Queen of the Road — and Vegetables too
July 9, 2012 § 7 Comments
It is August 1976, and an old Mercedes van with a small caravan in tow sets off from a farm in Suffolk. Its passengers are a couple and their two children. The cargo spread among the two vehicles includes all the usual camping paraphernalia as well as bicycles, a table, chairs, a telescope, school books, and a small kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, spices and other staples. A gang of teddies, dolls, knitted animals and sundry other gregarious characters crowd the windows, catching a last glance at the East Anglia landscape. Behind them, lumpy black plastic sacks of clothing are piled high. Shelves of reference books, empty biscuit tins and a typewriter complete the inventory. Out on the road, the caravan’s momentum gradually swings open the unsecured doors of the cupboards, dumping their contents onto the jumble of possessions.
Thus started a year-long road trip that garden writer Joy Larkcom and her family made around Europe collecting old and interesting seed varieties (hence the biscuit tins), and gathering intelligence both on traditional cultivation methods and commercial growing practices. The “Grand Vegetable Tour”, as they called it, took place at a time before technology made travelling the constantly-connected and cushy business that it is today.
Communications, accessing money and finding running water were major ordeals. Despite this, Joy — sometimes in shorts and T-shirt, sometimes in scarf and mittens — would set up her typewriter and little table next to the van almost daily, and tap out hard-won notes and articles. Husband Don Pollard, meanwhile, was kept busy fixing the vehicles, schooling the children and coaxing meals (including birthday cakes) out of the caravan’s cooker.
It is thanks to the efforts of this raggle-taggle troupe, staying at camp sites and in farmers’ fields, that British seed companies began to offer vegetable varieties and mixed-leaf salads similar to those found on the continent, and that gardeners became familiar with European methods such as “cut-and-come-again” harvesting and polytunnel growing. In short, Joy’s research and seed collections acted as a catalyst for change in vegetable gardens throughout Britain and Ireland.
In the 1980s, while researching oriental vegetables, she went (sans famille) to China, Japan and Taiwan, and to Asian communities in the United States and Canada. Later excursions took her to vegetable patches, seed companies, markets and trial grounds in many countries. For four decades, she has been a one-woman research institute, collecting seed, making notes and taking pictures wherever she goes, whether it is a Cuban agriponico or a Dublin garden.
Her articles, published in trade periodicals and in magazines for home gardeners, are meticulous, rich in detail and beautifully written. They take a single subject and examine it from every angle. They are virtuoso performances on artichokes, on peas, on pumpkins, on mulching, on the correct spacing of vegetables for greatest productivity, on how to grow mammoth onions, and even on how to achieve champion giant gooseberries. They cover everything to do with the edible garden, and often introduce new ideas and crop varieties.
Joy, now 76, has won many prestigious awards (including the Royal Horticultural Society’s Veitch Memorial Medal) and has published many books. Ten years ago, at a time in their lives when most people are winding down, she and Don moved to a farmhouse near Clonakilty, in west Cork, and started a new garden from scratch. “It was just brilliant almost from the start,”, she tells me, “the sheer beauty of this place — and to hear the sea!”
The couple approached the plot, on a fiercely windswept slope, with the same dauntless enthusiasm that fuelled their year on the road in Europe. “The challenges of starting to garden here were so absorbing. It was a blank sheet, and it was just a lovely experience altogether.” The garden, an intensive patch filled with fruit, vegetables and ornamentals, is entirely organic. Joy, who was never keen on using chemicals, ceased abruptly over forty years ago. While spraying her apples with a particularly nasty tar oil wash, she discovered baby Brendan, caught in the crossfire, covered in great globs of tar.
Although the move to Ireland was supposed to mark the start of her retirement, the woman who is widely known as the Vegetable Queen is still working as hard as ever. She has just published a book, Just Vegetating (Frances Lincoln, £18.99), based on a collection of around a hundred articles written over four decades. Interspersed with photographs, diary pages and other intriguing snippets, they are linked together with a charming and extensive commentary. The book is so warm and appealing that it gives you the feeling of spending an evening with a wise and good friend, with a box of old photos, clippings and other memorabilia.
Although it is still early in the season, I’m pretty sure that this is my book of the year.
An edited version of this article appeared in my weekly column in the Sunday Times