There were two things that inspired me to grow my own veg. The early River Cottage series was the obvious one, but perhaps a more obscure influence was the book in the picture: The Profitable Culture of Vegetables, written by Thomas Smith and first published in 1911.
I grew up in an Essex village called Mayland, and when I realised I’d soon be leaving the place of my birth to move in with my girlfriend, I started to research Mayland’s history as a kind of goodbye to home.
I made a few trips to the Essex Records Office and dug out some books, and as it turned out, Mr. Smith was largely responsible for the growth of Mayland when he set up an experimental smallholding on an 11-acre plot in 1896. He moved down from Manchester and advertised for ‘Socialist Settlers’ to join him in the village.
Impressed by Mr. Smith’s efforts, an American soap manufacturer and philanthropist, Joseph Fels, bought the neighbouring 600-acre Nipsells Farm and made it available as smallholdings to those in poverty and unable to find work. The farm, which sits right next to where I grew up, was divided into 5 acres each, and Mr. Smith was asked by Mr. Fels to supervise the sites.
I got hold of copies of the census from around this time and began mapping the village, paying particular attention to those who listed their occupation as ‘market gardener’.
As many of the smallholders were from London and inexperienced in horticulture, Smith would lecture them on cultivating their land, and after a while, the tenants expressed an opinion that these lectures should be put into print.
And so, via a small printing press, Smith produced a run of The Profitable Culture of Vegetables from his Mayland residence, the Homestead.
The book was a success and several more editions were published. I’ve got the 1937 edition, and I love it for its quirky old fashioned language, pioneering undercover ‘French gardening’ experiments and fascinating black and white photos of smallholders working the fields in Mayland all those years ago.
The thing that intrigued me most however was the old varieties that were recommended in the book. I loved all the names, such as London Flag leeks, Laxton’s Superb peas, and Paynes Royal tomato. They have an aura of history, like a Lake District crag on an OS map.
Of course, you can’t find most of these old varieties in the garden centres nowadays, but when I discovered the beautiful Thomas Etty catalogue I vowed to try and grow some of the varieties that made their way on to the plots of the experimental settlement.
Thomas Etty stock a number of the heritage varieties that were grown in Mayland, such as Ailsa Craig tomatoes, Bedfordshire Prize Ridge cucumbers, Dwarf Green Curled kale, Cheltenham Greentop beets, and the amazing Black Spanish Long winter radish.
The kind folk of Twitter also pointed me in the direction of some other heritage suppliers, so I’m busy trying to track down the other seeds I need for this year, based on those suggested in The Profitable Culture of Vegetables. It’s very addictive, and not dissimilar to tracking down stickers for my football sticker book like I used to as a kid.
My favourite find so far is the Essex Star pea, first introduced by nearby E W King’s Seeds in 1905, and part of Garden Organic’s Adoptaveg scheme.
By adopting a variety, it helps to conserve the rare vegetables, pay for the seed handling, storage and propagation facilities, as well as the staff needed to look after Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library.
I’m very excited about receiving my seeds and playing a part in preserving an old variety, especially a local one that played a role in my home village’s history.
For now, I’m back in my googling. If anyone knows where I could get hold of a Market King tomato, that’d be splendid…