December 9, 2013 § 4 Comments
I’ve been up to my oxters in garden-related books for the past couple of weeks in order to bring you my pick of the crop for 2013. First though, I have a plea. I have noticed that an increasing number of books now contain no index. Negotiating a book without an index is like navigating without a compass, GPS or other aid. It takes away the fun and adds a heap of frustration. My plea to publishers is this: don’t lose the index for the sake of a few quid. If non-fiction books are to compete with the internet, they must hold on tight to their indexes.
One book that I can’t put down is Seeing Flowers, with photography by Robert Llewellyn and text by Teri Dunn Chace (Timber Press, £20). Its 175 exquisite macro photographs of flowers are completely addictive. I keep returning again and again to sneak another look, and to read Chace’s informative text. Llewellyn uses “focus stacking”, where multiple shots of a subject are taken at varying focus points and then melded together in a computer application. The results are luminous, delicate portraits with every last hair and pollen grain in focus.
There is more excellent photography, of the luscious kind, by Andrew Lawson, Jane Sebire and Rachel Warne in The New English Garden, by Tim Richardson (Frances Lincoln, £40). It features 25 gardens that have been created or re-created during this century. Among their makers are some of today’s most important designers, including Tom Stuart-Smith, Piet Oudolf, Christopher Bradley-Hole and Arabella Lennox-Boyd (who has recently redesigned the landscape at Airfield in Dundrum, Dublin). The book is an important record of a new golden age in British garden design. Among the well-known horticultural hot spots in its pages are Christopher Lloyd’s Great Dixter, James Hitchmough’s and Nigel Dunnett’s Olympic Park, and the over-egged pudding that is the Prince of Wales’s Highgrove.
Tim Richardson has also edited Of Rhubarb and Roses: The Telegraph Book of the Garden (Aurum, £25). This is a compendium of articles from the newspaper for the pin-striped elite, which has always had excellent horticultural coverage. The book’s contributions range from 1935 to the present day and come from Vita Sackville-West, Constance Spry, Mary Keen, Fred Whitsey, Beth Chatto, Dan Pearson, and many others. Also included are garden-related letters to the editor and news items. Not included is an index, but the publisher has left 20 blank pages at the end, so you could write your own, I suppose.
Planting: A New Perspective, by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury (Timber Press, £30) is an essential guide for those interested in the new perennial planting style. The naturalistic look may seem effortless, but it is not easy to pull off successfully. So often, one year’s harmonious scheme becomes next year’s brawl, as tough plants take over, delicate ones die out, and weeds creep in when no-one is looking. This book equips the reader with the information needed for crowd control in perennial plantings, explaining the ecology, behaviour and mechanics of the most suitable varieties. There are extracts from some of Oudolf’s plans, including snippets from his famous New York High Line planting scheme.
For serious planting designers and students, a useful companion volume to the above is Piet Oudolf’s and Henk Gerritsen’s Dream Plants for the Natural Garden (Frances Lincoln, £20). First published in 1999 and reissued in paperback this year, it is a directory of 1,200 plants suitable for naturalistic gardens.
Of course, not everyone wants the space outside their door crammed with uninhibited perennials. It is a style that does not fit all gardens. For those searching for the right mood and structure for their patch, I can recommend The Royal Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Garden Design (Dorling Kindersley, £25), edited by Chris Young. It is a complete guide to creating a garden, from conceiving and drawing a layout to laying paths, opening vistas and using plants for various effects.
I’ve also been enjoying Aubrey Fennell’s Heritage Trees of Ireland (The Collins Press, Eur 29.99), which pays homage to over a hundred of this island’s tallest, fattest, oldest, holiest, boldest and otherwise remarkable trees. Our moist and mild climate allows us to grow a greater diversity of trees than most places in the world. The pages of this book demonstrate it, depicting eucalyptus from Australia, redwoods from California, monkey puzzles from Chile, date palms from the Canaries, and a virtual woodland of other species.
Our Once and Future Planet, by Paddy Woodworth (University of Chicago Press, book: $35, e-book: $21; kennys.ie: €23.32) deals with restoration ecology, a subject that savvy gardeners should be aware of. Irish-harvested peat-based compost, for example, has helped turn our bogs to sterile tracts. Imagine if they were restored? Woodworth tackles this subject in one of his chapters, while Irish woodlands are the subject of another.
