KEYS to a happy marriage? Select marital deafness (as in, knowing when to turn a blind ear), and a big sack of pig manure might figure in gardener Joy Larkcom’s (“the queen of vegetable growing”) hints to newlyweds.
Well, they’ve worked for acclaimed writer and evangelical, pioneering grower of fine foodstuffs, Joy Larkcom, 45 years down the line, and they’ve facilitated and fuelled a partnership spent travelling, uprooting, planting, typing, and harvesting.
There’s a line in a song “You don’t bring me flowers anymore:” Joy’s husband Don Pollard, went back one further than bringing flowers when wooing her back in the 1960s: he presented her with a bag of pig manure, all the better to grow her precious vegetables and sweet-peas with, and everything has blossomed quite nicely, and repeatedly, ever since, thank you.
Having travelled the world in the culinary lean ’70s and ’80s, Larkcom brought back then-unknown and exotic delights for the veg patch, plate and palate, and even though she’s not a household name here, her influences have seeped into almost all of our homes.
Take a simple supermarket bag or bowl of mixed salad or lettuce leaves — well, she started that trend back in the 1980s, supplying colourful mixed leaves and petals to London Baker Street’s Wholefood restaurant, and modestly claims the use of the word ‘saladini’ came into use in English from her and Don’s efforts.
Resident in Ireland since 2004, Larkcom has been one of England’s top gardening and food writers over many decades. What Myrtle Allen has done here for Irish food, or what Elizabeth David or Delia Smith has done over the water for cuisine, Larkcom has done for gardening, vegetable growing, and general appetite whetting: she’s in among the British Queens, and won a Lifetime Achievement Award in ’03 from the Garden Writers’ Guild.
Her previous titles (most have been reissued in recent years) include Creative Vegetable Gardening, the Organic Salad Garden, , and Oriental Vegetables, the latter after extensive trips to China, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan. She knows her onions, and her pak chois.
You don’t have to be an obsessive foodie, or organic, or even green, to want to rush out to buy her new book, a memoir, Just Vegetating, the name of which came from a long-running magazine column.
It’s a great read in any case, easy to dip into and out of, informative, wry, and a family biography along the long way, almost by default.
She says it’s her last book — but there’s surely stories about her move to Ireland being laid down for later harvest? — and sort of at its centre is the Grand Vegetable Tour, in which she, amenable Don and children Kirsten, five, and Brendan, seven, travelled Europe in 1976 and ’77 in a Mercedes van and caravan, studying different ways of growing vegetables, finding rare ones, and saving seeds to send back to experiment with, once back home again.
About 150 varieties made their way to Britain as a result of the year-long odyssey, as well as laying down a life-long love of research, seed saving, and befriending.
In the cyclical nature of all things, and ironically enough, she recalls the year of the Grand Tour as a time of general economic hardship, and talks of the fears they had of the Sterling cash they’d saved ending up useless if the currency collapsed, so they took as much stuff as they could with them in the van and caravan, like snails on a route march.
Larkcom’s writings on snails and slugs (about 18 indexed entries in Just Vegetating) hit the funny bone, and she admits to huge trials with the slippery ones in Ireland, especially given her West Cork half-acre’s predilection for drystone walls, sanctuaries for slitherers.
There’s enormous knowledge harvested here in the book’s digestible 336 leaves, easily presented and designed to be dipped into, and out of, like a cut-and-come salad.
That simple way of harvesting salads, by the way, as well as now-common growing methods like intercropping, close or block-planting and laying out eye-catching potager beds instead of dreary drills and lines of beds, own much to her professional and popular writing.
Her own life story slowly emerges through these gathered writings, reminiscences, updates and themed sections; she had her first gardening experience when her father had her gather up wireworms to feed to the hens, and she goes on to advise on ways to interest young children in growing things, and how to keep them out of trouble. She’s been known to suggest dressing them in bright clothes, to keep track of them when they wander off, and suggests tying a bell to young ankles to warn of their return and impending threats to just-sown seed beds, and points out the sheer entertainment value of an earthworm to a young child. And, yes, does quite cheerily admit to being a bit of an obsessive.
She spent her own formative childhood years (11 to 13) in China, just after World War 11, and that stood to her when she concentrated her mind on oriental vegetables, many now at home on European plates — nice wok if you can get it.
Some of Larkcom’s earlier writings in Just Vegetating predate her conversion to organic principles (she also foreswore the use of peat) and she tells of a sort to conversion moment as when she looked around to find, as she sprayed some crop, that she’d also sprayed brown muck over her infant son Brendan in his pram. He recovered, by the way, and is now living and Sydney, and sends back the odd tomato seeds for his mother to experiment with. The fruit, even if it is Down Under, didn’t fall far from the tree?
For Irish readers, Just Vegetating’s last chapter New Century, New Garden has a local flavour that beguiles. It dips into Joy’s move from a perfected two acres in dry East Anglia to a raw, horse-grazed half-acre of rich soil in the damp south west of Ireland, at Donaghmore near Clonakilty and Bandon.
Don (husband, cook, driver, mechanic, builder, digger, gardener) is there in the background, and sometimes in the foreground, as the couple fashion a whole new garden in a milder climate, afflicted by slugs (15,000 ‘harvested’ over five finger-picking months, but inroads are being made on future slug generations Joy says optimistically) and by wind and salt from the sea, just 700 metres away.
Upside is the beach at Ballinglanna, though, a bountiful source of seaweeds for organic mulch and fertiliser, reprising the tasks they’d seen on Portuguese beaches in the 1977s Grand Tour.
The sporadically nomadic couple had honeymooned in Ireland, and often talked about uprooting, but were in the mid-60s before they did it, and now in their 70s things like “silly knees” creep into the practicalities of how they garden, yet seem to be kept young by things like good neighbours, and feeding into the energy of the Irish Grow It Yourself movement.
So, while there’s a mini-treatise on ageing towards its end, Just Vegetating is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a love story.
Charlie Wilkins Property, 20