Fiann Ó Nualláin talks with the doyenne of organic gardening on her ground-breaking work’s re-issue.

I had known of Joy Larkcom from my earliest forays into gardening — a neighbour lent me one of her books when he’d seen me planting alpine strawberries as a teenager. 

I first met her in person at a GIY gathering in Waterford many years ago, it was just a brief introduction before we took or respective places on the different panel discussions and I didn’t full get the opportunity to thank her for her contribution to my gardening life.full get the opportunity to thank her for her contribution to my gardening life.

Writer Joy Larkcom and her husband Don Pollard, in their garden in West Cork. Pic: Denis Scannell
Writer Joy Larkcom and her husband Don Pollard, in their garden in West Cork. Pic: Denis Scannell

In truth that contribution was to every edible gardener’s life alive and digging since the 1980s — to the new crop of today. Most of what is commonplace in the veg patch today — from popular productive practices to the types of veg we grow — was built upon Joy’s own investigations and experiments.

For example the notion of intercropping – sowing a fast growing crop (salad leaves or spring onions), between the rows of slower growing crops (cabbage, kale, leeks, etc) was a method Joy advocated. 

The standard practice in Britain, Ireland and several regions of Europe was to grow in rows well-spaced and wait for maturity. With intercropping the fast crop would be harvested long before the slower one needed the room. 

This was revolutionary at the time – it not only meant a more productive garden (more crop diversity and more yield) but it made a more efficient gardener – less weeding, easier watering regimes etc.

The joy of salad — a classic book from Joy Larkcom revisited

Joy travelled the world looking for such ingenious techniques and also for new flavours that she could introduce to her garden and later to her gardening columns and writings. 

The first time I heard about the possibility of growing pak choi, tastoi and mizuna was from Joy’s writings. Joy was a frequent contributor to the Gardeners’ Chronicle and the RHS magazine and the author of many books on vegetable growing — including Just Vegetating, Grow Your Own Vegetables, Oriental Vegetables and The Organic Salad Garden. 

All not just expert, but enriched with a real gardeners understanding and love for the topics.

Frances Lincoln have just reissued The Salad Garden, first published in 1984 and instantly celebrated as a tour de force on the subject. I say reissued, but in fact, it is a fully revised and updated edition and a must for the shelf of any productive gardener or weekend allotmenteer. 

The greenhouse in the Garden of Joy Larkcom at Dunamore Farm house in West Cork. Picture: Des Barry
The greenhouse in the Garden of Joy Larkcom at Dunamore Farm house in West Cork. Picture: Des Barry

A lot has changed since the eighties and this updated edition considers urban gardening and a whole generation of gardeners with smaller spaces and fast passed lives, it emphasises easy to master techniques and a range of crop varieties best suited to patio containers, window boxes, and small raised beds – including, thanks to Joy’s eye, the newest and most flavoursome treats for the palate.

I caught up with Joy this week and I asked her first about her first memory of gardening.

“My first memory of gardening is my Dad coming home on leave during the war and digging up the field — we had to plant vegetables. My job was taking the wireworms to the hens! But in retrospect, I’m wondering whether that was a dodge to give him a few child-free moments.”

How did you start to write about gardening? “Writing about gardening started long after I had left Wye College with a BSc in Horticulture, travelled to Thailand and Canada working as a teacher and librarian, and then later going into industrial journalism in the UK.

Joy Larkcom and Mary O’Brien, Clonakilty at the launch of the Lettercollum Cookbook by Karen Austin at Scannells Bar, Clonakilty, Co Cork. Photo by: Domnick Walsh
Joy Larkcom and Mary O’Brien, Clonakilty at the launch of the Lettercollum Cookbook by Karen Austin at Scannells Bar, Clonakilty, Co Cork. Photo by: Domnick Walsh

“It was the combination of marriage, moving to the countryside and having our own place and a young family that started me writing a column on garden news.”

The world knows you as one of Britian’s leading gardeners but Cork and Ireland claim you too. How did you come to settle in Ireland? 

“My husband Don is American by birth and his father’s family were from Nenagh and emigrated to Canada during the famine. 

"Ever since we met we had holidays in Ireland, and even considered market gardening early in our marriage: all that seaweed going to waste on the west coast, and hardly a green vegetable (bar cabbage and kale) in any of the hotels or shops. 

"But life took a different course, and it wasn’t until our mid 60’s that we drew breath, investigated the possibility of retiring to Ireland, came first of all to have a look in West Cork….. and totally fell in love with the place and the people.

“We have been extraordinarily happy here. It even turns out that ancestors of mine were in Macroom (probably nasty Plantation people), and it looks as if one of my ancestors was very involved in the original Irish Ordnance Survey! All of which may or may not explain why we feel ‘right’ here.

"In the 30 years since the first ‘Salad Garden’ we have seen the rise, decline and resurgence of allotments and home veg patches, what do you think has contributed to the current health of growing your own?

The Garden of Joy Larkcom at Dunamore Farm house in West Cork. Picture by Des Barry
The Garden of Joy Larkcom at Dunamore Farm house in West Cork. Picture by Des Barry

“I suppose it is a range of factors - concern about pesticides in the food sold in shops probably being a driving factor with many young people. The need to counteract the pressures which stem from the pace of modern life probably is a key factor.

“And once you start to appreciate how good things taste fresh, there is no looking back. In Ireland the work of GIY has had a huge impact. 

"I do find locally that so many people – that there was a generation that were forced to garden by their parents and walked away from the need in the Celtic Tiger years, but some of them, and their offspring are now going back to their grannies and grandpas and get inspired to have a go themselves.”

I love that the new book is still pushing new ideas and taste boundaries, I am dying to try out some ‘February orchids’ – do you have a favourite new crop?

“On a favourite crop it is hard to say. It feels like picking out one of your children! But in the winter months I constantly return to the Asian greens with all their flavours and ease of cooking, and among under-rated vegetables, I list Texsel greens (so tasty, so good in early spring both indoors and out), and perhaps Sugar Loaf chicory, which is such a valuable autumn salad, or winter salad indoors in colder areas.

“There is nothing to match your own tomatoes (flavour is my sole criterion), mangetout peas, asparagus and sweet corn picked from the garden.”

Finally, if someone is just starting out to Giy what advice would you give them?

“I think start small is a key factor and of course, many people only have a small space to play with. Most vegetables need fertile ground and reasonable shelter, so concentrate your efforts on making a small patch fertile and sheltered ( if necessary), to start with.

“Make sure you grow what your family like to eat. Learn from gardening neighbours what does well where you are. Start with easy crops – early potatoes, perpetual spinach, broad beans are amongst the easiest.”


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