At the end of February I attended an inspiring talk by Joy Larkcom at West Dean Gardens near Chichester. Joy is the widely acknowledged guru of salad and oriental vegetable gardening and the huge range of salad leaves available nowadays, and the popularity of the cut-and-come again technique of salad growing, is due in large part to her efforts.
60 people from the area and beyond gathered to hear her speak, to watch a cookery demonstration by local food writer Rosemary Moon, eat lunch, and hear a Q&A succession with Joy, Rosemary and the West Dean garden supervisor, Sarah Wain.
Joy explained how she, her husband, and two small children toured Europe in the 1970s with a caravan, investigating salads and vegetables that were unheard of in the UK at that time. She studied old techniques and old varieties, sending back to the HDRA (now Garden Organic) and the National Vegetable Research Station (now Warwick HRI) at Wellesbourne. She found all sorts of varieties that we take for granted today: red chicory, curly endive, lamb’s lettuce, lollo rosso …. Her practice of bringing back seeds has continued throughout her life, with visits to the USA, Australia, China, and elsewhere, as has her experimentation with how to grow them first in Suffolk and then more recently in West Cork, Ireland. It took some time to persuade the seed companies to stock her discoveries, the oriental vegetables more so than salads. Eventually Chiltern Seeds produced a catalogue with oriental vegetables that they had never actually grown themselves.
Joy’s talk was full of practical advice and here are some of the key points:
- if starting a new vegetable patch, start composting from day one; even partially rotted compost will benefit your crops
- grow according to your needs and interests – do you want to grow basics for the family or concentrate on gourmet crops?
- shelter from even light winds increases yields by 30%. A windbreak needs to be 50% permeable rather than solid
- succession sowing of crops such as radishes prevents you from being overwhelmed by things you can’t eat all at once
- the point of a piece of broken glass is ideal for sowing tiny seeds sparingly!
- many leafy salads and vegetables are best grown in late summer to prevent bolting
- many leafy salads and vegetables are hardy, such as mibuna, mizuna, and pak choi
- pak choi and otheers can be eaten at every stage – as seedlings, mature plants and sometimes the flowering shoots
- sowing in modules (widely used at West Dean) protects the seedlings against weather, slugs, and transplantation shock
- potager designs make the vegetable garden prettier – beds don’t have to be rectangular. Planting in groups with equal spacing is better than rows for keeping down weeds
Joy then went on to show us some excellent slides from her travels and her own gardens, including the wind breaks she created which were very much needed for her garden on the West Cork coast.
Now it was time for Rosemary’s cookery demonstration of rhubarb crumble with aduki beans, stirfry using blanched redbor kale, onion, walnuts, chickpeas, and chilli jelly, and a salad of tomatoes, oranges, chicory and olive oil. Her demo style is great as she talks very easily while preparing everything.
Lunch was some excellent local ham and cheese with Rosemary’s salads, followed by the crumble with Caroline’s Dairy sea buckthorn ice cream (tastes of passionfruit!), accompanied by lashings of ginger beer and lemonade.
Finally to the Q&A, in which Joy and Sarah answered a wide range of interesting questions.
So thanks to Joy for a fascinating day, and thanks to Rosemary for introducing me to another of my food heroes (she brought Katie Stewart to speak to Transition Chichester a couple of years ago). This was a truly memorable event.