Forty years a-growing

 

GIY expert Joy Larkcom has written her last book, she says. It’s a true classic, writes FIONNUALA FALLON

BY HER OWN rueful admission, Joy Larkcom has spent a large part of her long lifetime being “more than a little bit obsessed” by vegetables. It’s a passion bordering on fanaticism, fed by this British-born garden writer’s spirit of adventure, her forensic attention to horticultural detail, her literary talents and, in her own words, “the help of my husband Don [Pollard] . . . I’ve had a lot of the limelight and yet he’s done so much alongside me. I do feel extraordinarily lucky to have met him, because, to tell the truth, my obsessiveness makes me quite hard to live with.”

This seems hard to believe given Larkcom’s wit, intelligence and great good-humour (she says that she was “born happy”), yet the writer gently insists it is the case. “I would never, ever, leave a stone unturned, so I was always asking ‘Why, why, why?’ when it came to how a particular plant grew, or why some particular cultivation technique was successful. I’ve often greeted him first thing in the morning with ‘Don, I’ve had an idea’, and he’s always listened enthusiastically, even while his heart is quietly sinking.”

Take, as an example, that now legendary, nomadic, year-long, Grand Vegetable Tour of the late 1970s where – husband and two young children happily in tow – Larkcom rented out the family’s Suffolk farmhouse, packed a year’s necessities into a caravan and took off for continental Europe. On the hunt for rare vegetable varieties and unusual methods of cultivation, she visited countless horticultural research stations, vegetable plots, institutes, allotments, botanic gardens, plant breeders, seed companies and village markets, as well as the kitchen gardens of castles and grand châteaux. Meanwhile Pollard looked after the household chores, educated the children and – as the family cook – amassed a collection of regional recipes along the way.

By the end of the trip, and with the help of her husband, Larkcom had collected seed of more than 150 different salad and vegetable varieties, She’d also re-discovered, courtesy of the remarkable Yugoslavian-born gardener, the late Jelena de Belder, the great usefulness of cut-and-come- again salad crops.

Rather than sate her wanderlust and her hunger for new plant discoveries, the success of that trip fuelled a consuming desire to find out more. Intrigued by the potential usefulness of oriental vegetables, Larkcom spent several years polishing up her childhood Mandarin (her military father was posted in China during and after the second World War), before embarking on a two-month tour of China, Japan and Taiwan in 1985. The following year, she toured America (and Canada) to study the exotic vegetable gardens of its Asian communities.

At the same time, Larkcom was carving out a distinguished writing career that now spans almost four decades, contributing to a myriad of gardening magazines, horticultural journals and newspapers while writing a succession of ground-breaking books on vegetable gardening. Excerpts from some of those form the backbone of her latest – and what she firmly says will be her last – book, Just Vegetating.

Part archive, part diary, part memoir, peppered with comical anecdotes and non-horticultural asides, yet firmly rooted in the richly complex world of gardening, Just Vegetating is a genuinely remarkable book that holds the reader’s interest, and leaves you wishing for more.

Irish readers are sure to be interested in the chapter on the couple’s move, in 2004, to west Cork, where they have created a wonderful kitchen garden buffeted by Atlantic gales and fed by seaweed harvested from Ballinglanna beach.

Others will be struck by Larkcom’s prescience in championing the embryonic organic gardening movement at a time when it was being dismissed by many as the preoccupation of cranks and eccentrics. Food lovers will be fascinated by the key role she played in transforming the contents of the average salad bowl, encouraging “a spirit of adventure and enquiry” amongst growers while popularising almost forgotten plants – colourful chicories, juicy purslane, Texsel greens, lacy mustards, mizunas, crunchy pak-choi and unusual lettuces.

Flower-gardeners will be delighted by her enthusiasm for colourful potager-style gardens that feed “both the belly and the soul”. As for parents of young children, they’ll be both fortified and amused by her tips on how to tame toddlers and avoid the frustration of uprooted seedlings, vanished labels and emptied flowerpots (Larkcom told me that she tied a bell to her own fleet-of-foot infant son, so that she could tell when he’d wandered out of sight). In her introduction to the book, Larkcom writes that Just Vegetating is “a window on the world I have inhabited in a lifetime of gardening writing – a world where fun and fact have constantly intermingled”. I say it’s that rare thing; a true classic. Get your hands on it just as soon as you can.

Just Vegetating, A Memoir, by Joy Larkcom is published by Frances Lincoln, £18.99

'Just Vegetating' by Joy Larkcom

‘OF COURSE WE were never ready to go. Don came out of hospital, kidney stones dispersed, after about a week, but was very weak for some time after. Will you still go, people kept asking? We were determined we would, but I was surprised, and a little hurt, at how many people seemed to wallow in the possibility of a last-minute hitch.

As we entered the last three weeks we seemed to be running from dawn to dusk, going to bed later and later, getting up earlier and earlier. We employed Poppy, who lived in the next village, to help with the work which had to be done. Poppy turned her hand to anything: decorating the house, dismantling my Dexion potting bench for conversion into shelves for the van, scrubbing, ironing, washing.

We started disposing of goods and chattels: grandfather clock and piano to safe-keeping in the village; bunk beds and geese to my sister; Becky the dog, some chickens and sewing machine to other friends; and so on.

