Sarah Langton-Lockton meets Joy Larkcom, the woman who got Britain eating shoots and leaves
It was Joy Larkcom, in the 1970s when our food was still compromised by two world wars, who got us eating the cutand- come-again and baby leaf salads we now grow in our gardens and window boxes or pick up routinely at the supermarket. An international expert on vegetable growing, she was at the Garden Museum for the launch of her captivating memoir, Just Vegetating, described by Joy as a hybrid – her life story told through articles published in the gardening press over the course of 40 years.
The occasion resembled a gathering for This Is Your Life, as much as a conventional book launch, with three generations of her family present and fellow gardeners, writers and photographers from all over the world. We were there to applaud Joy’s achievements as a plant hunter and a seeker after knowledge, with a compulsion ‘to write, to tell, to teach, to entertain’.
Joy and I met again the following morning to explore in greater tranquillity her remarkable life. The transforming event for her, ‘the most memorable year of our lives’, was the Grand Vegetable Tour. This involved Joy, her husband Don and two children, aged five and seven, touring Europe for a year in a van and caravan. Don did the driving, looked after everybody and taught the children, while Joy bicycled off to find out how people were growing vegetables and to collect seeds of old vegetable varieties.
The Grand Vegetable Tour was a triumph. They sent back nearly 150 samples of local varieties of seed and in every country found something of interest. In Holland it was the work of plant breeders. In Belgium, Joy came across new vegetables such as iceplant, winter purslane, and first encountered the cut-and-come-again techniques that, she says, ‘were to dominate our salad growing and my books to this day’. (Cut-and-come-again simply means cutting leaves rather than uprooting a plant, letting it re-sprout.) In Portugal they discovered market gardens excavated in sand dunes, and in Italy, foraging of wild plants and the salad mixes we now grow, known as misticanza (or mesclun in France).
‘Our nomadic year,’ wrote Joy, ‘moulded our gardening in the next three decades.’ This involved growing organically in narrow raised beds, 4ft to 5ft wide and broadcasting seed or growing in blocks rather than rows, mulching heavily and growing Italy’s wonderful winter chicories. Joy and Don started their own small-scale market garden, supplying bags of mixed salad leaves to wholefood outlets in London. The books and articles flowed and Joy contributed to a garden exhibition at the V&A. She travelled to Japan and China, where she had briefly lived as a child, and more books and articles introduced us to oriental salads – mizuna, mibuna and pak choi. In America, she admired the community movement and marvelled at the productivity of tiny plots, often barely 10ft x 10ft, crammed into vacant building lots.
Ten years ago, Joy and Don left the farm in Suffolk where they had gardened for over 30 years, and moved to a farmhouse on the windswept coast in West Cork. Here, they have created a fan-shaped potager of fruit, flowers and perennial vegetables. Joy’s favourite plant, the fragrant and beautifully coloured sweet pea ‘Cupani’ entwines its way up an apple arch. Raised beds were made from recycled plastic linked with simple arches covered with chicken wire. Over these frames clamber grey-stemmed raspberries, climbing beans, pumpkins – and masses and masses of sweet peas.
Joy, of course, has not retired. Her cover has been blown, she says, and she has been swept into the renewed Irish enthusiasm for gardening and all aspects of ‘the good life’. And, of course, she’s still writing. ‘Can I never just be a gardener, in a garden, gardening?’ is the last sentence in her memoir. We hope not.
Just Vegetating: A Memoir by Joy Larkcom (Frances Lincoln, £18.99).
Banish slugs and snails
As a result of the rain, slugs and snails have slithered to the top of the RHS list of worst pests. Here’s a round-up of methods for despatching them…
Joy Larkcom swears by a night-time raid by torchlight. She pops slugs into the top of beer cans (she doesn’t say what she does next…).
Biological controls are expensive, but effective. Nemaslug Slug Killer is safe for children, pets and wildlife and comes in single or multiple doses, from £9.95 for a One Treatment Small Pack, which treats up to 40m2 (50sq yds) and lasts for six weeks: www. harrodhorticultural.com
Growing Success Advanced Slug Killer contains ferric phosphate, approved for use by organic gardeners. Wildlife friendly: it kills only slugs and snails. If you have the space, keep some hens; they love snails and the shells are a good source of calcium.
Plant of the week
Digitalis ‘Illumination Pink’ is a spectacular new hybrid foxglove, Plant Of The Year 2012 at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show. A hardy, semievergreen perennial, happy in sun or shade, it flowers nonstop from June to November. Order now for October delivery – £15.99 for three jumbo plugs; £18.99 for six: www.thompson-morgan.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
“THERE is great satisfaction to be had in properly ironed garments that look as if they have just come out of the shop window.”The Lady. You Can’t Iron? 19th February, 1953
Attractive salary and benefits.
Furnished accommodation provided.
Must have excellent references.
Single or couple with partner who could assist with household and garden work.
Drivers licence required.
Must be good with pets.
Contact: Apply Box 15573