Other books that I have enjoyed this year, and have already written about, include Kate Bradbury’s The Wildlife Gardener: Creating a Haven for Birds, Bees and Butterflies (Kyle Books, £14.99), which Alan Titchmarsh rightly calls a “joyous book”, and Alex Mitchell’s The Rurbanite: Living in the Country without Leaving the City (Kyle Books, £16.99), a handbook for townies who yearn for the rural life while still holding onto their urban benefits.
An edited version of the above appeared in my weekly column in The Sunday Times on December 1st 2013
September 30, 2013 § 10 Comments
A dark day in the sun
The heron ate my frogs.
Not “a heron”, but “the heron”. In Ireland, serious threats are accorded the definite article: the fox, the blight, the whooping cough, and — on that fine day last spring — the heron.
Or rather, it was a fine day for the heron, but not so for the frogs. They had already had a stressful year. Spring had come early, and gone away again. January was so mild that the frogs had spawned on the 7th (the earliest date yet in my twenty-one-year stint in this garden). They spawned again at the end of the month, and then, spring retreated and winter blew back in with flurries of sleet and snow.
When spring finally reappeared in March, they were in the pond again — glorious, tumbling bundles of fornicating frogs. I left them to their work, undisturbed by my camera. After the difficult start to the year, they deserved some privacy and peace.
The heron thought otherwise.
My phone rang. It was a neighbour: “Are you looking out the window?”
No, I wasn’t (for once).
“There is a huge bird eating the frogs — like a crane or something. It’s amazing!”
I was torn: should I reach for my camera, or should I shout at the dogs to scare off the intruder? A quick look out the window revealed that it wasn’t a crane (a very rare visitor to Ireland), but — as I suspected — a grey heron (Ardea cinerea), the largest heron in Europe, which is native to Ireland, Britain and much of Europe and to parts of Asia and Africa. My glance revealed also that it was too late for the frog, dangling darkly from the bird’s brutal bill, so I grabbed the camera.
I felt like a traitor towards the amphibians with whom I had shared many summer afternoons by the tiny pond, but I wanted the picture. I am, after all, keen on wildlife, and here was wildlife — and wild death — happening right in front of my lens. Still, I felt affronted and angry. I had nurtured the frogs, thinking of them as “my” frogs, although they were nobody’s frogs but their own. But now, it was apparent, they were the heron’s.
The frog that was in the heron’s bill, and that would soon be in its stomach, was old enough to breed, so it was three or four years old. What a way to go. One minute in the throes of reproduction, and the next in the jaws of death.
I moved closer and closer to the heron. Was there a touch of annoyance in its golden, predator’s eye? Eventually, it unfolded its massive wings and flapped off to perch on a tree in a neighbouring garden, the frog still hanging from its bill.
It swallowed it whole (and still alive?), and moved to the top of a swing set, perhaps contemplating its next move. Would it be able to cram in another frog? It was the heron’s own breeding season, so perhaps it was stocking up on food to regurgitate later for its chicks. A magpie arrived, sat next to it on the wooden bar, and then dive-bombed it several times. Maybe the magpie, a ruthless predator itself, was worried what might happen to its future offspring if the heron got too comfortable in this place.
The big bird came back to rest on the wall of my garden, but I saw it off too. I felt mean scaring it away, but it had already helped itself to several frogs. I thought it would probably be back before I managed to get some netting for the pond.
And indeed it was: a while later it was swishing its yellow bill around in the weedy water, as if stirring a pot of porridge. After I had rigged up an unlovely wire grid over the pond — with room for songbirds and frogs to scoot under — the heron returned several times, puzzled at this barrier to its food source. It sat on the greenhouse roof (where it made a striking finial ornament), waiting to see if the wire mesh might somehow disappear. It didn’t. In making the pond inviting for the frogs, I felt I had a duty of care for them. The heron, I decided, could go somewhere else.
August 27, 2013 § 2 Comments
We’re looking at a very strange tomato. Reassuringly, it is red, but after that it departs from the modern standards of tomatokind. It is rumpled and bloated, erupting disconcertingly into small, globular lobes. It reminds me of a virus enlarged under an electron microscope. Organic gardener, Nicky Kyle, says “It’s the most difficult tomato you could ever grow: it splits as soon as you look at it, it only produces one flush of fruit, and the plant looks as if it’s been sprayed with weedkiller, because it’s all twigs and no leaves!”