There were thousands of last-minute jobs – having a lesson in hair cutting, sorting out social security benefits to which we were entitled, getting the chimney cleaned, arranging for a bulk refuse collection to take away scrap metal which had been left in the yard, collecting a money belt from friends . . . And how friends helped, giving and lending us equipment, cleaning and decorating, helping us pack! At the back of my mind, during the last few weeks, churned fears of what might go wrong. They were mainly fears for the physical safety of the children. There was a rabies scare in France at the time, which preyed on me. There were constant reports of guerilla outbreaks in Spain, revolutionary uprisings in Portugal, kidnappings in Italy. There was always the vague fear of becoming a political pawn in a Communist country.

The other fear I could never quite shake off was that the whole thing, horticulturally, would be a wild goose chase – that we’d never make any contacts or discover anything interesting, and that I didn’t know enough to spot what was of interest. Sometimes I had an awful vision of myself as a rather wet, helpless English woman, wandering tongue-tied from place to place, feebly asking woolly questions.

As inflation continued to soar, the simple fear of the pound collapsing and our being unable to make ends meet was never far from my thoughts. To crown it all, I have a chronic fear of driving and traffic accidents. A whole year on the road. How would we avoid disaster? Beset by these fears I sometimes wondered how or why I’d ever become obsessed with the idea of this Grand Vegetable Tour! Occasionally friends would start me worrying about Don. It’s all right for you, several of them said: you’ll have the fun of meeting people and doing your own work. But how’s Don going to like doing the cooking and housework and looking after the kids once the novelty has worn off? My instinct told me that Don would love it, but sometimes I’d find myself wondering if they could be right. As it turned out they weren’t. Don was marvellous and he loved it, pouring his creative energy into producing meals with whatever was available, under often intolerable conditions, accepting the challenge of keeping the basic systems operating, enjoying the unexpected which every day was to bring.

The last day came. We had to be ready to leave home for the ferry by 6.30 p.m. The house still seemed full to overflowing with our possessions, the caravan unpacked and unsorted, the last-minute lists unbelievably long. We had told the kids, Brendan and Kirsten, they could take only a limited number of toys each, but faced with their eleventh-hour pleadings to take this teddy and that toy, this doll and that digger, we relented.

As the afternoon minutes began to tick away like heartbeats, panic set in. I grabbed three large black plastic sacks, and went from room to room, picking up each object in turn and consigning it to one of the three sacks.

Sack one: rubbish to be thrown away. Sack two: to be stored in the spare room upstairs. Sack three: caravan.

It was after six when I jumped into the bath – possibly the last bath for a year. When I got out I realized I’d bequeathed most of my clothes to the rubbish sack. Naked, I streaked across the lawn to retrieve a pair of clean knickers from the caravan.

It was time to leave. We hauled up the caravan jockey wheel, let off the caravan brake and put on the safety chain for the first of thousands of times. The chaos in the van and caravan was indescribable. In the last few hours we had hurled everything in, hoping to find time to sort it later.

The main thing was to have things with us. No tidy, chrome-surfaced caravan ours. No surfaces were visible. Through the rear window all one could see was a mountain of bikes and black plastic sacks. From the front and side windows peered an army of dolls, teddies, hand-knitted camels and kangaroos, strategically placed by the children so that they would miss nothing of the excitement. They nodded and jolted like puppets as we set off down our long rough drive.

By the time we had reached Harwich the overhead cupboard doors had burst open and poured the contents of countless bottles of herbs and spices over everything on the floor. Hooking cupboard doors and drawers tight soon became part of our departure drill – but this was Day One. We were novices.

It was an utterly beautiful summer evening. The Suffolk countryside between Montrose Farm and the coast was lush green, the unique jubilant richness of English countryside. I couldn’t believe we were on our way, setting out for our adventure. Months of tension dropped away and the tears rolled down my cheeks. ‘Mummy’s crying,’ said Kirsty in disbelief. ‘What on earth are you crying for?’

Excerpt from Just Vegetating (Pages 28-29)

Feijoada – bean stew

Recipe from Mrs Sarmento from Chaves, north Portugal (1976)

As written in Don’s recipe book collected during our travels

V flexible dish

Use red or white beans – soak the night before. Boil up with anything salty you have – pig’s trotters, pig’s ears, old ham bone (put in salt for couple of days), pieces of ham from old ham bone, ‘presunto’ – Portuguese bacon (not smoked, expensive). Black pudding, lard, any kinds of sausages, whole chorizo, salted bacon, (farino) floury sausage. Use anything you have – the more ingredients the better. Cook all these for about quarter of an hour in pressure cooker with enough water. Probably about an hour normal cooking. Before serving add raw onion, olive oil, cut up sausages, parsley, beans, tomato sauce, spice (eg cumin). Stir it all together. Sometimes turnip leaves are added.

As a result of an editing error, last weeks Grow column stated that all of the gold medals at this year’s Bloom went to gardens designed by women, when in fact all the Best in Category awards went to gardens designed by women. Apologies to garden designers Paul Martin and Gary Hanaphy, both of whom won gold medals.

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