Colette Sheridan meets pioneering gardener Joy Larkcom
West Cork-based gardener extraordinaire, Joy Larkcom, is enjoying her ‘retirement garden,’ cultivating tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers for the summer while also working on her extensive archive. The 85-year old English woman, the grand old lady of gardening, was described by The Daily Telegraph as having ‘had more effect on the way we grow and eat salads and vegetables than all the celebrity chefs put together.’
It’s quite an accolade and one that Joy, modest but quietly assertive, accepts. ‘I suppose I did introduce a lot of things (like rocket, purslane, endives and chicories). It would have happened eventually. Even now, I see vegetables and think – ‘oh my God, I introduced that’.
Joy wrote gardening columns for years and has published several books including Grow Your Own Vegetables, The Organic Salad Garden, Creative Vegetable Gardening, Oriental Vegetables and her wonderful memoir, Just Vegetating. She advocated intercropping – sowing a fast-growing crop (salad leaves or spring onions) between the rows of slower growing crops (cabbage, kale, leeks). The standard practice in Ireland, Britain 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 space. This was revolutionary at the time. It made for a more productive garden and a more efficient one with less weeding needed.
Always interested in gardening having been brought up in rural Berkshire, Joy has a BSc in horticulture from Wye College. She has worked as a teacher and as a librarian before devoting her life to gardening and writing about it. She remembers as a young girl helping her father to create a garden. ‘He would give me wireworms to take to the chickens.’
Surprisingly, Joy doesn’t think she has ‘very green fingers. A sign of really green fingers is people who can take cuttings which always strike. I don’t think I have that magical ingredient. But I do love gardening. I suppose I know quite a bit but there are so many variables. I’m very suspicious of anybody who comes up with all the answers. Even now if I go to a garden, I always learn something. But I don’t have the mega green fingers that some people have.’
What Joy and her late husband. Don Pollard, had in spades was an adventurous risk-taking spirit. Back in 1976, before supermarkets sold bags of mixed salad leaves, they and their two young children, Kirsten and Brendan, set off around Europe with a caravan on what Joy called her ‘Grand Vegetable Tour.’ While Don did the cooking and taught the children, Joy would set off on her bicycle to find out how people were growing vegetables. She collected seeds of rare varieties. It was a tour that sparked a lifetime of garden writing.
Looking back on that adventure, Joy says it was ‘a pivotal year in our lives. It was an absolutely incredible experience. Ever since that trip, I can’t bear to see a drop of water being wasted. Finding water was our crucial aim every day as we moved around. The people we met and what we learned was amazing. It was kind of brave. We did take a gamble. Don had to leave his teaching job and he never really got it back. The school refused to give him a year’s sabbatical. Afterwards, he had to do supply teaching and things like that. We hoped to have an income from renting our house back in the UK but the people living there went broke so we never got that. We were living on a shoestring. But we got through it. It affected everything we did subsequently, gardening-wise.’
Back in England, in her market garden in East Anglia, Joy developed the salad seeds mixtures that are so popular today. She championed organic gardening before it was popular. She also travelled to China and Japan on a quest to explore oriental vegetables. And all the time, she was writing, distilling her knowledge in an accessible and often witty way, including columns for The Observer.
As it says in the publisher’s introduction to her memoir, ‘From unusual cabbages to Chinese ways of growing garlic, truffle orchards to herb conferences, tomato breeders to slugduggery, Joy’s writings reflect her wide-ranging interests. And whether she is describing an onion festival or the vagaries of seed sowing, her love of potagers or the creation of her ‘retirement’ vegetable garden on the west coast of Ireland, they are always engaging.’
Joy misses her husband – and his imaginative cooking. ‘I was interested in cooking but nothing special. I still can’t make a cake. Don completely took over the cooking the year we were travelling and he cooked ever since.’
Us Irish traditionally overcooked vegetables. As did British people. ‘My mother was Scottish. Even as a teenager, it broke my heart to see the way she cooked vegetables to death. We had a big old range. I would push the vegetables off the heat. It wasn’t much different to the way the Irish cooked vegetables. But cooking is amazing now.’ Ingredients from around the world as so accessible these days’.
Joy says it is possible to grow decent vegetables and herbs even in small urban spaces. ‘I’m always interested in what you can do in difficult environments such as what’s called ‘cut-and-come-again’ growing. This means you can grow an awful lot in little spaces. So many things are being done in cities now with window boxes on balconies. You can also use allotments and spare spaces. There’s a big move towards that. I’ve travelled quite a lot in China and I’ve seen the balconies, or platforms really, that people build attached to their homes quite high up. They put soil in old bowls with holes in the bottom. It can be done.’
Concerned about climate change, Joy says she was writing about it twenty-five years ago. ‘I think at that point, we had no idea of how huge the potential damage was. As the situation got worse, I’ve just been feeling devastated at the lack of political will and people not taking it seriously. It’s such an important issue. I feel such despair.’
But that doesn’t stop Joy from doing her bit and advising people that we should all cut down on waste. ‘It’s really about taking a step back from the kind of luxuries we all now take for granted. This thing that you’ve got to have the best and the latest, having the heat on all the time rather than wearing heavy sweaters..I’m still old fashioned and frugal because I was brought up in war time.’
Joy abhors the extravagance she observes in everyday life. ‘If everybody could use less energy and less plastic and just cut back instead of everyone feeling they have to have mobile phones, for example. We’re so materialistic.’
These days, Joy, who has had ‘wonky knees ‘ for a while, finds it hard to walk around and bend down when gardening. ‘I used to swim once a week in a pool in Clonakilty but with Covid, that has been impossible. It has had a really bad effect on me. If I garden for a little while, my back starts to ache. So I’m limited. But we were lucky that when we sold our house in the UK, it paid for this one and with the extra money left over, we built a greenhouse. We linked it to the outbuildings and the house. It has been a complete life-saver for me. It is purpose built so that everything is at my height and it’s very convenient. In winter, it’s full of Chinese greens, salad plants and chicories and now I’ve got broad beans beginning to come in and peas. The problem is I need to change the soil. I’ll have to get strong people in to do that.’
With such a wealth of knowledge and experience, it’s only fitting that Joy’s writing is going to be archived in the Garden Museum in London. ‘They have lottery money to keep an archive of garden designers. Before, all the famous English gardeners’ stuff ended up in the US. In the London archive, I’ll be the kind of token vegetable lady. It was the late Beth Chatto (well known for her plants) who suggested to the museum that they ask me to give them my archive. So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. I’m trying to do it during energy spurts. The trouble with being old is that you don’t get many energy spurts.’
The Observer has described Joy as ‘the queen of vegetable growing.’ However, Joy writes in Just Vegetating that the mainstream press ‘poured scorn’ on the early Organic Growers Association that she reported on. Clearly far-seeing, Joy says organic vegetables are now utterly mainstream. ‘There’s been a huge change in attitude.’ And some of it is down to this pioneering woman who created a niche for herself that has also bettered our everyday experience of food consumption.