in and onto a roof, I headed up Stoke Newington Road to Somerford Grove, a low rise housing estate where residents have been growing masses of salad and vegetables for a year now in their shared spaces. Not as glamorous as the Bootstrap garden but much more inspiring. It was gardening club day and I was helping out, planting and watering with the local kids. It was a fun afternoon, hot and dominated by water fights. The children absolutely love growing things and tasting the fruits of their labours. They flock to gardening club every week, more than happy to get muddy and wet.
The transformation of Somerford Grove is impressive. With a little friendly nudging, local people have rolled up their sleeves and are growing much delicious salad, fruit and vegetables in their communal areas (and in their private gardens too). Young and old are getting thoroughly soil stained in pursuit of perfect plants. Friendships have blossomed and flowers have bloomed. Once something of a concrete desert, and pretty unfriendly, the estate is now full of life – both of the people and the plant variety.
Also last week, I went to a screening of a heartbreaking documentary called The Garden, which is all about a 13 acre block of land in South Central Los Angeles. This square of land, surrounded on all sides by wide busy roads and ugly grey buildings, was given to the local community after race riots in the late 1980s and turned into verdant allotments. Almost 300 different, predominately Latino families embraced farming the land and feeding themselves with home grown fruit and veg.
It’s a documentary so of course there had to be some threat to this idyll and indeed there was. Some shady back room deals meant the land was privately rather than publicly owned and the private owner decided he wanted it back. All kinds of wrangling ensued but finally it looked like the farmers would be able to keep the land, although they had to raise an eye watering $16.3million in just five weeks to buy it.
Was there a happy ending? I won’t spoil the film as it’s really worth watching but the ending wasn’t simple, in fact it was baffling. It made me think many things, but one thought was how emotional gardening can be, how nurturing a plot of land invests some of your soul into it and the threat of losing that space is devastating. Some people really don’t understand that though. The owner of the land had no concept of its value as a garden and a green food space, he thought only in terms of cash and nursed a destructive sense of his right to do what he liked with his land, even if that was to let it turn to dust.
Back to my garden, again meagre in comparison to the feats achieved in South Central LA, and this hot hot heat means watering is once again the main job if I’m ever to get any veg to pick. The best thing about June has been the giant purple alium flower that has looked fantastic for weeks and brought me much cheer. It’s going to seed now but still looks dramatic – stars bursting in a perfect sphere on the top of a willowy stalk that bends under the exploding bloom’s weight.
I’ve been writing a book! It’s structured round one year on the roof, but also adventures out into London’s wild spaces and looks at the creatures that call this city home. It’s not out until next spring but I hand it over to my publisher in just a few days, which is nerve wracking but ultimately will be a great relief. I’m planning a little trip away as a treat for finishing, which means I’m also nerve wracked about leaving the garden to fend for itself during a heat wave. I will have to bribe my flatmate to babysit with promises of tomatoes and courgettes to come, and perhaps some chocolate in the meantime.