So why on earth is she growing it, and why am I carefully saving the seed from the unlovely individuals she gave me to bring home? Because, as she points out, when you taste it, “you forgive it everything”. It is sweet, full and ketchuppy — and early too. Those nearly leafless stems allow the sun to ripen the fruit much faster than other tomato varieties.
The tomato in question, ‘Latah’, is just one of over 100 cultivars that will be on show at the 2nd annual Totally Terrific Tomato Festival next Sunday at Rolestown Garden Centre, outside Swords. Nicky Kyle, an avid tomato grower for the last three-and-a-half decades, conceived the idea of the event, while Michael Connolly and his son, John, supply the venue. The festival, which attracted hundreds of visitors last year, is a celebration of all things tomato. There will be competitions for best quality, heaviest and ugliest tomatoes, best tomato-based recipe, best tomato grown by an under-12, and best vegetable basket. There will also be tomato-based foods, a farmers’ market, and other wholesome delights. Matthew Jebb, director of the National Botanic Gardens, will be talking tomatoes, as will Tanguy de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow, Co Laois.
Home-grown tomatoes, as well as being good to eat and not too difficult to grow, give an almost cartoon-like demonstration of genetic diversity. There are hundreds of varieties available to the home gardener, from the little red ‘Gardener’s Delight’ and orange ‘Sungold’ to the great beefy beefsteaks ‘Black from Tula’ and ‘White Queen’. There are tomatoes that look like other fruits: ‘Orange Banana’, ‘Yellow Pear’, ‘Persimmon’, ‘Orange Strawberry’, and ‘Yellow Currant’ and tomatoes that appear to be made of glossy mahogany (‘Cherokee Chocolate’) and polished, black ebony (‘Indigo Rose’). Tomatoes, in short, are some of the most intriguing and appealing fruits known to man. The fact, that they are fruits, but are often thought of as vegetables only adds to their fascination.
The most immediate reason to grow them, though, is flavour. Supermarket tomatoes are getting better all the time, but they still cannot compete with the sun-warmed explosion of squelchy deliciousness that is the just-picked tomato.
When I visit Rolestown Garden Centre to look at Michael’s twenty varieties of tom, coming along nicely in their pots, Nicky Kyle has brought a huge basket of her own, grown in her north county Dublin polytunnels, for us to try. We work our way through about a dozen kinds, but the more subtly-flavoured varieties are drowned out by the big guns such as ‘Black Sea Man’ — which is deep and resonant, like a good Chateauneuf de Pape. We have only water to cleanse our palates, and we should have had bread or cream crackers. Or, as Michael suggests: “You could do it like cheese, and have the mild ones first.”
Nonetheless, we have a whale of a time. The different colours, textures, smells and — of course — tastes are a treat to so many of the senses. These are tomatoes that you will never find for sale, except occasionally at gourmet shops and farmers’ markets. Factors such as their odd shapes, irregular sizes, soft skins and uncertain yields make them impractical for commercial growers and supply chains.
“Genetic diversity is being dangerously eroded all the time by industrial food production,” says Nicky. “It’s important to preserve old varieties and good new ones too, in case those genes are needed in future breeding programmes for some unknown pest or disease which may hit us with climate change or other threat.”
Tomatoes also have human stories attached. The heavy beefsteak ‘Mortgage Lifter’, for example, was bred by M.C. Byles in West Virginia in the 1930s. The proceeds from his sales of tomato plants paid off his $6,000 mortgage. ‘Amish Paste’, which makes ambrosial sauces, is an heirloom variety from Lancaster County in Pennsylvania. Europe has its share of heritage toms too: with eastern countries being particularly fertile. ‘Black Krim’, ‘Black from Tula’ and (surprisingly), ‘Paul Robeson’ are all from Russia.
As Nicky Kyle says, growing your own tomatoes is “in some way preserving our social history too. In the past so many people took the trouble to save these old varieties and pass them down to us. I feel we owe it to them to keep them going.”
