A passion for growing
By: Web Editor
Gerard Baker travels to Ireland to meet a highly modest gardener who through her inspired writing has encouraged so many of us to follow her passion for growing fruit and veg.
Joy Larkcom has a mean throwing arm. Looking around her beautiful Irish garden I caught her, poised to eject yet another snail high over the top of a three metre wide shelterbelt. Surrounded by fields where slugs and snails breed freely, only fierce Atlantic gales – which are frequent – give her more trouble.
This delightfully modest woman is undoubtedly one of the finest and most influential garden writers of the past 50 years and, lucky for us, has just published a collection of her favourite pieces in a memoir ‘Just Vegetating’.
The 300-page collection of essays and articles, including some unpublished gems, is drawn from a list of the best garden magazines, newspapers and journals from around the world, including this one.
Joy is as busy as ever, despite trying to retire, and the book documents her life and gardens including her retirement project, the creation of a new garden at Donaghmore Farm, located on the blustery and fertile south west coast of Ireland.
Perhaps I should stop myself for a moment, though, for reading through the book one cannot but help realise that this is a story of two lives – Larkcom and her husband and life partner of more than 40 years, Don Pollard. For, while Joy pursued a career of writing, travelling and growing, Don took a supporting role – raising the couple’s two children, being a partner in the garden work, and, oh yes, cooking all those vegetables extremely well indeed.
Joy trained in horticulture at Wye College, but was diverted into journalism for several years – writing for trade journals and a careers column for the Observer – a subject that was as far removed from horticultural training as could be imagined.
I don’t, personally, believe for one minute that someone with her vigour could ever just vegetate. Reading between the lines, she has always not only been a passionate gardener, but was also driven to communicate about it. Joy never seems to waste time, and indeed it was not long after meeting Don that the two were married and took on a small, fertile allotment.
From a gardening point of view, the couple never looked back. It was only a year or two before Joy and Don bought a small farm in Suffolk. Here, they began to raise a family, and to garden seriously, running a small market garden.
Soon after, with a wealth of material growing at her fingertips, Joy managed to persuade Garden News to run a regular column – this was 15 years after she graduated from Wye. She wrote, in these early days, about gardening ‘from a woman’s perspective’ (imagine that now?) while the children were still toddlers.
Significantly, Joy and Don then took a radical step – taking their family on the road on a grand year-long European gardening tour. She describes this as the most memorable year of their lives, reflecting that during the trip they rarely heard an English accent. What they did do, it seems to me above all, is to document centuries old traditions of growing, seed-saving and, most of all, living in harmony with the land across Europe. The family’s caravan took them into all the nooks and crannies of European vegetable and flower production, and the family was welcomed, I imagine, because of their enthusiasm and innocence.
The trip provided rich material for the emergent writer – and much of what we see in the mature voice clearly had its origin back then.
So much of what gardeners now take for granted – seed-saving schemes, intercropping, organic gardening, and many of our favourite vegetables – was championed by Joy Larkcom. Of course, readers to this magazine will no doubt know her work – The Organic Salad Garden and Grow Your Own Vegetables have become classics, just a small part of her exceptional legacy.
In between writing her books, Joy continued to write the sort of well-researched articles that our national newspapers no longer have room for, in an age of celebrity gardeners that are more likely to recommend horseradish for a window box than sensibly do the hard work that it actually requires to build a lifetime of knowledge. Not her – even now her garden glints with labels that document each plant’s life and purpose in her wider plan.
Always a pioneer, Larkcom was one of the first writers to bring oriental vegetables to the attention of her European readers. Following a passion to increase her own knowledge, Joy embarked on a solo trip to the Orient which culminated in another book – Oriental Vegetables – which was published just after I first met her in the late 1990s.
I had been on my own vegetable hunt up and down the west coast of the USA while working as a chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Here, markets brimmed with both European and oriental produce. The organic pioneer, and my boss at the time, chef Alice Waters, encouraged me to look up Joy when I returned home, commenting that ‘she is worth knowing – she knows about vegetables’.
I took a drive out to Suffolk, armed with lemon and cherry rock cakes – always a good ice breaker. Even on that windy, ice cold day, Joy had a polytunnel full of spring vegetables – despite the plastic being almost destroyed. Her verve and enthusiasm were instantly infectious – and, having grown up in a self-sufficient family, I could identify with what she was doing.
Years later, I visited Joy and Don when they had fulfilled a lifelong hope to move to Ireland.
The garden that the couple have created there is, they explain, their last – and yet it has such life and vigour, a culmination of two lifetimes spent growing and learning. The gently sloping site is subjected to fierce winds, but with careful research and vigorous hard work, shelter belts have been created and a fan-shaped garden of coloured beds interplanted with fruit. The effect is one of plenty and delight.
The site covers two acres and was built from a bare field with the help of many locals who are now friends. The aforementioned shelter belts were essential to prevent the wind (which once uprooted a ‘Romanesco’ broccoli and dumped it on the lawn) tearing through her proposed planting. A zigzag fence and over 70 trees and shrubs were put in place and now provide an ever-changing layer of interest around the potager, underplanted as they are with numerous, if short and stocky, bulbs.
Taking inspiration from a Danish herb garden she remembered visiting years earlier, Joy decided to build a fan-shaped potager, with lines of fruit in between large coloured borders.
An alleyway of apples, trained as single and double cordons, arches and espaliers forms the backbone of the fan while lines of currants and other soft fruits radiate on either side.
The garden has an air of confidence about it – the plants in it work and are right for the site. Joy has, in a lifetime of gardening, amassed huge knowledge of her subject, knowledge which was gained from practical experience. As well as growing a huge range of plants in her own gardens, Joy was always keen to visit seed company trials in order to see for herself what was just around the corner, being a regular visitor to the grounds at Tozers in Surrey where new salad leaves and orientals always caught her eye, especially the cut and come again leaves which she is so keen on.
Of course, everyone is into growing and cooking now – she notes a sort of one-upmanship in growers who dare to be different. She was probably one of those in her time, but now reflects sagely on the way things come around again and again, noting that John Evelyn mentions those radishes that were good for pod production in his Acetaria of 1699…
Now preoccupied with how to adapt her garden to make it easier, Joy has begun to reflect not only on gardening, but on the wider environment, which can seem to present problems that can seem utterly overwhelming.
From her emerald corner, begun when she was in her late sixties, she is happy that gardening is a politics free zone. “I think that the sense of wonder increases,” she says. “I recently had a disease where, for a while, I might have lost my sight. I looked at plants as I have never before. The intensity of colours, the patterns, the amazing changes from day to day. It’s mind-blowing, as youngsters say.”
Joy says, with a glint in her eye, that Don dreads hearing her say “I’ve had an idea” – even in retirement she brims with them. A new garden alongside their house affords them the luxury of not bending – high raised beds with seats and arched over with fruit and scrambling squash. The large garden allows Joy and Don to eat well and enjoy the product of much hard work – for which we should all thank them.
• Read the full article in Kitchen Garden magazine, October 2012!
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