My wife Geetie and I have just taken on a large kitchen garden, but the gate is too small to get a tractor through. Do I knock the wall down, a travesty she would not easily forgive? I have been musing this dilemma while pulling up weeds in her father Gurmukh’s garden in France. On a good day, when the weeds come up easily, it’s a meditative and rewarding task. As I reach tougher plants my hands erupt with blisters and the Zen calm dissipates; without a tractor I’m more of a hunter-gatherer as ultimately, weeds are just plants in the wrong place. Today’s cultivated crops were originally bred from wild, weedy ancestors that grew around early settlements after all. To add to my frustration, much of what I’m pulling up is edible; fennel, purslane and amaranths.
Yet it is through such interactions that the best gardeners know more about plants and the soil than most farmers; they are closer to them than a farmer, who is generally insulated inside an air-conditioned tractor cab with 150 horsepower throbbing beneath them. Cheap fossil fuels have given us cheap food, but in gaining a brute force to grow them we have reduced the connection and understanding of the ecological context of our crops. Not so Gurmukh, a restlessly experimental gardener. He tells me not to weed his untidy looking asparagus beds which are shared with self-seeded coriander; some is eaten green as a herb, some is harvested as immature seeds to use in salads, curries, salsas and for pickling (excellent), but most just set seed for next year.
On my way home I stop at our farm in the Vendée where the last of our sweetcorn is being picked. In areas there is an understorey of succulent summer purslane which escaped the tractor hoe, but appears not to be competitive with the crop; indeed, some claim it traps in moisture and aids root penetration. Purslane is a popular salad leaf in Greece and with among the highest levels of Omega-3 known in the plant world, it is also being heralded as a superfood. Whether it can be picked economically is questionable, but I plan to try, and it may even be available to add to your order next week. As for the garden gate, I think it stays for now; I might learn something in there on my hands and knees.