Telegraph.co.uk: Joy Larkcom
March 24, 2011 § 1 Comment
By Francine Raymond
Without a shadow of doubt, Joy Larkcom has had more effect on the way we grow and eat salads and vegetables than all the celebrity chefs put together.
Often described as the original hunter gatherer, Joy studied horticulture at Wye, and her academic background encouraged her to dig deep — everything she writes has been researched in depth. She writes about what she knows and what she has grown.
As we spoke recently, Joy, 75, was just back from a visit to Australia. She has lost none of her wanderlust, and described how she and her young family set off in a caravan for a year’s Grand Vegetable Tour in 1976, travelling from Holland to Hungary, studying vegetable culture and bringing back seeds of old varieties which were sent to the Vegetable Gene Bank, in Wellesbourne.
There she discovered purslanes, endives and a huge range of chicories, and can be held responsible for the proliferation of salad rocket on every dish in every restaurant. Joy also promoted the intensive method of salad cultivation known as cut-and-come-again, something market gardeners and anyone with a tiny garden will thank her for.
Since then she has travelled the world, lured by tempting names of unknown plants, especially oriental vegetables — pak choi, mustard leaves, Chinese cabbage, mibuna and mizuna, which can now be spotted on supermarket shelves and grown from seed late in the season.
Joy tried to get seed companies interested in importing foreign varieties and offering organic versions available to us all, but it was Suffolk Herbs which took on the mantle initially. Within 10 years we could all grow and buy saladini crops, just snipping off what we needed. The British salad at last regenerated from the soggy tomato with limp lettuce bathed in a pink vinegary beetroot jus, to a palette of flavours, textures and colours – from fernlike dill to crisp pak choi to lemony buckler-leaved sorrel and bitter chicory. We can now augment our salads with handfuls of rocket, basil and garlic chives, young chard leaves, asparagus tips and blanched runner beans, decorated with nasturtium and borage flowers.
Joy’s Grow Your Own Vegetables is probably the most well-thumbed reference book I possess, her Organic Salad Garden is one of the most useful and Creative Vegetable Gardening is the most inspirational. She numbers Monty Don, Alice Waters, Graham Rice and Alys Fowler among her fans, and has won many awards, holding the Veitch Memorial Medal from the RHS. She has tirelessly championed organic cultivation and promoted veg growing throughout the industry – often the only woman at carrot conferences on the Fens.
Like me, Joy left Suffolk to downsize to the sea — me to coastal Kent and Joy to southern Ireland. Any regrets? Absolutely not.
Although her new garden is just half an acre, she says the older she gets, the bigger it seems. She had planned it to be low maintenance, but has totally failed. The mild climate means things grow too fast — you can almost hear the grass growing, and the salty winds can blacken the plants at a blast. Like me, Joy has planted a lot of fruit including an apple allée.
Joy and her husband, Don Pollard, who she says “enables me to carry on and only occasionally asks if I ever intend to stop” are happy with their life, but like us all, wish they had more time and energy.
She is completing what she threatens will be her final book. Called Just Vegetating, it is a compilation of articles, filled with personal reminisces, due out next spring. I can’t wait.
Joy Larkcom’s top six vegetable tips
1) Vegetable beds can be any shape or size – it’s rather fun if they are unusual shapes. Just make sure you can easily reach the centre from the paths at the sides. That way you need never tread on the soil, so building up the precious soil structure is the key to fertility.
2) Sounds obvious, but only grow what the family will eat. It is amazing how many home-grown vegetables are never harvested, or end in the compost heap, because the family doesn’t appreciate what the “head gardener” grows.
3) Curb your impatience if spring is cold. If the soil feels cold to your touch, delay sowing or planting until it has warmed up. Use cloches or clear plastic to cover the soil and warm it up if necessary.
4) Sow little and often to avoid gaps and gluts, especially with fast-growing crops like lettuce, radishes, peas, pak choi, rocket and spinach. As soon as one sowing has germinated through the soil, sow the next lot.
5) Keep good records of everything you do: sowing, planting and harvesting times, varieties, results. Every garden is unique, and your own record is a far better guide to what suits your conditions than any advice from experts.
6) Investing in a polytunnel is the most cost-effective way of extending your growing season. It enables you to grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, aubergines and other warmth lovers in summer, and fresh greens in winter and early spring.