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.

2012: growing food in difficult circumstances

I’ve been leafing through my allotment diary, reflecting on how difficult growing food has been, thinking about the key issues of the year, some about battles with weather, others more overtly political:

In January we experimented with potato recipes, mainly pastry because Denis has a gluten allergy, & we discovered a delicious potato pastry using non-wheat flour. We also had an excellent supply of main crop potatoes from 2011 stored in our shed for use during winter. So, plenty of tubers to experiment with.

February was raw with cold, along with much discussion over access to seed & to land for growing.

This month tested the cold hardiness of our over wintering crops. Snow & frost rendered the soil hard & impenetrable. Yet, the kales were remarkable; I used to leave them to get very large because that’s what I thought you did with them, but learnt the hard way during winter 2010 that large leaves also disintegrate into smelly mush when there’s a freeze. Now I crop the plants as soon as they produce large enough leaves to eat, plant them closer together, so have more for cropping more regularly. I added pictures of the various varieties, with commentary, to my post on kales, useful now I’m planning the varieties to sow in 2013.

February also marks the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the time chosen for Brighton’s Seedy Sunday, an opportunity to share local knowledge about the plants & foods we grow & eat. This gathering was marked by anger & concern over a threatened allotment rent rise that broke apart the superficially apolitical world of allotment gardening. A petition circulated, with much lobbying & planning in the background. The failure of the Allotment Federation to do anything to either inform or protect allotment holders from what was judged a predatory raid by the council on allotment rents as easy revenue, was also seen as a double betrayal by the 1st Green council in England. Continue reading

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

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.