Planting Jim’s Dad’s Garlic Again

A couple of years ago Jim asked us to plant some of his Dad’s garlic. He plants cloves on his birthday and harvests the bulbs on his dad’s birthday. It’s a ritual, a celebration of the memory of his father. He had some cloves and thought we’d like to plant extra garlic. So in they went and we harvested the garlic, ate some and kept some for planting on. His Dad’s garlic has become part of our yearly planting cycle, and is one of the most productive varieties we save each year. We’ve also discovered there are several varieties amongst the garlic we were given, and they’re adapting to our soil conditions.

Jim's Dad's Garlic [1]

They’re in the ground again this year, along with elephant garlic we’ve grown from the bulbils we find every year  on the bulb roots.

Resilience through Seed Saving

You might wonder why I’m writing about seed saving in the middle of winter when we’re recommended to buy our seed from seed catalogues. My winter reading has included ‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook’, with a key section headed “Planning a Seed Garden’. I’ve never really understood this other than as a ‘A good idea’. However, I decided during autumn 2013 to save seed from an Heritage Seed Library Leek variety and this meant re-thinking what I did with the Leek bed. So, back to the seed garden idea.

I generally save seed each year from the easier vegetables, such as lettuce, peas and French Beans, all are self pollinated and don’t cross (easily); I attempted to save broad bean seed about 4 years ago as I had some Heritage crimson flowered seeds, which were quite expensive; I discovered it was possible to save the seed even though all the gardening guides on growing vegetables told me I shouldn’t. What the guidance should have added was, not that I shouldn’t but that I could and should, but also I would need to isolate the variety I intended saving seed from. Unlike French Beans, Broad Beans are similar to Runner Beans and cross-pollinate with plants of the same species. Only after germinating and growing my saved seed did I appreciate what the result might be – I had crimson flowered, pale pink flowered and white-flowered broad bean plants – they’d crossed with the Express Broad Bean variety grown alongside. The way to get back to crimson flowered plants was to rogue out pink & white flowered plants before they cross-pollinated yet again, save seed from the red flowering plants, isolate them and keep saving seed from red flowering plants until I’d selected out the white crosses.  Because cross-pollinating species [out breeders] require a minimum number of plants in order to retain genetic diversity of a variety, this is a time-consuming, although not impossible, task. Again, time reverts to an older framing, seasons and years rather than days or months.

bean seeds

Growing conditions in 2013 made growing food to eat difficult; growing plants to save seed from was equally challenging. The broad beans I intended saving seed from and had isolated with netting (lesson learnt) had all the ripening pods eaten by slugs/snails/squirrels – most likely the squirrels. I didn’t pick those that survived soon enough to dry and ripen off indoors so they rotted in the wet conditions. The same happened to our pea crop marked for seed rather than eating. I did manage to collect the Mooli Radish seed pods from the late sowing I did in early autumn – the pods were almost ready but rain was forecast for several days – I cut the stems and hung them in a warm corner of the kitchen to dry off properly. The good thing about radish seed pods is their hardness so they do survive quite well. However, those left on the allotment provided food for rodents, neat little piles of seed pods at the corners of the beds. However, the lettuce variety I had left to go to seed produced very little viable seed, mainly because they flowered as the weather worsened and it was difficult for pollinators to fly in the wet and wind, so flowers but little pollination and poor seed so I didn’t keep the little that was produced. Therefore, in 2014 I had very little new saved seed and had to rely on what was left from the previous year – I always save more than I’ll ever need, to share, swap, keep some back ‘in case’ I’ve nothing new next year.

Back to my leeks: I left an HSL variety of leek I planted spring 2013 to grow and flower last summer, but I had to plan my beds to accommodate the additional year this group of leek plants were in the ground. I also only saved seed from 1 variety of leek, as these, too, cross-pollinate. Leeks that have flowered sometimes produce bulbils on the flower heads, similar to those I saved from an elephant garlic plant I left to flower just to see what it looked like. These bulbils, according to Cherfas and Fanton in their Seed Savers’ Handbook, can grow faster than seed, so worth saving them if you do see any. Sue Stickland does caution against this in Back Garden Seed Saving, however, since they can carry over leek rust disease which tends to be endemic on allotment sites. However, it was so wet and cold in 2013 that our leek crop avoided rust almost entirely – rust is a fungal disease that develops in hot conditions, so 2013’s cold damp summer meant a healthy leek crop for seed saving.

Knowing more about seed saving and how difficult it can be even with ‘easy’ plants has led me to plan ahead more carefully which varieties I intend to grow for seed and which for food. One thing I’ve learnt about plants I want to save seed from is their categorisation into out breeders and in breeders; Leeks apparently are strong out breeders and should ideally have at least 16 plants for seed to maintain genetic diversity. However, I didn’t realise this when I sowed them, but a way to deal with this, and how to manage seed saving in poor years, is to grow and save seed from the same variety over subsequent years and combine the seed to broaden genetic diversity, over time. The seed remains viable for about 3 years.

