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Variety is the spice of life: potatoes at the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show

Now here’s an exciting early Christmas present. Just chosen my six varieties from the Heritage Seed Library’s catalogue, which plopped into my email inbox on the first day of this month – about the most eagerly anticipated bit of virtual mail I’ve had for a long time.

The HSL is a fine institution, dedicated to preserving some of our oldest (and more recently most unusual) vegetables.

Heritage veg are increasingly finding their way into catalogues, and all sorts of things are making something of a comeback, from red-flowered broad beans to Telephone peas, baby ‘finger’ carrots and Lazy Housewife beans.

But the HSL deals with the extreme end of heritage: those varieties which have been passed on from father to son and mother to daughter, kept in packets in the back of sheds, collected again at the end of the season and resown the next.


Pea ‘Magnum Bonum’

True heirlooms, in other words, often passed on only to neighbours in a scruffy brown envelope without a second thought, the owner barely aware of what a little nugget of unique history they have in their guardianship. Many of these hand-me-down varieties are balanced precariously on the knife-edge of existence, the only ones left of their kind.

It’s these rarities which the HSL preserves in the interest of maintaining the diversity – genetic and general – of the vegetables we grow. Without them we’d all be condemned to circling around an ever-dwindling handful of veg approved by the supermarkets for uniformity, ease of mechanical picking and reliability. And where’s the fun in that?

The HSL is not allowed to sell its seed: they don’t conform to EU rules because their inherent variability means they can’t pass the tests on distinctiveness, uniformity and stability. That means they can’t be listed on the National List of approved vegetable cultivars: so they can’t be sold.

The get-around for this has been simply to make HSL a charity, and give away six packets of seed to each member in return for the membership fee. Heritage varieties preserved; interesting varieties spread around more gardens; members happy. Simples!

So here are the six varieties I’m going to be growing next year. None of them I’ve ever grown before: all are hug-yourself exciting for different reasons. Can’t wait!

Asparagus kale: I’ve grown this one before, actually, but it never quite made it to the asparagus stage so I’m having another go. The plant grows just like kale, then in spring – just in time for the hungry gap – sends up delicious flower spikes which you eat just like broccoli. So it’s a dual-purpose veg really: my favourite kind.

Lablab bean ‘Vasu’s 30 Day Dwarf Papri’: Last time I grew lablab it was gorgeous but never made it to podding stage (flowers were lovely though). My conclusion was it needs more heat and light then we can give it here in the UK: but this one is said to get to flowering stage in 30 days, so I’m giving it another try.

Lettuce ‘Soulie’: I’m always up for a new variety of lettuce, and this has many things going for it. It’s French: tick. A cos variety; tick. Slow to bolt: tick. And it even has a red tinge to the leaves so the slugs should leave it alone. Sounds great.

Pea ‘Magnum Bonum’: I first saw this tall pea in a polytunnel at Knightshayes in Devon and have wanted to grow it ever since. It’s got the huge yields of all tall peas and the pods are said to stay well on the plant too.

Shark Fin Melon ‘Joe Dalgleish’: oooh shark fin melons… no idea what they taste like, no idea what to do with them, but anything that produces a triffid-like plant of stems 2m plus and massive watermelon-sized fruits has to be worth a go.

Squash ‘Sucrette’: good job I’ve got quite a big garden as this one’s a monster too. Huge yellow squashes with warty skins, weighing in at about 1kg each. And it’s French, so should have a good flavour too.