IF you’ve got a garden, then you’ve got your very own seed library close at hand. That’s the theory, but how many of us gardeners actually take that step of saving seeds from our own plants?
Not enough, according to Josie Jeffery, author of a new book called Seedswap (£9.99, Ivy Press). Her mission is to convince us not only how straightforward it is to save and sow seeds, but also how important it is for the wider environment. “Saving seeds can be time consuming and some people would rather just fork out for a packet of seeds than go through all the planning and processing,” she says. “But you can get jars full of seeds from harvesting just one plant which will last you for years and provide hundreds of plants and thousands more seeds. Seed saving is very rewarding.”
As well as giving hands-on gardening advice, Jeffery’s book explores the growing trend for seed swapping – getting together with other gardeners to exchange seeds, knowledge and ideas. She also looks at seed activism, whereby farmers and gardeners are taking control of their own seed source rather than buying from major seed companies, and she looks at seed libraries around the world. For example, at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank scientists are preserving seeds for the future. Of course, it all starts with the seeds themselves, so how challenging a task is it to encourage people to become more familiar with sowing and saving seeds? “Persuading people to give seed sowing a try is very easy,” she says. “All you have to do is break it down to the basic consistent needs a seed has in order to germinate and grow into a healthy plant, which are earth, water, sun and air. They require very little attention – no more than five minutes a day, really, just to check on their progress and give them a water or any maintenance like potting on, which is fun anyway.”
Jeffery encourages people to sow seed by telling them to think about how a cucumber is roughly a pound to buy and a packet of a dozen seeds is the same, but you are likely to get a dozen or more cucumbers from one tiny seed, which saves the pounds. She says that homegrown produce always tastes better, because of all the love that’s gone into growing it, and it’s important for people not to be afraid of failure if the seed or plant dies or is eaten by slugs – its not the end of the world, we just need to learn from it and try again. Her book includes a directory of some of the most popular garden plants, with full details on how to sow, grow and harvest them, plus that all-important guidance on how to save the seeds for future use.
Seedswap guides us through every step of seed saving, explaining how to harvest dry seeds from seed heads and pods and how to tackle wet seeds from fleshy fruits like tomatoes and courgettes. With just a few simple tools and a bit of knowhow you can very quickly set up your own seed library. Harvest from healthy plants; keep labels on your collection at all stages; keep seeds in a cool, dry, dark place – just a few of the simple steps that take the mystery out of seed saving.
But what are the pitfalls? “An important thing to remember is to leave the seeds for as long as possible to ripen on the plant before you harvest them,” says Jeffery. “If you are trying to save pure seed – that is, seeds that will produce offspring identical to their parents – the parent plants need to be isolated from any potential cross-pollination that could occur with other relatives or wild varieties which can result in mongrel offspring with funny flavours or fruit shape. Another common disaster is when drying the seed, if there isn’t enough air circulating around them they can end up rotting, which risks losing the whole harvest.”
Once your seeds are dried, bagged and labelled, it’s time to start thinking about swapping. In Brighton, an event called Seedy Sunday started over a decade ago and continues to happen each year on the first Sunday in February. It attracts thousands of people who are keen to catch up with friends, seek out heritage varieties, share gardening secrets and above all, swap seeds. If there isn’t a seed swap event near you, why not start one? Jeffery explains that seed swapping is a great way of becoming more self-sufficient in the ornamental garden as well as the fruit and vegetable garden, while saving and swapping seeds has a wealth of benefits, from financial savings through to maintaining food security and protecting biodiversity, rare species and seed genetics.
“In some cases it’s reminiscent of being on an allotment,” says Jeffery. “The elders who have been in the business for generations love to hand down their hints and tips to the younger ones, as well as the young ones passing on things they have learned from their elders. Knowledge swapping is very much a big part of a seed swap event.”
If you’ve never been to a seed swap then it’s worth being aware of good etiquette. Key things to remember are to take non-invasive, open pollinated seeds; make sure vegetable seeds are no older than three years; and be sure to include all the relevant information on your packets such as plant name (common and Latin), eventual height and spread and any growing tips. And don’t be surprised if you get carried away.
“Seed swaps can get very hectic and on one occasion a seed swapper got so excited about some poppy seeds I had that he rushed over, grabbed a handful and put it in a bag, then plonked three bags on the table in exchange and rushed off,” says Jeffery. “The three bags of seeds were unlabelled and I hadn’t a clue what one of the bags of seeds was. – I’m going to have to sow a couple to see what they are.” So whether you’re new to sowing, saving or swapping, getting to know your seeds better could be quite an adventure.
• Seedswap by Josie Jeffery is published on Monday by Ivy Press, priced £9.99.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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