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Gaby Bartai delves into her collection of archive seed catalogues for insights into vegetable history

My collection of vintage seed catalogues began one night in Budapest around the turn of the millennium, when my grandfather emerged from the depths of a cupboard with a stack of British seed catalogues from the 1970s.These, it transpired, had been given to him by my Scottish grandfather – one gardener to another, a bridge across an impossible linguistic divide.

Captivated, I brought them home, and have added to the collection over the years. Those 1970s catalogues opened a window on a different world: Suttons packet prices starting at 4p; what we would call heritage varieties listed as standard; how to address a telegram to Unwins.The bigger surprise, though, was how much in catalogues from earlier in the century is familiar. We imagine that growing for flavour and nutritional value, cosmopolitan tastes and awareness of organics are modern sophistications – but you can trace all of those back through the decades.

George Bunyard’s 1935 Vegetables for Epicures catalogue exhorts its readers to select varieties for flavour rather than cosmetic perfection: “Too long have vegetables been chosen for such majestic contours as would assure a prize at the vegetable show.” Among the vast array of seeds on offer in Carter’s Blue Book of 1937 are ‘uncommon vegetables’ including New Zealand spinach, Chinese cabbage, Cape gooseberries, okra and yellow tomatoes – “which when preserved with sugar are not unlike apricot jam”. In 1939 Carter’s says: “A constant supply of fresh vegetables in the choicest varieties of proved dietetic value is of inestimable value to the health of the Nation.” Organic seed – hailed as a breakthrough when it appeared in mainstream catalogues in 1998 – was actually first offered byThompson&Morgan in 1977. On the other hand, in the 1984 Dobies catalogue, the vegetable listings still include tobacco, and one of the cabbages has a racially offensive name.The gentleman pictured using the Autospade is wearing a shirt with cufflinks and a tie. There’s a double page spread headed Garden Chemicals, virtually all of which have now been banned. Peppers and winter squashes are few and foreign, and courgettes are a novelty kind of marrow.

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This month: - Win garden goodies - Great giveaways worth over £1412 - Wiggle Wonders - how worms can boost your harvest - Free parsnip and pepper seeds + claim free currant duo - Pick of the crops - 12 must-grow treats from rasberries to leeks - New season new seeds - latest news on varieties from 2018 - Dare to be different with winter melons & medlars - Plant your own beauty products - 3-pages garlic growing guide - Copositing kit tried & tested - Delicious seasonal recipes