‘Be as diverse as possible!’: a gardening pioneer’s guide to growing on a warming planet

The gardening pioneer Joy Larkhom changed how we grow veg and championed rocket, salad bags and pak choi. What is she growing now?

Joy Larkcom is singing the praises of sugarloaf chicory. “It’s got deep roots, its leaves form a dense, crisp heart, and it withstands drought better than lettuce,” she says. “Sadly, these rarely find their way into the seed catalogues for amateur gardeners.” Her love for this unsung salad leaf sums up Larkcom’s lifelong passion: to bring more variety to our kitchen tables and preserve genetic diversity.

Larkcom, 87, is a vegetable grower and writer famous for her influential books from The Organic Salad Garden to Grow Your Own Vegetables. Drawing from direct experience – for 30 years as an experimental market gardener in Suffolk; latterly in her garden in West Cork – her writing reads just as she speaks: authoritative yet lighthearted, combining practical, scientifically sound advice with an enthusiasm for continued learning.

As a younger woman, Larkcom travelled the world in search of diverse vegetables and cultivation knowledge, from multicultural allotments in the US to vegetable growers in Taiwan and Japan.

Joy Larkcom’s greenhouse at her home in West Cork, Ireland.
The greenhouse in West Cork is filled with tomato plants in summer and salad greens in winter Photograph: Sarah Kate Photography/Sarah Kate Murphy

In 1975, with her late husband, Don Pollard, and their two children (then aged seven and five), she set off on a year’s road trip through Europe by caravan. Don homeschooled the children and cooked while Larkcom provided income by writing for UK gardening magazines. In every country, she found something of interest: in Italy they learned how to prepare wild chicory and thistle, and how to suck honey from borage flowers, while in Belgium she encountered the “cut-and-come-again” techniques she became known for advocating whereby certain salad leaves are snipped and subsequently regrow, providing a further harvest.

She brought home more than 150 varieties of seed, along with memories of beautiful places, plants and the generosity of strangers. In her archive, I found Larkcom’s notebook of “useful phrases” jotted down along the way: the French for mulch, Portuguese for seedbed, Hungarian for sorrel and radish.

Following her “grand vegetable tour”, Larkcom introduced unusual varieties, such as red, curly-leaved Lollo Rosso lettuce, Chioggia beetroot (with its theatrical pink and white rings) and red chicory to the UK, trialling them in her garden and encouraging seed companies to take them on. Inspired by traditional Italian and French salad mixtures they had seen in Europe, she and Don began selling mixed bags of salad leaves, dubbed “saladini”, to an early organic food shop in London. These included unusual elements such as edible flowers and sprouted seeds. In her writing, she featured other vegetables common on the continent but long vanished from British cultivation – salsify, scorzonera and purslane, for example.

Larkcom is the author of several influential books on growing vegetables; in this photo she holds some of them up to the camera.
Larkcom is the author of several influential books on growing vegetables Photograph: Sarah Kate Photography/Sarah Kate Murphy

For a three-week trip to China in 1985 – to research Chinese vegetables suitable for the UK – Larkcom learned the language, combed phrasebooks for gardening terms and wrote countless letters to the authorities. The trip acquainted her with the pak chois, hardy mustards, leafy brassicas and Chinese chives she would later champion back home.

Widening the range of what we grow, however, holds a greater importance than the purely culinary – something Larkcom remains every bit as resolute about today. To help mitigate the effects of climate change, “we need to keep as much genetic material available as possible,” she says, “in order to develop drought and disease-resistant varieties and to find resistance in older varieties. Here [in West Cork], blight does seem to be worse with milder temperatures – I can’t grow summer raspberries at all. New diseases are occurring and you just hope the research can keep up with them.

Seedlings in Joy Larkcom’s greenhouse’s heated propagator, including basil, french beans, flowers and courgettes.
Seedlings in the greenhouse’s heated propagator, including basil, french beans, flowers and courgettes Photograph: Sarah Kate Photography/Sarah Kate Murphy

“It’s totally unpredictable now. I was writing about climate change fairly frivolously about 25 years ago. Back then you just thought: ‘Well, this means we’re going to be able to grow oranges.’ I don’t think anyone had any concept of the devastating implications we’re now aware of: wide-scale drought and water shortages, extreme storms.”