The Totally Terrific Tomato Festival: 11am–5pm is Sunday, September 1st at Rolestown Garden Centre, Swords, Co Dublin. Satnav: 53.48268, -6.29783
Let’s talk tomatoes
Nicky Kyle’s website is a generous compendium of information on organic growing. Her “Tomato Report 2012” includes a review of the best varieties for Irish home-growers.
Let’s go to Laois
Tanguy de Toulgoët’s half-day course on autumn in the garden takes place on September 28th at Dunmore Country School, just outside Durrow. Subjects include planning, compost, rose care and rotation. Eur 50. Booking essential. Tanguy also gives individual gardening lessons in your own garden. See dunmorecountryschool.ie for details.
An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times
June 21, 2013 § 6 Comments
It’s May when I visit the new Balbriggan Community Allotments, but it’s cold, with a wicked northwest wind blasting across the six acre site. Exposure is often a problem with new allotment schemes, and this one, which opened in February, is no exception. On former agricultural land with little shelter, and half a kilometre from the sea, it gets weather from all sides. The new plot holders are resourceful types, though, and most have erected windbreaks of polypropylene netting around their domains. When the sun shines, the green mesh catches and multiplies the light, sending a shimmering zig zag of iridescence across the plots.
Today, however, the sky above north county Dublin is in an operatic mood, building up angry, inky clouds and furiously tossing down cascades of icy water. I seek refuge in the polytunnel of Caítríona and John Redmond, but the rain battering on the plastic skin is so loud we can barely hear our voices.
Their tunnel, newly erected on their ten by twenty metre plot, is one of a growing number at the site. Every week another one pops up, like a giant mushroom on the landscape. In these early days, while the hedges and trees that will eventually diffuse the wind are still in their infancy, the protection that the polyethylene-covered hoop-houses afford is very welcome. “I sold all the baby gear to get this!” explains Caítríona. “I said: ‘no more kids: let’s get a polytunnel instead.’ ” So they did.
They’ve had it less than a month, but already there are crops luxuriating in its cocoon of warmth and stillness: cabbages, purple sprouting broccoli, tomatoes, herbs. There are more edibles planted outside in the heavy clay soil that they have amended with compost and manure. Growing food is a serious undertaking for them. Only John, who works as a bus driver, has paid employment, and there are five mouths to feed. Caítríona was made redundant after the birth of her first child, four years ago — despite the fact that just a couple of years previously she had won an award for “Irish PA of the Year”.
She has since put her organisational and diplomatic skills to good use, volunteering with local community projects, and working as the chair of the allotments committee. She is one of many people here who has invested much time and energy into the plots, which are rented from Fingal County Council. Fingal Leader Partnership organised contractors to do the structural work on condition that this was matched by input from the new allotmenteers. Accordingly, the lining out of the plots, and the erecting of the post-and-wire fencing was all carried out by volunteers. There are 211 plots, in three sizes: 50, 100 and 200 square metres (with a rent of €1 per square metre per year). The community orchard of plums, cherries and heirloom Irish apples was likewise planted by plot-holders.
The spirit of communal endeavour pervades the place. Tools and knowledge are freely shared. “Nobody here is a food expert, or a growing expert,” says Caítríona, “but we’re learning from one another.”
An educational area — with polytunnel, raised beds, and compost bins — will be the venue for training courses offered by local horticulturists. Some of the plot-holders will also receive training as master composters through the EPA’s Stop Food Waste initiative, while others have already been to a pig-rearing course at Oldfarm in Tipperary.
The herd of five Tamworths arrived a few hours before my visit, and the sleek rusty-brown bonhams are bouncing around in one half of their two-acre paddock beyond the allotments. They are owned by a ten-strong syndicate: in late August, when the pigs are slaughtered, each of the members will receive their half share.
There is much industry evident in the rectangular lots: in one corner, John Dervan from east Galway is instructing his son in the precise art of digging traditional vegetable ridges, while Mark Mooney, who works in the zoo, is making a fascinating shed from 16 reclaimed palettes and a pair of salvaged windows.
Beginner gardener Aoife McGee, a primary school teacher, has made all her own raised beds from scaffolding planks, and is working in her polytunnel among dozens of healthy seedlings. She whispers that she hasn’t a clue what she is doing, but she is a natural and intelligent gardener. I envy her and her fellow plot-holders the years of growing ahead of them in this fertile field of fruit, vegetables and goodwill.
