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Trench Warfare

The second in a series of monthly Ecologist columns on the joys of allotmenteering

The Ecologist, March 2006

How many of you have heard of the National Seed List? I certainly hadn't until I got my allotment a few years ago. When I did, I couldn't quite believe my ears.

It's common knowledge that corporate control of the food chain has led to a decline in the sheer variety of fruit and veg grown in Britain. Of the estimated 6000 native varieties of apple, for example, you might find a few dozen in the shops, and traditional orchards are falling like ninepins. The Victorians grew 120 different varieties of tall peas - these days you'll come across one or two in the supermarket, mostly frozen or in tins. What's less well-known is how the authorities have colluded in this decline.

Upon joining the European Union in the 1970s, the UK was required to create a National Seed List. Selling any type of seed not featured on the list was - and is - a criminal offence. In other words the EU, via your own government, tells you what you can and can't get hold of to grow on your allotment - with real implications for diversity. It costs money, time and effort to get a seed on the national list; if you're not a commercial grower, it's not worth the hassle. This means that hundreds of old, traditional and quirky varieties have either fallen off the list or never featured on it.

I mention this because it's the time of year to start ordering your seeds. For the beginner this can be a daunting process, and the easiest option is to pop down the garden centre and buy yourself packets of anything you fancy the look of. Nothing wrong with this - it's an easy and accessible way to start. But you might have a more interesting year if you look a bit further afield and try some older, rarer and more intriguing varieties.

But didn't I just say they were illegal? Well, yes - but there are ways around the absurd National List. One of them has been put into practice by the brilliant Heritage Seed Library (HSL), part of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), one of the country's oldest advocates of organic gardening. The HSL maintains a collection of 700 old and fascinating seeds which you won't find in the shops. Instead of selling them directly - which would be illegal - the HSL works on a membership basis. You pay an annual fee to join (currently £16), and every year you can choose twelve varieties of seed from its catalogue.

This is a great way to pepper your plot with some fascinating stuff. Furthermore, HDRA itself has its own Organic Gardening Catalogue, selling more mainstream seeds. You can even order from it online, and explore their website at the same time for advice on what to grow, when and in what conditions.

So what's worth growing? For beginners and experts alike the answer remains the same: whatever you like eating. Nevertheless, it's good to start off with crops that are reasonably easy to grow. You might fancy asparagus, for example, but you'll have to cultivate the bed for two years before you get a crop. If you want something on the table this summer, there are easier ways to go.

No-one should be prescriptive about what to grow, because the real joy of an allotment is that it's your personal space, to experiment on as you will. So instead, I'll just end this month by listing a few of my favourite staples.

Potato: absolutely the easiest thing to grow ever. Choose three varieties - one early, one maincrop and one late - and you'll have fresh potatoes from May till October. My favourite: Pink Fir Apple, an old Victorian variety which looks weird but tastes exquisite.

Sweetcorn: Will need a lot of watering, and you'll need to put a net over the seeds when you plant them so the birds don't get there first, but the results will be out of this world. My favourite: Sweet Nugget.

Carrot: Success here will depend on the type of soil you have, but they're so easy to sow that it's worth a shot. The Heritage Seed Library has ancient carrots of many colours, from pure white (White Kuttiger) to deep crimson (Scarlet Horn).

Courgette and Squash: These will take up a lot of space and need a lot of water, but they're easy to grow and will provide plentiful, regular and tasty crops. Try Gold Bush courgettes for a deep yellow crop, and a butternut squash for fantastic winter soups and stews.

Tomato: Tomatoes need a bit of care, and if you get a dry summer they may get hit by the dreaded blight, an airborne fungal disease. But success will be rewarding. There are dozens of Heritage varieties to choose from: try an Orange Banana, a Snow White Cherry or an Ivory Egg, and see what you get!

French Bean: A dwarf variety will take up less space (you won't need beanpoles). Purple Queen is as colourful as the name suggests and tastes exquisite.

I could go on all day, but it looks like I've run out of space. Happy ordering!

This month's links:
HDRA/ Heritage Seed Library: www.gardenorganic.org.uk
Organic Gardening Catalogue: www.organiccatalog.com