Looking through a seed catalog can produce a haze of confusion, especially if you're new to vegetable growing, or are trying to choose a variety of vegetable that you haven't grown before. There are so many varieties. Why should you choose a Red Salad Bowl lettuce over a Red Fire?
The Award of Garden Merit (AGM) in the UK and All-America Selections (AAS) in the United States can help make the choice easier, as both these awards highlight cultivars that are particularly worth growing.
What is the Award of Garden Merit (AGM)?
The AGM, run by the Royal Horticultural Society, is the older scheme, set up in 1922. It received a complete overhaul in 1992 when a new list of 3,600 plants was drawn up. New awards are made every year, but the list is now reviewed periodically, to ensure that every variety is still available, hasn't developed disease or pest problems, and hasn't been superseded by something better. In the 2012 review, for example, the crab apple 'Comtessa de Paris' replaced 'Golden Hornet', which can suffer scab.
Just because a vegetable has an AGM, does not mean it will do well when poorly looked after, but it's given to vegetables, fruit and herbs that are, among other things, "excellent for ordinary use in appropriate conditions". In addition, they have proved to be "reasonably resistant to pests and diseases" (music to the ears of any gardener) and you can rely on them to be robust and produce a consistent harvest.
A large number of plants hold AGMs at any one time. In 2010, of the 7439 awards held, 1083 were fruit and vegetable cultivars, with brassicas (holding 240 AGMs) well ahead of their nearest rivals, the onion family (110) and lettuce (88). The varieties are generally selected through plant trials at the RHS gardens, or by recommendations by RHS Plant Committees and specialists. The trials may be of new varieties or those that have been on the market for some time, and a full list of fruit and vegetables can be found at RHS Plant Trials and Awards.
What is the All-America Selections (AAS)?
The AAS is slightly younger and somewhat different. The judges and the trial grounds vary from year to year but only four categories are judged: Flower, Bedding Plant, Vegetable, Cool Season Bedding Plant, and only never-before-sold varieties are tested.
For the last ten years, a vegetable has only gained an award if it offers two significantly improved qualities on previous varieties, such as earliness or length of harvest, disease or pest resistance. Since its inception in 1932, only 707 awards have been given out, with some years seeing as few as four. The most ever awarded was 30 in 1934. The full list can be searched at Winners of All-America Selections.
How to Choose from the AGM and AAS
In listings, look for the AAS's little red, white and blue logo (although some companies don't bother to include this with older, well-established varieties). An AGM is indicated by either the letters 'AGM' or a picture of a little cup against the name.
Alternatively you can go to the source. As the numbers of AAS winners are quite small, it's relatively easy to filter the list on their website and check if a cultivar of the vegetable you're interested in is listed. Even where the cultivar has been around a long time, as with the 1949 winning radish 'Cherry Belle', it is generally still available.
Choosing an AGM winner can take a bit more time. They've all reached a particular standard, so you can expect them to perform reliably and well and could just plump for one that appeals in the seed catalog.
However, there's quite a choice (think of all those cabbages). The AGM listings on the RHS website, where you'll find more detailed descriptions than in many catalogs, will help you narrow the field.
It's also worth noting that many of the award-winners are F1 varieties. We covered the advantages of these in Which are Better? Hybrid or Open-Pollinated Seeds, and they are often robust and disease-resistant. However, they are also beloved of commercial producers because they tend to produce all their fruit at once. For the home grower, this means careful successional sowing, if you are not to create a glut. However, by checking out the AGM listings you can see immediately which open-pollinated ones have proved worthy.
No indication is made of whether a cultivar has vastly exceeded the AGM requirements, so it's still a matter of trial and error as to whether, for example, you find you prefer Redbor kale to Reflex but, whatever you choose (and whether it has an AAS or an AGM), you have the assurance that a wide range of independent assessors have looked at the varieties and found them rewarding.
AGM Beetroot Red Ace F1
AGM Carrot Eskimo F1
AGM Parsnip Javelin F1
Pictures (except AGM logo) kindly supplied by Mr Fothergill's
By Helen Gazeley