THIS YEAR marks a milestone for the sweet pea in Britain. It is 300 years since the first seeds were sent to Dr Uvedale, an Enfield schoolmaster, by Franciscus Cupani, a Sicilian monk. The seed firm Unwins, which specialises in sweet peas, is introducing several new varieties to mark the tricentenary. `Sir Cliff', named after Cliff Richard, is a striking rosy-purple colour.
`Rosy Dawn' was bred by crossing a large, frilly Spencer sweet pea, `Mrs Bernard Jones', with the 19th-century variety `America', which, though small, had flowers marked with a distinctive pattern of contrasting rays. The new variety has flowers much bigger than the norm, white imprinted with rays of orange-pink.
Some experts favour autumn sowing. Mice have dissuaded me from that. I sow in late January or early February, setting seven seeds in a 5-in pot. Water, cover with cling film, then leave the pot until the seedlings poke through. This happens very quickly,
Over-watering is fatal while the seeds are germinating. Like other legumes, sweet pea seeds can absorb too much water for their own good, which causes the cells to self-destruct. Top growers sow on a thin layer of sharp sand spread on compost, then cover the seeds with more compost. Set outside as soon as you can. Seedlings are hardy and grow leggy if they are kept inside too long. Plant in permanent positions in late March or early April. For Unwins' catalogue, call 01945 588522.
TWENTY-ONE MORE trees have been added to the Great Trees of London register and given green plaques by the London Tree Forum. They include Britain's tallest plane tree, beside the Thames at Richmond; London's oldest plane, in nearby Barnes; the Kenley House oak in Croydon; and an ancient churchyard yew in Charles Darwin's village of Downe. For details of the Great Trees and how to nominate one, contact the London Tree Forum, PO Box 15146, London WC2B 6SJ.
THE EAST Anglian seedsmen Marshalls are inviting customers to trial a new potato, `Osprey'. Anyone who orders two or more 6kg packs of potatoes from the catalogue will get five free `Osprey' tubers.
The potato was bred from `Kestrel' and is an early maincrop variety, with good resistance to scab, and a smooth skin, marked with shallow purple eyes, like the Scottish favourite `Catriona'.
In Marshalls' own trials, `Osprey' produced at least 5lb of potatoes from each plant and was ready to dig by late July.
Two dozen different kinds of potato are listed in Marshalls' catalogue, from `Swift', the earliest of earlies, to `Pink Fir Apple', the gourmet potato that need not be harvested until October. `Pink Fir Apple' has another advantage, too. The tubers do not sprout in the sack at this time of the year, as so many other kinds do. Try it. Once you have tasted it, you will never want to be without it. For a copy of Marshalls' catalogue, write to them at Wisbech, Cambs PE13 2RF or call 01945 466711.