Joy brings happiness: How Joy Larkcom got us growing previously unheard-of vegetables


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The Independent Online

Mizuna, mibuna, Chinese chives and pak choi would still be strangers on British allotments, were it not for Joy Larkcom. A few seeds were available, thanks to Chiltern Seeds' catalogue, but the problem was the lack of any detailed guidance on how best to grow them. That gap was stupendously filled by Larkcom's Oriental Vegetables, first published in 1991.

She tells the story of that book's wobbly birth in her most recent, Just Vegetating (Frances Lincoln £18.99), a kind of autobiography that, with a light, self-deprecating commentary, stitches together some of the pieces she's written over the past 40 years. All generations like to think they are pioneers. But Larkcom really was. She was the first person to write about frilly 'Lolla Rossa' lettuces, about rocket, purslane, chervil and coriander.

She initiated the use of long narrow beds for the cultivation of vegetables (not 'raised' beds – she saw, being intensely practical, that on her dry Norfolk ground these would drain too quickly). She introduced the concept of broadcasting seed, rather than sowing it, parade-ground fashion in straight, parallel rows. And, most importantly, she was the first person to write about cut-and-come-again crops of salad leaves. She wasn't claiming these as her own ideas. She was reporting what she had seen on an extraordinary year-long pilgrimage through Europe, in search of vegetable growers and their crops which she embarked on in the mid-Seventies, with her American husband Don and theirf two children. She had the good fortune to be travelling at a time when traditional methods of sowing and growing had not yet been squashed by EC regulations. When she saw that particular techniques used by Italian, Portuguese or Hungarian gardeners produced better results than traditional British methods, she said so. She also collected seed of European varieties of vegetables to send back to the gene bank at Wellesbourne Vegetable Research Station.

First-hand experience has always been the foundation of her books on vegetables, and curiosity (combined with phenomenal energy) the catalyst that pushes her on. Experiments, not all of them successful, jostled each other in the productive smallholding in Norfolk that she ran with Don. An old Nissen hut was converted into a polytunnel, and there you'd find perhaps 19 different kinds of tomato, which Joy was growing to compare flavour.

You'd see (in my case for the first time) crops such as climbing red-stemmed spinach and yard-long beans hauling their way up strings tied to the tunnel's central strut. Underneath would be extraordinary novelties like fuzzy gourds and soya beans. Everything was enveloped in a thick mulch. Straw was always a Larkcom favourite, but she used hay, cocoa husks, wilted comfrey leaves, anything that would help to conserve moisture in the soil underneath.

By the time we first met, Larkcom was gardening organically. It was one of the big changes she made when the family returned from their European travels. The other thing she did was to lay out the garden in the long, narrow beds she wrote about so persuasively in the RHS magazine The Garden in 1979.

She always meant to write a book about the Grand Vegetable Tour in Europe and never did, but she funded the year by writing articles for various British magazines and these pieces, included in Just Vegetating, remind us how much we did not take for granted then. I first started to grow fruit and vegetables on a serious scale in 1970 and there were very few books on the subject that you could turn to, apart from the RHS bible The Vegetable Garden Displayed. I had my parents' postwar edition, sternly practical.

So people like me fell upon Larkcom's first books – Salads the Year Round (1980), The Salad Garden (1984) because it was obvious she had been so thoroughly through any subject she wrote about. You could trust her. And she wrote wonderfully well, with vivid descriptions of what she'd seen during her travels, what she was observing on her own home patch, and what the rest of us might learn from those observations. She was the one who, in the Eighties, went to the Carrot Conference, to the Worm Conference, to the Organic Growers Conference, to the Kelsae Onion Festival (alas – now gone). The rest of us waited for her to digest and distill what we needed to know. Fortunately, her curiosity was indefatigable. She had a rare kind of modesty, was very rarely paid what she was worth, but treated all those professional hurts and irritations with the lightness of touch that was another of her trademarks.

A book (Oriental Vegetables) did come out of a trip to China, but very nearly didn't. First there was the difficulty of getting into the country. "It is not convenient to go to China as an ordinary tourist and visit institutions," said a stern official at the Chinese Embassy. I love that word "convenient". But she got there in the end, of course, and visited communes round Beijing in the north, Nanjing, Shanghai, Chengdu and finally Guangzhou in the south. Her most important asset on the trip, she says, was the list of common Chinese vegetables written out for her in Mandarin and Cantonese by a Cambridge don.

Armed with this and surrounded by a ring of interpreters, she questioned the professors of Chinese research establishments, field workers, street sellers and cooks on ways of raising and eating different mustards, cabbages, gourds, cucumbers, radishes and beans, most of which had never found their way over to this country.

She was particularly intrigued by the way Chinese vegetable growers coped with pests and by long-established methods of what's now called "biological control". She explained how a particular kind of ant was used by growers to control pests in citrus orchards. These ants usually made their nests in Chinese olive trees. The nests were collected by farmers in rush bags and sold – expensively – to the citrus growers. They fixed them in some of their trees and made little bamboo bridges stretching from one tree to the next, so the ants could spread through the orchards. On the ground, circular troughs were built round the trunks and filled with water, to dissuade the creatures from leaving the canopy. Who else would have told you all this, but Joy Larkcom, Queen of Vegetables?