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Last week I trundled around the North Circular at slightly less than walking pace (being a country bumpkin these days I’d forgotten to think this through: Olympic Lanes plus standard rush hour traffic equals journey demanding nightmarish levels of endurance) on my way to East Anglia. It took me four hours to get about 20 miles.
But anyway: I put all that behind me as soon as I walked onto the modest but treasure-filled trials grounds at Mr Fothergill’s (also home to Johnsons Seeds and DT Browns, so you get three for the price of one, so to speak).
I was there on my annual pilgrimage to East Anglia (where for reasons buried in the mists of horticultural lore most of the seed companies seem to be based) to get a sneak peek at this year’s new varieties.
There are dozens of them, too: the results of years of labouring behind the scenes to select flowers and veg which are just that little bit different. This year there were mini cabbages (container gardening is a rich seam for breeders), a handsome stripey courgette that hadn’t even got a name yet, and several of the new long, pointed sweet peppers which look more like big chillies.
Courgette ‘TZ 9308’
And there were sweet peas. Row upon row of them, brilliant with colour and a breathtaking sight. Mr Fothergills has declared 2013 the Year of the Sweet Pea and it’s introducing 25 sweet pea varieties to its range including six new ones.
They are quite sumptuous to look at, too, with lots of the deep clarets and burgundies I find so ravishing. My only quibble is that the breeders seem to have left most of the scent behind them on the lab bench: most of these are somewhat fragrant, but it’s a pale shadow of the rich scent of a ‘Cupani’ or ‘Matucana’. Perhaps they’d be best grown with a few of the old favourites threaded among them, just so you don’t forget what a sweet pea ought to smell like.
I adore sweet peas: this year mine have been something of a disappointment (pesky slugs – again) but luckily the school garden I’m currently looking after has two big wigwams of them which nobody’s picking at the moment, it being summer holidays, except me.
It won’t be long before I’m planting next year’s seeds, in loo roll inners, to overwinter in the coldframe. This has been pretty much a foolproof method for me for years now: the overwintered seedlings don’t like being moved around and are a little sulky at first but get going eventually, and I back them up with a second sowing (direct) in about March or April to flower well into summer.
So if you’re poised with your box full of compost-packed loo rolls just itching to get the seeds in – here are a few new pretties to whet your appetite.

‘Beaujolais’
One of the best colours of them all, I thought, though I do have a little thing about this particular shade of flower. Lovely big plant with sturdy straight stems: very little scent though
‘Chelsea Centenary’
Guess what the big fuss is going to be all about next year? You couldn’t really have a Year of the Sweet Pea coinciding with the 100th birthday of the world’s most famous flower show without naming one of your new varieties for it. It’s a multiflora, producing lots of blooms on the same stem, and pretty in a lavender sort of way.
‘Eclipse’
An old-ish variety bred in 1974 and the perfect cutting flower, with long, straight stems and a good clear colour. It was a little more perfumed, too.
‘Fire and Ice’
I liked the two-tone effect you get with this one: mauve, pink, cream and the occasional flower with say a dark purple edging to the petal.
‘Juliet’
I found this charming: flowers the colour of clotted cream just splashed with the most subtle of pink tinges. And hallelujah: it smelled wonderful. Very spicy, perhaps too rich for those who like their sweet peas sweet, but I loved it.
‘Wiltshire Ripple’
My prize for the most intriguing colouring, with flowers the colour of bruised plums. No scent, though.
‘Air Warden’
This one shouted to be noticed with those bright cerise pink flowers: a plant to leap out from the border and demand attention. A little perfume to this one, too.
‘Almost Black’
Mmm…. just look at that colouring. Sex on a stem: sultry, sumptuous, gorgeous. I do love a black flower.
‘Pandemonium’
Last but not least, another of the new varieties: large flowers with those raspberry-ripple blooms gambolling around the ramrod-straight stems.
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