As for growing crops at home, Larkcom advises: “Be as diverse as possible; be adventurous with what you grow – you may get away with things you couldn’t in the past. It could become much easier to grow Mediterranean crops such as tomatoes, peppers and melons in the open, or semi-tropical squashes, okra, soya and yardlong beans.”

She also suggests that we, as consumers, change our ways. “People won’t eat anything with a blemish on it – so many people don’t have contact with freshly grown vegetables and don’t realise how you can eat a scabby apple, for example. This thing about bringing stuff across the world, such as bananas or avocados, is so ludicrous. We’ve got to cut down on transport and appreciate there’s plenty that can be grown on our own shores.”

Joy Larkcom’s top five homegrown vegetables

Salad mixes

Mixed salad leaves growing in ground

For a small space, salad mixes offer really good value. “Almost all seed companies do salad mixes, and because they’re a mixture, something in them is going to work. Last year I sowed a ‘spicy’ salad mix in an old fish crate that washed up on the beach here, and they’ve grown quite big – I just snip the leaves with scissors.”

Chilli peppers
Chillis grow as well on a sunny windowsill as in a cold greenhouse. “I always grow Hungarian Hot Wax chilli peppers. I find them much easier than ordinary peppers and they have a lovely mild flavour.”


San Marzano tomatoes on the vine
San Marzano tomatoes. Photograph: JLM Photos/Shutterstock

Larkcom favours blight-resistant tomato varieties such as the heavy-cropping Ferline and the newer Mountain Magic. “Another really good tomato I always grow is San Marzano. On the whole it’s a very good cropper – it makes these solid-fleshed tomatoes that I pick and bung straight in the freezer; they’re much better than the normal plum-shaped ones.”

Perpetual spinach
“If people haven’t got much space, perpetual spinach is a very good, reliable plant. It doesn’t taste quite as good as spinachy-spinach, but it’s much less likely to run to seed and nothing much seems to attack it.”


komatsuna growing in soil

Larkcom considers this crunchy brassica leaf underrated, useful and very hardy. “If you’re sick to death of the normal kales and cabbages, it’s a lovely winter crop. You can grow it close together to cut as small leaves or space it further apart for a larger mature plant.”


Matt Collins

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Spring is coming: time to plan growing crops for the season ahead
It’s time to think about what veg you’ll grow, and how – especially those that need a long season

Claire Ratinon

24, Feb, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Why grow beans at home? It’s easy, they’re great for your health and good for the planet
Fresh, demi-sec or dried, the bean is a nutritional powerhouse. And they’re one of the easiest vegetables to grow – so no need to buy frozen or canned

Alys Fowler

22, Apr, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
2022 gardening guide: what to do from January to June to make your summer bloom
It might be cold, but this is the perfect time to get into your garden and start preparing for a bountiful summer. Here’s a month-by month primer of key jobs

Lia Leendertz

08, Jan, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
For a strong veg crop, lavish your seedlings with tender, loving care
During the cool days of spring, sprouting plants need extra help to ensure they make it through to the summer

Claire Ratinon

24, Mar, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Leaf or romaine: how to make your salad days last all year long
With careful sowing and picking, your salad can last through the winter

Alys Fowler

14, May, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
Why climate-change gardening means breaking all the rules
Manage your soil and your planting with global heating in mind and you’ll not only save time and effort, but have a healthier plot

Kim Stoddart

04, Dec, 2021 @11:00 AM

Article image
Gardening can save the planet. How? Start with your soil | Alys Fowler
Sustainable gardening isn’t hard: nurture your soil, save your seeds … and compost

Alys Fowler

25, Sep, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
How to grow happy garlic | Alys Fowler
Give garlic what it wants – sunshine, sweet soil and some elbow room – and it will reward you with fat, juicy cloves

Alys Fowler

16, Oct, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
Predicting the last frost is tricky, so start your seeds off under cover
Many vegetables can be started off indoors or in a propagator now – and planted out once the risk of freezing to death is finally over

Claire Ratinon

10, Mar, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Mulch ado! How to have extremely healthy garden soil
Good earth is at the heart of my approach to growing – and now is the perfect time to give it a boost

Claire Ratinon

07, Apr, 2023 @10:00 AM