The Casual Gardener: Joy of vegetables

Joy Larkom's passion for vegetables has secured her a place among gardening royalty. As one of her classic books is revised she shares some of her secrets with John Manley

West Cork-based 'Queen of Veg' Joy Larkom

“NO MORE than usual” the queen laughs when I call her in the morning and ask whether she's hungover after celebrating the night before. She'd not been toasting a golden jubilee but her 50th wedding anniversary.

The monarch in question is Joy Larkom – AKA ‘The Queen of Veg' – a writer who has helped shape gardens and diets across Britain and Ireland.

Now “81-and-a-half”, Joy has lived on both islands and travelled extensively beyond. For the past 15 years she and husband Don have been based in west Cork, not far from Clonakilty and within “sound of the sea” if not sight. Before that they lived and gardened together in Suffolk – “the driest part of England”.

She says the difference between her Irish garden and its predecessor 450 miles to the east is that the latter gets “double the rainfall and much milder winters, with virtually no snow”. The growing season in west Cork lasts much longer and “jogs on well into autumn” but their site gets double the wind, which, even with a specially planted wind barrier, robs the soil of moisture.

The solution for Joy is seaweed, every bit of open ground mulched with the harvest from a nearby slipway. While she concedes there's no research to support her long-held hunch, Joy believes seaweed adds fertility and helps keep the slugs at bay.

On her 80th birthday, she hinted heavily that seaweed was her preferred present and many friends duly obliged. That's an indication of the level of respect ‘The Queen of Veg' commands in her adopted home.

It's a reputation founded not solely on charm but also on an extensive knowledge of vegetables, crossing freely between horticultural and culinary perspectives. She is credited with popularising many new varieties of vegetable from 1970s onwards, especially edible kitchen crops from the Orient.

Her father's overseas postings meant Joy spent three years of her early life in post-war China. By the time she returned to the east in the 1980s, Joy Larkom was already an established writer who'd learned her 'peasant' growing techniques travelling across Europe with husband, kids and caravan in tow.

When you see for sale mizuna, pak choi or tastoi seeds in your local garden centre, thank The Queen of Veg and her desire to seek out new vegetable varieties.

Her latest book is a revised edition of The Salad Garden. First published in 1984, it was the fruits – or should that be the veg? – of her transcontinental 'Grand Vegetable Tour' of Europe. Its influence on chefs and gardeners alike can't be overstated. In a millennium BBC Food programme it was nominated by horticulturalist Michael Michaud as his ‘book of the century'.

But tastes and techniques have changed in the 30-plus years since The Salad Garden was first published.

The updated edition recognises the growing numbers of gardeners with small spaces, and emphasises techniques and varieties suited to patios, window boxes, containers, and small raised beds.

There updates too on the latest, improved varieties of salad plants, as well as new plants such as Cucamelon, marsh plant Salsola.

The revised edition also features the latest developments in polytunnels, frames, cloches, low tunnels, and organic methods of pest control. Accordingly, there's a section dedicated to recipes, which have been updated with a more contemporary feel, reflecting changes in eating habits.

If there is another book in Joy, it will likely focus on the trials of ageing while retaining a desire to garden.

"The main challenge as we get older is to simplify the garden – your energy runs out and getting to the top of the garden gets harder and harder," she says.

Oner thing we can be assured of, however, is that Joy Larkom's enthusiasm for vegetables remains as strong as ever.

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