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A Mission to Save the Seeds: Joy Larkcom’s ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’

This summer we received a grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust to bring over the second deposit of material from Joy Larkcom in Ireland, to form part of her archive held here at the Garden Museum. Nicole Spitzer, a student from the MA Archives and Records Management course at UCL,  recently completed a two-week placement in the Archive, cataloguing this new material relating to Joy’s ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’ of Europe in 1976-1977. Nicole was inspired by Joy’s mission to ‘save the seeds’, and shares some of her findings from the archive, and her interesting discussions with Joy, here.

In the summer of 1976 Joy Larkcom, her husband Don Pollard, and their two children set off on a year-long journey around Europe to explore the vegetable varieties and cultivation techniques unique to the continent. She went into this ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’ with three specific interests: to explore peasant methods of cultivation, find vegetable crops not grown in England, and collect seed of old and local varieties which were at risk of going extinct.

LAR/2/6/1/6 The van at Capo Caccia, Sardinia, Italy (24 April 1977)
LAR/2/6/1/7 Joy and her family on the last day of their trip, Chanzeaux, Loire Valley, France (13 August 1977)

From this tour, Joy is credited with introducing varieties such as Lollo Rosso lettuce, Chioggia beetroot, and Perella lettuce to UK farmers and consumers, which are now fairly common in the UK; though her most well-known contribution is the introduction of the cut-and-come-again harvesting method. The cut-and-come-again method provides the ‘baby leaves’ in bags at the supermarket which are so ubiquitous today.

LAR/2/6/3/32 Intercropping red lettuce and brassicas at SAIS plant breeders and seed company in Cesena, Italy (1 June 1977)
LAR/2/6/3/43 Chioggia beetroot, a distinctive old and local variety. Cut in half, the vibrant purple rings in its white flesh are visible, Italy (9 June 1977)
LAR/2/6/3/40 An exceptional Chioggia chicory plant selected for seed production, Italy (9 June 1977)

Photos in the archive exhibit the vast amount of farms, gardens, and seed companies she visited and bring her year-long journey to life. They also showcase the many varieties of fruits and vegetables being cultivated in Europe at that time and the techniques unique to local communities, many of which have now disappeared. A few of these photos are Joy’s first glimpses of the varieties and techniques she would bring back with her to the UK, unbeknownst to her at the time how beloved they would become.

LAR/2/4/1/1/1 Jose Alfonso Duarte seed catalogue ‘Jad Sementes’ (1954-1955)

To prepare for her mission to save at-risk seeds, Joy made a list of various traits and resistances she was looking for in the vegetable varieties she would come across. The preparatory notes Joy made for this trip include these lists, as well as what she should pay close attention to in certain countries: ‘Investigate Fennel thoroughly in Italy’, ‘Broad Beans: Look for resistance to chocolate spot’, ‘Super intensive cultivation of Tuscan Hillside’.[1]

LAR/2/6/5/107 The carosello melon, Cucumis melon, which can stand very dry conditions in Bari, Italy (19 May 1977). Joy says, ‘So many parts of the world are now suffering from drought, it could be a very useful variety to breed from.’
LAR/2/6/5/42 Vines trained up trees being pruned in North Guimaraes, Portugal (8 December 1976)

Joy kept a daily diary on the tour, and wrote various reports which are included in the archive. They illustrate the day to day difficulties Joy and her husband faced, which were such a major element in the ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’. As Joy explained, ‘a huge amount of time and energy was spent simply trying to get money from banks (no holes in the wall), contact potential sources of information (no mobile phones) and to operate virtually as freelancers without the backing of any organisation, sponsor or academic body’. Future researchers may find this element of the archive interesting, when comparing these difficulties with those faced in undertaking a similar research trip today.

Joy wrote in one of the sample chapters for the never completed book on the ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’, (incidentally provisionally titled ‘Do You Grow Vegetables and Can I Have a Bath?’), of the importance of saving these old and local varieties of vegetables:

Why does it matter, one might ask, apart from the loss of diversity? It matters because these old varieties, while they may not have high yields and other qualities demanded by modern commercial growers, hidden away in their genetic structures is an ability to withstand drought, resistance to disease, or some other overlooked characteristic which could one day be just what the plant breeders are looking for.[1]

In the end, she sent well over 100 seed samples to the National Vegetable Research Station (now the UK Vegetable Genebank at Warwick University) for preservation.

LAR/2/4/2/1 Seed packets kept from the trip, duplicates of those Joy sent to the National Vegetable Research Station (1976-1977)

In a recent chat with Joy, she expressed dismay at the lack of progress since the ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’ – indeed an acceleration in the loss of varieties like the ones she set out to save. While her tour focused on varieties to be cultivated in gardens and on farms, she also expressed concern about the loss of wild species. As we are all now aware, industrial agriculture is responsible for 30% of global emissions; traditional methods, small-scale farms and gardens, and a focus on eating local could be part of the solution. The traditional techniques and methods Joy explored on the ‘Grand Vegetable Tour’ offer an alternative to heavy handed use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers.

LAR/2/6/5/116-117 Man demonstrating the ‘cut and come again’ approach, cutting spinach and parsley for the market in Sottomarina di Chioggia, Italy (8 June 1977)
LAR/2/6/3/25 Cotton waste mulch near the sea in Liguria, Italy (5 April 1977)

There is a growing awareness in scientific circles of the need to preserve seed diversity. The huge companies which now control world seed sales are far more interested in promoting modern hybrids than preserving old varieties. Fortunately gene banks and seed vaults are being set up all over the world. This is what Joy believes is the way forward: the creation of as many seed banks as possible, in as many places as possible, and urgently.  We have no time to lose: species and varieties can disappear so rapidly.

LAR/2/6/1/5 Joy typing at Capo Caccia, Sardinia, Italy (24 April 1977)

When asked about the word ‘seed’, Joy expressed a sense of wonder and gratitude towards the tiny things, declaring ‘it’s the basis of everything… a whole flipping oak tree comes from a seed’.

The fight to preserve biodiversity is one that continues today. In a world of rapidly changing climates, others, like Joy, argue biodiversity is the key to survival; and thus must be actively protected. We don’t know which plant traits will be necessary in the future because we don’t know what the world will look like.

By Nicole Spitzer, Archive Volunteer


[1] Joy Larkcom, ‘Sample Chapters and Synopsis for planned book, provisionally titled Do you Grow Vegetables and Can I Have a Bath?’, page 3 (1980) Joy Larkcom Archive, LAR/2/3/5, LAR Box 13, Archive of Garden Design, London.

[1] Joy Larkcom, ‘List of Vegetables to Look For’ (1975-1976), Joy Larkcom Archive, LAR/2/1/2/7, LAR Box 13, Archive of Garden Design, London.

All images are from the Joy Larkcom Archive, held by the Garden Museum, and are reproduced here with permission from Joy Larkcom.

The Joy Larkcom Archive will be available for researchers to view in the Foyle Study Room when the Museum is able to reopen.

Related articles: ‘7 Telegraph Poles Beyond’: Finding Joy Larkcom and her Creative Vegetable Archive