Three cheers for the Heritage Seed Library

31 March 2013

I belong to an organisations known these days as Garden Organic – it used to be the Henry Doubleday Research Association (you can see why they changed the name). It exists to encourage and educate people about organic gardening and horticulture, and does some seriously good work. One of their major on-going projects is the Heritage Seed Library (HSL), with which they are aiming to save the varieties of vegetable seed that would otherwise pass into extinction.

When James, aged 3, was asked where peas come from he said, quite understandably for a city child, "from packets". So here he is leaning that peas come from pods.

When James, aged 3, was asked where peas come from he said, quite understandably for a city child, “from packets”. So here he is leaning that peas come from pods.

The need for this stems from what is, to my mind, an example of well-intentioned legislation having unintended consequences. Within the EU you can only sell varieties of vegetable plants that are on your national list, which is intended to stop seeds being sold under false variety names and help keep the varieties pure and suitable for commercial use, which all sounds quite sensible (you can see details at https://www.gov.uk/national-lists-of-agricultural-and-vegetable-crops  if you don’t believe me). If you, as a grower, develop a new variety and want it to be put on the list, the cost of it being trialled to test it is as you describe falls on you, and you have to officially maintain it; this is an expensive process, so you are only going to do it if the returns are going to be worthwhile. You are not, therefore, going to be interested in growing older varieties that do not match the need of modern vegetable growers, who want uniformity (so the supermarkets will buy them), good disease resistance, and for the all the peas, carrots or whatever to be harvestable at one time, so they can do it mechanically.

So far, so good, but what if we find we need a potato, say, with a greater disease resistance, or a cucumber which will cope with colder weather conditions? Or possibly just one with bettr flavour. The answer is that you look to see what varieties you have with these qualities, so you can usethem to enhance the needed quality. But what if the variety with the desired qualities are not on the list, and therefore not available – i.e. you have lost biodiversity? The anser is that you are in trouble – viruses mutate too fast for us to keep up, and we are upsetting the planet’s weather systems so badly we don’t know what is coming next – but at the same time, we are losing the biodiversity which we need to help us cope – madness!

Fortunately some people are doing something about it, and the Heritage Seed Library is one of them. They obtain old varieties of vegetable seed, and both they and a collection of seed guardians grow them and save the seed regularly, to keep them going. You cannot, however, legally sell these seeds, so you join the Heritage Seed Library, and as a member you are entitled to six packets of seed every year. I find it like being a child in a sweet shop, trying to decide how to spend your pocket money, and it is somehow more fun than going through the commercial seed catalogues, where you can buy whatever you can afford. I’m particularly keen on the very tall varieties of peas they can supply – the shorter types that you get these days are designed to be mechanically harvested. As most of us will pick our peas by hand, however, it seems silly to me not to take advantage of the one dimension all gardens have in abundance: height. We’ve devised a system whereby we’ve got small-mesh netting on a wooden frame that is the length of our beds and six feet tall, which can be moved so we can rotate our crops from year to year, and it works very well.

Chris watering newly planted peas - showing the tall pea frame

Chris watering newly planted peas – showing the tall pea frame

Given the topic of this blog, you might be asking what good are veg to wildlife.  Well, I can certainly vouch for how much slugs and snails like runner beans, that the caterpillars of the Large White butterfly like kohl rabi and the carrot fly flourishes on you know what. It’s still worth growing your own veg – get out there and plant a bean today!

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2 Comments to “Three cheers for the Heritage Seed Library”

  1. Very nice article, totally what I was looking for.

    • Glad you liked it. I think people/organisations like Organic Gardening and the Heritage Seed Library are doing such good work, and they get shamefully little acclaim for it.

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