Seed Swapping for Biodiversity

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One of the most exciting activities in winter for a gardener and vegetable grower has to be planning the year ahead. I have pretty much bought the lion share of my seeds for this year, inevitably I have bought more than I can probably grow realistically, but who isn’t tempted to do the same! I have chosen some different companies this year such as Simpsons, The Real Seed Catalogue, Premier Seeds Direct (eBay), RP Seeds as well as from my regulars such as the Organic Gardening company, Dobies and Suttons. I also pick up seeds here and there in garden centres, this year I found some from Jamie Oliver which I thought I would give a try.

I expect most of us do the same, collecting seed from all over the country, but really is it the best thing to be doing for the biodiversity of our gardens?

When leafing through The Real Seed Catalogue, I came across this excerpt:

Why Not Save Your Own Seed?

Until recently, every gardener in the world saved their own seed. And every gardener was, therefore, a plant breeder. They simply saved the seed of the plants that did best for them, and which they liked most. Although simple, this was efficient.

Each gardener was maintaining a slightly different strain of each vegetable, and this made for a huge living genebank that was very resilient against disease or climate change. If things changed so that your cabbages didn’t do well, someone down the road had a slightly different one that would cope. This has worked very well for the past 11,000 years. That includes the Bronze Age, the building of the Pyramids, the rise and fall of all the major empires. Every year, without even thinking about it, millions of people added to the achievements of their ancestors to maintain and improve the previous years’ varieties. Because their seed was real, open-pollinated seed, every seed was a bit different, so it was widely adapted, but also adaptable – it could cope with all sorts of change.

Now, we have thrown this all away. In the past 40 years, almost all these adaptable local strains have been lost. Gardeners have forgotten how to save their own seed. They are sold hybrids, where every seed is identical, in every packet, year after year – no adaptability for different soils, or for changes in climate over time. And because these hybrid seeds are all the same in every field in every country, people have to bludgeon the environment into some sort of ‘standard’ growing medium with fertilisers and chemicals, to grow their standardised seeds.

Should the climate change, or the supply of cheap oil (to make all these chemicals) dry up, then these hybrids will do badly, and there will be no real seeds left to breed from.

Profits for the seed companies now, but disaster in the future . . . real farming is a project that has been ongoing for millennia, but now in the height of our tiny period of cheap oil, we think we know better and have turned it into just another industrial process. Peoples food should represent stored sunlight and water, but 90% of its calories come from oil these days – for the ploughing, spraying, fertiliser, transport.

When the oil runs out, who will have the real seeds that can grow without it?

There are many interesting points raised here, but the overall message I am stunned by, that we have as a culture dismissed 11,000 years of farming knowledge for ‘progress’ in the past 40 years.

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This past week, BBC Radio 4’s Gardener’s Question Time was broadcast from the Seedy Sunday seed swap in Brighton which is pretty local to me in Eastbourne. I was annoyed to have not heard of it, as it would have been the perfect opportunity for me to collect some locally grown seeds that have adapted to our local climate and soil conditions. We should all be doing the same, whether we garden on allotments or at home, we should swap seeds with interested neighbours for our own benefits. Perhaps if we all set up our own local seed swapping service in our local community this practise could be re-established?

But for now, I’ll be swapping seed with my mum! and who knows this may even help our bees as well.

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Vegetable patch, 2012 – 2013 and something a bit different

Needless to say 2012 was a bit of a washout for all us veggie growers. None of the usual principles of vegetable growing applied, so it really was an ad-hoc experience. The dry spring heralded a dry summer, but as we are fast learning, nature has a way of readjusting and compensating for itself. The previous year had been pretty dry all winter and most of the summer, so I guess the rain of 2013 was making up for that. It was my first year watching my new garden. Most of the experts recommend you should leave an inherited garden for a whole round of seasons to see what grows (or doesn’t in my case!) I will talk more about that in my posts on the beds and borders, but there was no veggie plot to speak of here.

Back in March I marked out four squares in a grid intersected by paths. There were already remnants of flowers beds down each side of the garden, which I thought I could use to grow perennial veg such as strawberries, rhubarb and trained fruit bushes. I also had my compost area and comfrey bushes here.

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I managed to lift the turf and prepared three of the veg beds, all but the top right corner one (the one marked with diagonal stripes) The beds on the left are a good friable soil, black and workable while the ones on the right are heavy clay and will need years of improvement. I did manage to grow beans and peas though this year, but they took a while to get going because of the clay. I grew potatoes later in the year to break the soil up a bit and it’s definitely helped. Interestingly my soil test came back as neutral, but my no.1 weed is doc, which normally prefers acid soil.

The bed at the top right houses my asparagus (at the top) which I transplanted from my allotment. I also planted some young new varieties bought at the garden centre, and I also planted the white asparagus I grew from seed. I left them all alone last year, just mulched and weeded, but am hoping to have some success from the older crowns this year if they haven’t been too stressed. Lower down this bed I grew carrots and parsnips pretty successfully as the soil suits roots here. I also tried summer calabrese which was fabulous all summer, so will definitely try that again.

March -veg beds

March -veg beds

 

Veg garden in it's glory

Veg garden in it’s glory

In November and December we had floods that pretty much decimated my vegetable patch, ruining the soil, leaving a green slime and sodden ground that I could not touch. Since this has happened, I have learned there is a dried up stream beneath our garden that floods in heavy rain. Having sited my veg patch here was not the best idea. There really isn’t a suitable place to move it to, so I have decided to raise the beds and add topsoil in the hope it will avoid the worst of flooding if it happens again. I have bought some old scaffold boards which I’ll gradually use to build the beds over the year, which does mean I may constrained on what I can grow early on this year.

The beds down the side also flooded so they will need raising too, I will use these for salads and nursery beds eventually.

This year I’m planning to grow some unusual varieties and grains to supplement the larder next winter. We cook a lot of soups and stews, so the addition of grains, dried peas and beans would really be welcome. I’ve ordered Quinoa and a Latvian soup pea for starters, and I recently picked up a packet of dwarf berlotti beans from Jamie Oliver’s range called ‘Berlotto’. I’ve always had more success with dwarf beans than the climbing varieties.

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As for the other unusual things, here’s a quick list of new plants I’m going to try:

Beetroot Choggia – striped pink and white concentric circles inside

Jaune obtuse du doubs – carrot that’s yellow inside

Melothrie – small cylindrical climbing cucumber

Tomato Black Russian – Black plum variety

Other new things I’m trying this year are Kale, Chard (white variety) and Chicory. I’m also growing two types of chilli after a year off chillis.

Here’s to a fabulous summer growing season!