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‘7 telegraph poles beyond’: Finding Joy Larkcom and her Creative Vegetable Archive

Garden Museum Archivist, Rosie Vizor, writes about her trip to Ireland to visit ‘the queen of vegetable growing’, Joy Larkcom.

Finding Joy Larkcom‘s farmhouse in Cork is a mission, but it was certainly worth it to spend a fascinating two days rootling through her vast archive of research into vegetable varieties from across the globe.

Her handwritten directions were a little daunting;

‘Take the Bog Road through the marshes until sign saying “Flooding at spring tide”. 7 telegraph poles beyond the sign, just round bend, take v. small lane to R. (Easily missed). (If you come to a fork with bridge on your left, you have come too far. Go back and take first lane)’

We (me, the Archivist, Rosie Vizor, and my recently retired parents who will take up any opportunity for a jaunt), diligently counted each telegraph pole but inevitably missed the ‘v. small lane’ and had to refer to the Monopoly-style ‘Go back’ ‘Do not pass go’ instructions to find our way. This was particularly humiliating for us country-bumpkins from Dartmoor, who should be familiar with roads described by ‘grass thicker in centre’ , and who frequently complain about ‘grockels’ (West Country for ‘tourists’) on the roads. Eventually we made it, and it was a spectacular if eerie drive through the bogland of Cork, bringing back memories of studying Seamus Heaney’s Bog Poems at school.

Donaghmore Farm viewed from the fan-shaped garden

Joy gave us a very warm welcome. My parents (eventually) ambled off to explore the countryside, while Joy and I got down to the ‘serious archive business’. I had already catalogued the first tranche of archive material that Joy deposited, consisting of research materials for her book, Creative Vegetable Gardening (1997), so I was familiar with the types of material to expect. That is:

  • extensive notes taken during her travels across the globe researching vegetable growing methods and seeds;
  • materials collected at organisations and gardens visited during the research process;
  • correspondence with the owners of these organisations and gardens;
  • manuscripts;
  • book reviews,
  • and photographic transparencies of images used for publications, as well as those gathered during the research process.

What I was less aware of was just how much more material there was to come! Joy has had an impressive career as a horticultural writer, as well as working in many other interesting and varied jobs. These include teaching at a school for American missionaries’ children in Chiang Mai, working as a library assistant at Toronto University Library, writing adaptations of children’s books for radio, working as the secretary of a scientific journal, and writing about industry for a trade magazine. We had to be strict and stick to garden-related employment. Even after narrowing our limits, there was so much valuable and unique material that Joy had kept over the years, I knew it was going to be an intense couple of days deciding what we should take for the Archive of Garden Design.

The Grand Vegetable Tour

We started with the records of ‘The Grand Vegetable Tour’: a year-long caravan trip around Europe that Joy undertook with her husband and two young children from 1976-1977. The purpose of the trip was to study vegetable growing and to collect seed of old varieties to send back to the Gene Bank. Whatever the conditions, Joy kept a daily diary, which she hoped would turn into a travel and cookery book upon their return. The book was provisionally titled ‘Do You Grow Vegetables and Can I Have a Bath?’. Although this book didn’t happen, Joy wrote many articles and her book Salads the Year Round embodied much of what she had learned. We decided that the diaries, draft chapters, articles and notebooks would provide an interesting resource for researchers – particularly vegetable fanatics.

Daily trip diary from the ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’, 1976-1977

Folder of articles written by Joy Larkcom during the ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’ or resulting from it

Joy kept meticulous records of the seed varieties she collected and sent to the Gene Bank; a stipulation of her funding from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. She saved some seeds to grow on her experimental market garden, and there were a few packets in the boxes she’d put aside for us, nibbled by pests over the years. We worked hard to select relevant photographs, choosing mostly plant-related pictures and growing methods, with a few of the kids and caravan for context.

Packets of old seed varieties collected by Joy Larkcom on the ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’ of 1976-1977

Oriental Vegetables

On Day 2 we tackled the records relating to Joy’s 1991 book, Oriental Vegetables; the result of a five-week research trip to China, Japan and Taiwan in 1985 studying vegetable growing and seeds. Like Creative Vegetable Gardening, this book teaches gardeners how to grow vegetables from these countries at home, whatever the weather or soil type. The trip took a lot of planning, researching where to go and what to see, seeking sponsorship and gaining permission to travel freely. Due to all enterprises being under government control in China, it was harder to get hold of seed. Japan was the main avenue for introducing Asian vegetable seed to the West. A regular tourist visa wouldn’t grant Joy access to the institutions she wanted to study; she had to prove she was part of an official programme. After 18 months of waiting for their application to be accepted, this ‘official’ prestige was finally found through the Royal Society, who had a duty to arrange scientific exchange visits to China. To fulfil the exchange element, Joy gave talks, for which she actually learned basic Chinese.

Living in China for two and a half years as a child gave Joy a head start.  She learned Chinese horticultural vocabulary from the amazing list of alternative names for Chinese vegetables compiled by her language tutor, Charles Aylmer. Another invaluable tool was the Beijing Vegetable Production Handbook, the Chinese growers’ bible. She called this her ‘Little Blue Book’ because it was designed in the style of Chairman Mao’s little red pocket book of quotations.

‘The Little Blue Book,’ Beijing Vegetable Production Handbook, c.1985

Joy took garden photographer Pamla Toler, irrigation expert Alan Backhurst, and his marketing friend Huff Goldsmith with her on the trip. Visiting trial grounds, markets, shops and commercial growers, Joy collected beautifully illustrated seed catalogues, seed packets, Chinese books on vegetables, Chinese tools and even wellies along the way. She filled notebooks, tape-recorded a daily diary and took photographs. The resulting book, Oriental Vegetables, was not published until 1991, and incorporated further research undertaken in Canada and the USA. The archive gives a sense of the enormous amount of knowledge and research that went into producing her books, and is a rich source of unique information in itself.

150th anniversary catalogue of the Japanese seed company Takii (1985)

Japanese ‘Kaneko’ seed catalogue, 1988

Annotated Japanese seed catalogue

A Chinese ‘welly’

East Asian gardening tools

Original line drawings for Oriental Vegetables (1991) by Elizabeth Douglass

Other Projects

We had only a few hours left to look at materials relating to Joy’s many other books and projects, including The Vegetable Garden Displayed, a television series called ‘Grow Your Greens’, cassette tapes of interviews, the ‘1000 Years of British Gardening’ exhibition at the V&A, and her own garden at Donaghmore Farm. At the end of each day we walked through her delicious smelling conservatory filled with boxes of apples, around the garden which had a fan shaped display, and I got to pick and eat my way through the most enormous and exquisite tomatoes from the greenhouse. I feel very lucky to have gotten to know Joy and can’t wait to catalogue and share the next tranche of her archive when it arrives.

Joy Larkcom and Penny Vizor picking tomatoes in the greenhouse

Oxheart tomato

The vegetable garden at Donaghmore Farm (in October)