To enquire about a plot at Balbriggan Community Allotments, click on http://www.fingalcoco.ie and search for “allotments”, or telephone the Parks Division at: 01 8905600.
An edited version of this blog entry appeared in my gardening column in The Sunday Times
June 7, 2013 § 31 Comments
This year, spring made it only by the skin of its teeth, hastily scrabbling together all its flowers and flinging them into a heap in May.
Summer, however has been exemplary so far (this week, that is) and has delivered one of my favourite sights:
I am both mesmerised and exhilarated by the sight of clothes drying on the line. I spent a lot of time today gazing upon my own happy contraption — and I was reminded that I have a page in my book, The Living Garden, devoted to this excellent device. I hope you don’t mind if I hang it up here to air for a bit. (The tone is quite crusading — and slightly at odds with this memorably sunny day — but there are some things about which I feel strongly.)
A plea for the clothes line
Banned from some housing developments and shunned by people who seem to think that laundry is indecent, the poor clothes line has sunk to the same status as a messy drunk. This is horribly unfair. Those who use clothes lines are doing a service to the environment by keeping carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Dryers are avid energy guzzlers, having both a heating element and a motor. They release between one and two kilos of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with each drying cycle. The clothes line, on the other hand, contributes zero carbon and is easier on your clothes (all that lint in the dryer is the fabric wearing away). And the bracing, fresh, ozonic smell of clothes just brought in from the line is an instant mood elevator. What’s more, sunlight and fresh air are potent bleaching and disinfecting agents — something our mothers and all the mothers before them have known ever since, countless centuries ago, woman first washed a length of cloth and hung it to dry in the sun.
Yet the clothes line is often ignored by garden designers, and forgotten about by those who are creating their own gardens. Usually, it is either forgone, or is shoved in awkwardly. So, if you’re planning your garden, give a tiny bit of thought to this greenest of laundry devices.
To my mind, the neatest way of drying clothes is to stretch a line (or two or more) across the garden when you need it, and to take it down when it is not in use. You can buy a retractable affair, with parallel lines that wind into a protective housing, or you can simply unhook the line from one side of your garden, and roll it into an unobtrusive coil that hangs against a wall or pole. Rotary dryers are more conspicuous, and tend to suffer from the same injuries as umbrellas in a storm. If you opt for one, make sure there is enough room for sheets to blow freely without snagging on plants, or brushing against walls.
I love clothes lines. They remind me of my fellow mortals’ daily lives; they are the flags and pennants of a human community. I asked for (and received) a clothes line for a recent birthday. The sight of our laundry flying in the breeze while being magically freshened by sunlight and oxygen always makes me happy.
September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
In nearly two decades of garden writing I’ve been to scores of meetings, seminars and other convocations of people who grow things. But I’ve never been to one with the same buzzy atmosphere and spirit of goodwill as the recent GIY Gathering in Waterford city. (And I’ve rarely experienced anything quite so surreal either as standing in Sunday’s pouring rain on The Quay while the world’s largest pot of porridge — 1,380kg, 550 servings — was being made, as part of the city’s Harvest Festival.)
GIY, of course, is an acronym for “grow it yourself”, an organisation started by journalist Michael Kelly in 2009. It has a strong online presence (www.giyireland.com), and a network of a hundred growers’ groups throughout Ireland, where members share knowledge and expertise with each other. There’s now also a smattering of GIY groups in Australia, and Kelly is planning a British invasion too.
The GIY Gathering was about much more than how to grow good spuds, make compost, or how to deter cabbage white butterflies from laying eggs on your brassicas. It brought together international specialists who spoke about growing — yes — but also about resilience, sustainability, health, education and everything else remotely related to the food we put in our mouths.All the invited speakers gave their time voluntarily. Those who came from farthest afield included New Zealand social business entrepreneur Pete Russell whose Ooooby network (Out of Our Own Backyard: www.ooooby.org) links local backyard growers and smallholders with buyers; and American Roger Doiron, founder of Kitchen Gardeners International (www.kgi.org), whose “Eat the View” campaign led to the making of the organic vegetable garden at the White House in 2009. British speakers included broadcaster and writer Alys Fowler, writer and erstwhile River Cottage head gardener Mark Diacono, author of the Self-Sufficiency Bible Simon Dawson, writer Lia Leendertz, and sustainability visionary Paul Clarke. Among the participants from Ireland were Joy Larkcom, Klaus Laitenberger, Darina Allen, Trevor Sargent and many others. The weekend’s proceedings were presided over with good humour and intelligence by Ella McSweeney.