The main problem with seeds from the major seed companies is the choice available, usually F1 hybrids that are advertised as ‘reliable croppers’ which usually mean the plants crop at the same time, usual give away: ‘good for the freezer’! These varieties are generally the byproducts of industrial agriculture and are bred for uniformity, cropping at the same time for harvesting by machine, not bred for the allotment grower. The most resilient seed is open pollinated, available from good local seed savers and from local and regional seed companies. Look for information that tells you how the seeds perform in specific conditions. Hybrid seed doesn’t breed true so we go back to the seed companies next year to buy the seed again. I will return to this issue another time, as I’ve discovered its complicated!

Now I understand more about seed saving I’m rather more critical about seed quality, origins, and harvests of anything I’m planning to sow. Consequently I rarely swap my seed at big seed swaps such as Seedy Sunday as the quality and provenance is rarely clear and I’ve picked up some terrible seed in the past. I now swap with other growers on a seasonal basis; Whitehawk Food Project has revived its seed library with their seed and plant swaps; their plan is to share some of their core food crop seeds with a few experienced growers to spread the seed across the city to ensure its survival in case of another terrible growing year like 2013. This makes for a more resilient seed supply, communally grown and shared. It’s also the genesis of a local communal seed bank and the development of seed saving expertise across important food staples, building knowledge about local conditions and seed/crop variability. It’s back to local seed production that reflects local conditions.




Another Sunday

Walking around the Corn Exchange in Brighton: organic cosmetics, turned wood, preserves from ‘scrumped’ fruit, natural spun yarns, complementary this and that: we’re witnessing another farmers’ market/country fair being set up.

But wait a while, and wander round again, with the fair filling up and people searching out the seed stalls scattered amongst the green well-being & natural knick knacks. We watch them gradually gravitate towards the central market place, a ring of tables laden with seeds: searching, exchanging, buying seeds, questioning their provenance, asking advice, sharing information. At its core, Seedy Sunday still retains its seed saving origins.

Seeds [Standing on Common Ground]

We’ve been visiting Whitehawk Community Food Project over the last year since we met up with them at Seedy Sunday 2011 in Brighton. This current film, about seed saving & seed circles, was made at this year’s Seedy Sunday & later up on the Community plot. The Project has been run for over 10 years by a group of 4 volunteer workers, including John, who appears in the film. We particularly like the hens!


Seed Saving is political!

At Brighton & Hove’s 11th Seedy Sunday, the 2 main issues being discussed amongst allotment growers & community growing projects were the 67% rise in allotment rents proposed by the Green council, & the need to move from simple seed swapping to seed saving. I intend posting on the allotment rent rise separately as it raises so many thorny issues.

Seedy Sunday & local seed swap events across the UK are an important point in the growing calendar. In Brighton & Hove, Seedy Sunday has taken place on the 1st Sunday of February since it started 11 years ago; the date’s significant because it’s the beginning of the 1st week of February, the traditional start of spring, celebrated by the Celtic festival of Imbolc.

Seed swaps are an important way of retaining control over the seed we use as growers, & an opportunity to share local knowledge about the plants & foods we grow & eat. However, seed saving has been spread as a ‘good thing’ without much discussion about good practice. There’s an awful lot of ‘bad’ seed floating around, & to be honest, I’ve stopped swapping my seed for anonymous packets on the seed swap stall at Seedy Sunday because of  some of the stuff I’ve taken home. I tend to swap my seeds with people who I know are experienced growers & I’m confident about the quality of their seed. Equally, I know about my seed, can pass on details of its characteristics & how it’s grown in different conditions (drought/cold/heat, etc). Also, what it tastes like & favorite recipes. Continue reading

Winter’s over when my peas start growing!

Last year I was late getting our pea crops in the ground because the winter continued cold & wet through January. On 17th January last year, I noted that we’d had over 1 month of snow, with freezing temperatures. We had also lost our fruit cages due to the weight & volume of snow accumulated. The brassicas that had stood over winter, particularly the Red sprouting Broccoli, had suffered from the freezing temperatures & I had to strip most of the leaves because they’d actually frozen, probably due to the brassica beds being in a frost pocket at the bottom of our allotment. I also noted: ‘Been v. wet-tomorrow promises to be a wet, windy stormy day. We both have storming colds!’ Jan 27th 2010.

For those of you living in colder, more northerly areas, this is probably nothing new, but for the South Downs it is; we have usually very mild winters, but 2010 & 2011 seem to herald a change that is prompting us to re-think our sowing & planting strategies.

I didn’t get our early peas into the ground until mid-April last year, from chitting them in late February, pods at the end of June. I’ve been determined to get a crop earlier this year, so chitted some early peas at the beginning of January,planted out in root trainers, in the ground mid February. To protect the plants from both the cold & the pigeons I enclosed them with blue builders netting (picture below). These were planted out in February; yesterday I took the netting off, put hoops of blue water conduit over & netted with fruitcage netting. I also planted spinach seedlings along each frame (have still to download picture to illustrate this – will post later). I never sow peas in the ground due to marauding mice/rats/squirrels digging them up – I’m not sure even soaking them in urine (recommended by some!) would help. Instead, I soak, chit & plant out in root trainers as explained earlier.

