Richard Walker – Full interview

My Story

I’m a community gardener at Spitalfields City Farm. I’m responsible for a little area of land, 0.167 acre, a community garden. And I run workshops on that land as well as growing vegetables on that land.

Why I grow my own food

I grow food because I enjoy it. Because I enjoy eating. Because I don’t like the predominant food chain. To be honest, I’d love to have my own plot, but there’s so many benefits to growing on a community garden, like all the skill-sharing. And all the social side of it is massive. So it’s probably something that, you know, you’d like to be isolationist and off growing on your own. But actually if you were, you’d probably be a bit lonely.

Why I save seeds

I want to have crops that are adapted for my ground. I want to have more productivity for less work. If I’ve got successful germination and plants that are doing really well, then they’ll just end up being more productive. I mean you can get a plant that’s supposed to be really really productive, but it’s not productive if it’s sat on your ground not germinating. So something that I’ve got germinates really well and grows really well, will end up being more productive. And I want to save money.

Connection between growing and my heritage

Well my Dad’s side is from Birmingham, English, inner-city, slum people really, and they always grew vegetables. So it’s interesting to know that in that city vegetable growing was a very working class experience. The Irish side were self-sufficient farmers on the west coast. And the last few generations were quite well-to-do, so there was quite a lot of luxurious things grown like currants for making jams. So it wasn’t just subsistence.

How I feel when I’m working in the garden

Rage. Bored. Happy. Peaceful. Productive. Overwhelmed. A range of emotions.

Richard on Calaloo

Why I grow calaloo

The food that I, and a lot of my volunteers cook, involves a lot of leafy greens. Calaloo is a persistent source of leafy greens throughout the summer. It’s quite drought tolerant, and I’m trying to do everything here without mains water. And I just really enjoy the flavour.

Where the seeds came from                  

It was hybridised here from a Nigerian calaloo and a Jamaican calaloo, so it’s got hints of red from the Jamaican calaloo and hints of green from the Nigerian one. It came from my friend Joan 2 years ago. I should have kept the strains pure but they crossed.

How to grow

It needs to be really warm to germinate, so you would wait till May, June, maybe you’d even get away with July and still get a crop off of it. If you wanted to start them off in modules inside in a warm place, you could do that. Pot it on, then plant it outside when it gets really nice and warm. Or you could sow it directly into well prepared soil. It needs lots of sun. And you water it. You don’t need to water it too much. Certainly when it’s tiny you’d want to keep on top of the watering. Once it gets to about a foot high, then you start harvesting it. Snap the stalks off so it grows out into a bush.

Tips

I had loads of them decimated by slugs and snails when they were babies. So you want to be thinking about that. It was also getting greenfly. That didn’t affect the plant but it just means you’ve got to be a bit careful when you’re washing it for cooking if you’re squeamish about greenfly in your food, which I am. The biggest thing that’s going to impact on the slugs and snails is things like the blackbirds and the thrushes, so make sure you’ve got lots of shrubbery, and keep a pond for frogs. It’s not like an immediate cure, but it’s a sustainable long-term cure, and it makes life a lot easier to correct that imbalance in the biodiversity, rather than intervening too much.

Plant flowers to feed the hoverfly. They lay their eggs near colonies of aphids and their babies eat the aphids. So your marigolds and other flowers are helping with that keeping the hoverflies coming in.

How to save seed

It forms these wind-pollinated flowers. They’re not flowers like you’d think about in a marigold, they’re more like in grasses. They eventually produce flowers which droop over and give out seeds which are beautiful little shiny black seeds, very very tiny. Which are also a food source in themselves. You shake them down in a tray and winnow and thresh them and blow off all the chaff.

Recipe

I will have it as a salad or cook it up like a spinach. I’ll fry off some onions, garlic and chili, move on to tomatoes, add the calaloo, then add some sour and hot with a bit of chutney that you’ll have made the September before. Then a tight lid so the steam builds up and it wilts. And then serve it with some rice.

It tastes like spinach. With calaloo a lot of it is about enjoying the stalks. You keep hacking it frequently so you get these long tender stalks. So it’s a texture experience. It’s a flavour experience. There’s a very specific calaloo smell. Very subtly sulpherous.

Richard on Orach

Where the seeds came from                  

The green orach came from a seed company last year, and I saved them. So they’re from here.

How to grow

Orach will germinate slightly colder than calaloo so you might get away with sowing it in April. Somewhere between March and May really. You could bring it on in modules inside or put it straight in the ground. Doing it first of all inside means that you’ll protect it from the slugs and the snails until they get a bit bigger. And you can start it earlier because you’re moderating the temperature a little bit. Once you get it outside, you’re waiting for it to be about a foot tall. And then you snap the tops off to create a bush.

Tips and Challenges

I’m trying to breed them drought resistant so I don’t tend to water them too much, especially when they’re bigger. Just make sure they’re in a soil which is moisture-retentive, well mulched. So that they can survive off the rain water.

Recipe

Cook it like a salad or a spinach. Generally I’ll put it in a mixed salad with whatever leaves are around the garden. I’ll make a salad dressing with the 5 or so flavours: sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umami. So it will be an aioli and vinegar dressing, and it might have some chutney for a little bit of sweetness and sourness. And it might have a little bit of soy sauce for the umami. And then for the grease it might have a bit of peanut butter or pumpkin seed butter.

How to save seeds

They’re in little paper envelopes which I tend to leave them inside. But I just thresh them off the branches and pack them away for the next year in their little paper envelopes. So they’re a bit bulkier.