With five events going on at most times, it was hard to choose which to attend. Most of the talks I went to had my mind bubbling over with enthusiasm and fertilised with new ideas — although my mental jury is still out on the co-creationist’s method of slug control: include extra plants for the molluscs, and ask them nicely to leave all the others alone.
I was more inspired by one of Paul Clarke’s many projects, Pop Up Farm (www.pop-up-farm.com) where people are encouraged to grow food everywhere and anywhere in their locality: in a window box, on a roof, at a railway platform, in re-purposed drinks cartons. This kind of “extensive farming” is the opposite of intensive farming, and it has none of the associated problems of waste management, food miles, habitat erosion, loss of diversity and so on. A well-organised pilot scheme exists in Burnley in Lancashire where over 30 primary schools grow food in conjunction with each other. It is one interconnected farm, but in many locations. In a leaner future, where fuel and other resources are in short supply, it is strategies such as this that might save the world. It’s not too far-fetched an idea. It worked in Cuba, where the “organoponicos” feed the majority of Havana’s population. These urban organic market gardens arose when the source of cheap oil and agricultural inputs dried up after the Soviet Union’s collapse.
I was inspired too by the recurring theme of involving children in the process of growing food. Paul Clarke noted: “If you get kids growing peas and seeds, they go on to become activists for a better food system.” Trevor Sargent (www. trevorskitchengarden.ie) implored parents to make sure that their local schools include food growing as part of the curriculum, and that it is integrated into the other subjects. “Maths, English, Irish, geography, history — all of those subjects have a food-growing dimension to them.”
Darina Allen pointed out that the root cause of obesity is the way that food has been produced since the 1950s. Industrial production systems turn out foods loaded with fat, sugar and salt. “Get the children eating fresh, naturally produced, local food in season. We spend 7 per cent of our income on food. How much do we spend on medicine? Our food should be our medicine.”
There were hundreds of other ideas discussed over the weekend, far too many to communicate in this small space. So here are just three to end with. I admired Alys Fowler’s stockpiling produce by preserving, drying, fermenting, pickling and storing underground (her book on the subject will be out next spring). I was taken by Lia Leendertz’s simple solution of sharing her allotment with three other families to quarter the work and quadruple the fun. And finally, who could argue with Mark Diacono’s advice: “grow what you most like to eat”?
GIY Gathering Themes
Resilience: growing local food, using low energy home-preserving, planting diverse crops to avoid monocultural disasters and minding the soil all build a strong food system.
Rethinking energy-heavy, disaster-prone industrial systems: smaller self-contained growing operations make more environmental and social sense. Lessons can be learned from nature where there is no waste and where all is cyclical. We can learn also from subsistence farmers, who respect the land.
Good food is undervalued: growing our own, even if it’s only a tiny box on a windowsill, leads to an awareness of the benefits and worth of real food.
Community: better food networks are built when more people are involved — sharing knowledge, skills, spaces, crops and responsibilities.
Doing: just growing something, no matter how ham-fistedly, is far better than doing nothing.
And finally, let me commend to you… From the Ground Up: How Ireland is growing its own by Fionnuala Fallon, Irish Times gardening columnist and one of the speakers at the GIY Gathering. The book, which is beautifully produced by the Irish publisher, Collins Press (€24.99), celebrates 16 very different Irish food-growing operations and the people who tend them. Fionnuala’s subjects are as diverse as an eight-square-metre apartment balcony, the 2.5-acre walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park, the monster pumpkins grown by teenage twin brothers in Co Louth, and the Cork-based, organic Brown Envelope Seeds. With each chapter, she captures the passion and dedication of the people involved, and deftly imparts large chunks of their know-how. Fionnuala’s husband, Richard Johnston, is a tremendously skilled photographer, and his pictures complete the book with great style.
This blog post is an elongated version of my Sunday Times column, published on September 23rd 2012
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