I usually have 2 rows of peas lengthways along each bed; I use chicken wire threaded on posts (old bamboo or stout sticks) with thinner bamboo/sticks threaded along the top to prevent the wire collapsing once the peas have grown. Once I’ve a frame made, since all the beds I’ll grow peas in are approximately the same size, it’s just folded away each autumn/winter & stored until the following spring. I leave enough space between the frames to allow picking comfortably.

early peas-Piccolo Provenzale, in kitchen extension before planting out

Piccolo Provenzale peas planted in bed either side of chickenwire frame

I’ve produced a chart so you can see what I’ve done & the time frames involved; I’ll up-date it as the crops develop. I’m also planting up whole beds, or at least am keeping 1 variety of pea to each frame: this helps when seed-saving so you don’t get confused about what variety you’ve saved & don’t end up with tubs of saved “misc peas’!

You might be interested to note when the full moons were in relation to chitting & planting out:19th Jan, 18th Feb, 19th March.The new moon in January was on the 4th, hence chitting the 1st set of peas on 5-6th. The 19th March full moon was particularly strong & it’s influence seemed to lag particularly over 2 days afterwards (more in a later post).

Pea Variety Soaked/ chitted In root trainers In ground
Piccolo Provencale1 – 1st E round seed 5-6th Jan 16th Jan 21st Feb
Piccolo Provencale2 16-18th Jan 27th Jan 21st Feb
Douce Provence – 1stE round seed 13-14th Feb 23rd Feb 19th March
Early Onward1 – 1stE wrinkled seed 13-14th Feb 23rd Feb 12th March
Robinson HSL (CP) 13-14th Feb 23rd Feb 19th March
Clarke’s Beltony Blue (CP) 13-14th Feb 23rd Feb 19th March
Hugh’s Huge (CP) 13-14th Feb 23rd Feb 19th March
Bijou Giant Sugar Pea (CP) 16-17th March 24th March
Early Onward2 16-17th March 24th March

Seed Saving; or how to stop multi national seed companies from stealing our food heritage

When I got back from Seedy Sunday at Hove Town Hall (Brighton 6th Feb), I started reflecting on the practice of  seed saving & the implications of the loss of seed varieties. I jotted down the following thoughts but never got around to posting – well, here they are:

I currently save mainly peas & french beans (climbing & dwarf) because their growth cycle is easier to manage. However, in 2009/10 I ventured into unknown territory by saving leaf celery seed – a member  of the Umbelliferae, it’s biennial, so I needed to grow plants for 2 years – in the 1st year the plant grows stems & leaves, it dies down in winter, resprouts in its 2nd spring & develops flower spikes. The seed heads ripened slowly, from the top of the stems & the middle of the umbel outward, then downwards. I had to check plants for ripened seed heads – they developed from green through khaki to dark brown, therefore I had to cut small groups of seeds regularly as they ripened, over approximately a month (August-September), as much to catch them as they ripened & before the rain caused the seeds to go mouldy. After that, I just pulled all the plants up & composted as I needed the ground for brassicas. Why did I decide to save leaf celery if it’s so time-consuming to collect, you ask? Check the price of  seed in any catalogue that sells leaf celery – it is extortionate for a tiny amount, usually carefully wrapped in waxed paper (makes you feel it must be worth it)- & like parsley, also in the Umbelliferae family, it germinates erratically, so a small amount of expensive seed might only produce a very small number of plants. Also, by growing & saving seed from strong plants I am selecting seed from those that thrive in our local conditions: chalky soil, local climate. Seed companies have taken control of our supply of seeds, produced F1 hybrids that don’t breed true & aren’t adapted to local soils & climates,-lots of uniform plants all ready at once for harvesting. Open pollinated plants don’t all mature at the same time (necessary for commercial production & mechanical harvesting). Leaf Celery is also very hardy & brilliant for soups, salads & casseroles -it survived the winter temperatures of 2010 despite my forgetting to cover the crowns with leaf mould.

The more you sow & save, the more you know what is going to be successful – always within reason, depending on weather, slugs & other pests.

It’s also important to remember that, by taking control over seed production from local farmers & from women, the global seed conglomerates are contributing to impoverishment & dependency on the part of poorer populations, both in the global South & in areas of the global North where ‘grow your own’ is in danger of becoming a ‘life style choice’ due the costs of seed,tools & land, amongst other things.

suggestions for further reading:

*The Seed Savers Handbook, 1996, Jeremy Cherfas, Michele & Jude Fanton,  Eco-logic books.

Deals with the politics & environmental reasons for seed-saving. Also includes seed saving details. Excellent, although out-of-print it is available 2nd hand

*Roots of Vegetables, 1997, Ray Warner Thomas Etty Esq

Provides a history of many old vegetable varieties, text extracted from contemporary books & catalogues

*Heritage Vegetables 1998, Sue Stickland, Gaia Books Ltd.

Why our vegetable heritage is important, why it is disappearing & what seed saving groups worldwide are doing to combat this development.

Although I haven’t actually dealt with the activities of the global seed companies (despite my  title), this is a topic I’ll return to.