It’s not often I agree with the Daily Mail. In fact I can’t think of another occasion, but a kindly email drew my attention to an article in that newspaper in which Max Hastings had included the great Dr D.G. Hessayon among his own list of 60 Truly Great Elizabethans. It was an idiosyncratic collection to say the least, with berths for Lord King of Watnaby, James Herriot, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Lew Grade among others. While there are a number of figures with whom I would quibble, I warmly welcome the place for Dr DG Hessayon.
His is not a name, which garners many headlines, but when it comes to growing veg, Dr Hessayon is a god. He has any number of other gardening books to his name – at least 22 by my count – but it’s The Vegetable & Herb Expert (Expert Books; £7.99) that is my breakfast cheer and my supper solace.
I don’t read Dr Hessayon for fine phrases or vegetable poetry. In truth, his style is as basic and unadorned as loam and compost, but that is its great strengths. Here is the great man on Preparing The Seed Bed – ‘The first job is to break down the clods which you have brought up with the winter digging using a hand cultivator or a garden form. Work on the push-pull principle to shatter the large lumps and roughly level the surface – do let the prongs or tines go deeper that 6in. below the surface.’ What precision. What clarity. What sense.
Or here he is on peas – ‘ as soon as the pod is pulled from the plant, the sugar content of the pea starts to turn to starch. If you want to taste just how good peas can be the pick the peas when the pods are quite small and within an hour boil the shelled peas for 10 minutes in a small amount of water to which a sprig of mint has been added.’ If only all explanations were so lucid and advice carried so much authority.
It’s all there: Getting Started; Crop Rotation; Digging; Manuring; Sowing Indoors and Out; Liming; Mulching, Weeding; Thinning; Feeding, Watering, Spraying. And the vegetables, themselves, of course, all the ones you’re likely to grow, from Artichokes (globe and Jerusalem, naturally) to Turnips, with their diseases, troubles and insect invaders, all in prose that is as plain a pike staff and clear as a chalk stream. In a kind of counter-intuitive alchemy, such unadorned prose brings everything into the realm of the possible, while never disguising the problems and mysteries of growing. It gives a clear-eyed practicality to the romance and optimism of growing veg, and by making the whole business of sowing and reaping so matter-of-fact, so boring dare I say, it becomes inspirational. It makes me feel as if my annual, cheery optimism is based on sound principles.
Of course nature has a way of disabusing the cheery optimist. OK, so this year hasn’t been a great year so far for my peas or broad beans. My carrots have struggled. The French beans have fallen prey to slugs and snails and so on and so on, but none of that is Dr Hessayon’s fault. With The Vegetable & Herb Expert in my hand there is always hope. And next year.