By Sinead Fortune
Growing your own food has seen a resurgence on a scale that has been compared to the Dig For Victory campaigns of the second world war. But with so few places selling seed, how can you take advantage of this planting season and get your own veggie garden under way?
Not that long ago, it was simply part of the growing season to save the best, most vigorous plants of the harvest to produce seed crop for the following year. By carefully selecting the strongest seed, growers could ensure that their next growing season would be off to the best start. Alternatively, by observing their crops over time and selecting for various traits – a striking colour, an unusual flavour, particularly good storing capability, or resilience to drought or flooding – growers were able to create new, exciting varieties of their crops. During the winter, growers would meet up and swap seeds, sharing with their neighbours the blueprints of a better harvest for the following year.
Many growers have lost a direct connection to their seed, but careful selection now takes place through seed catalogues that are lovingly poured over in the dark winter months. This means that we depend on our seed growers to supply us with the seeds we depend on to grow our crops. However, just as with our food, if we don’t build resilience into our seed supply then it leaves it vulnerable.
The current crisis has highlighted this all too well. As supply chain shortages caused panic in the shops, the interest in home gardening has surged and with it the demand for seeds. Small companies producing local, agroecological seed are struggling to keep up with it and it’s clear that we need more people growing seed in the UK and Ireland.
The need for seed
David Price, Director of the Seed Cooperative, has been amazed by the volume of seed orders pouring in. “Sales have been up 600% from this time last year.” They have had to close their online checkout for all but an hour a week to ensure they’re able to fill the orders they receive. The Real Seed Catalogue in Wales and Vital Seeds in South Devon have been seeing similar demand. “It’s totally bonkers on the seed front! We’re extremely busy due to the high demand for organic seeds and the limited working capacity,” says Fred of Vital Seeds. Just like anyone else, seed producers have needed to limit the amount of staff working at the same time to ensure their safety.
Community seed banks are seeing huge enthusiasm also. “What a year it will be for home grown veg!” says Helene Schulze of the London Freedom Seed Bank. “We distributed all our surplus stock, prioritising organisations and projects working on the multiple ramifications of COVID-19.” This means groups working to ease loneliness and mental health struggles or securing long-term community food security got first priority for the seeds.
All seed are not created equal
It’s worth mentioning that while all seed companies are experiencing huge demand, these small companies and organisations are particularly attractive because of what they offer: open-pollinated, agroecological seed that is grown locally and has thus adapted to local conditions and climate. The varieties from these groups are plentiful and rich: each has a history and unusual characteristics.
Different varieties of seed have developed to require specific growing conditions which is why diversity is so important, especially with increasingly unpredictable weather due to climate change. Equally, it is important to select seeds that have been grown as close to you as possible. 80% of our organic vegetable seeds are imported into the UK from places like Italy, China, and the Ukraine – places with very different growing conditions. Even within the UK we have wildly different temperatures, soil types, rainfall. One seed definitely does not fit all: a leek that grows well in Devon will not appreciate life in the Outer Hebrides.
Finally, seeds will perform differently depending on how they have been produced. Hybrid seed is bred with particular qualities in mind – you’ll get those qualities, but only once as the seed can’t be saved from the hybrid crops. In order to do that, you need to grow open-pollinated varieties, which breed true to type meaning that you can save seed for subsequent seasons. What’s more, year on year the seeds will gradually adapt to your soil, weather, and other particular growing conditions, meaning they will perform better and better the longer you save and grow from them.
So where to get OP seed?
With the goals of locally produced, agroecological, open-pollinated seed in mind, where should you try to source your seed? There are a number of fantastic small businesses and organisations around the UK which provide OP seed; you can find them on our map here. However, with the overwhelming amount of orders they’re receiving you need to be patient to get a request in!
There may be a community seed bank or seed library in your area. They have great resources and often very knowledgeable growers involved. Many provide seed for free or for a small donation/deposit of seed after harvest. Likewise, local allotment groups, growers, community gardens are good organisations to reach out to. Do you have a keen gardener near you who would share seed? Perhaps there’s a community growing group that might have a surplus, or you could volunteer with them to grow in the community.
Finally, you can grow your own! While this is not a quick-fix solution, it is one that will lead to long-term resilience. Learning to grow and save your own seed can be challenging but is fantastically rewarding and allows you to re-form that relationship with your plants that we once had. The more you do it, the more your skills will improve, and there is no better or more important time to start. You can learn more and access our learning resources on the Seed Sovereignty website.
Seeds of Change
Every spring is a fresh start. Possibility wafts through the air as the buds appear on trees and the early flowers blossom. Growing your own food is a constant learning experience; ask the most seasoned growers and they will tell you they are always learning something new, season after season. This can seem daunting if you’re just starting out. And the same is true even for seasoned food growers who have never thought about growing seed before. But like all things in life, you have to start somewhere. Next year, you could have a wealth of successes and mistakes under your belt to build upon.
So let this be the starting point. Let this be the beginning of your journey. Let this spring be the beginning of something that will benefit you, your family, and your community for years to come.
Sinéad Fortune is the manager of the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme, run by The Gaia Foundation. The programme increases awareness of availability and knowledge of locally produced, open-pollinated seed through training, mentoring and support for growers. Learn more about the programme here and contact your Regional Coordinator to find out how to get involved.