Last week, my colleagues on the gardening team at Ordsall Hall and Gardens and I hopped on trams and trains down to Ryton, on the outskirts of Coventry, to visit the headquarters of the UK’s organic gardening movement, Garden Organic.
We were there to meet the team who do the incredibly important work of managing and running the Heritage Seed Library; a repository of heritage, heirloom and orphaned seed varieties that are no longer grown commercially and therefore at risk of disappearing from circulation.
The HSL’s manager, Katrina, very kindly spent a couple of hours showing us around their seed collection and processing facilities, storage areas and growing spaces and it was all rather fascinating. I’ve been an HSL member for a couple of years, including a stint this year as a Variety Champion for French Bean ‘Black Valentine’, and we grow and save seed on the HSL’s behalf at Ordsall Hall and Gardens. So it was a real treat to see how the operation is run, and get a taste of the hard work that goes on behind the scenes. Huge thanks to Katrina for taking the time out of her busy day to show us around.
Here are a couple of shots of some of the HSL’s seed-winnowing gear. I seem to remember that this vicious-looking contraption, with a sliding panel on top to move those spikes back and forth, is for threshing and breaking open tough seed pods:
A little more towards the technical end of the scale, here’s an auto-winnower, which works by dropping seed into one chamber, and blowing the separated chaff into another:
But most of the HSL’s work is done by hand – either by the staff or their legion of loyal volunteers – such as the measuring of finer seed into packets for distribution to members, using this rack of short lengths of pipe of assorted guages:
And here’s what it’s all about: packets of seeds ready to distribute to the Heritage Seed Library members, for growing, saving and of course, eating the resulting crops:
We also enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the organic show gardens. Perhaps a chilly November day, with the sun dipping rapidly towards the horizon, wasn’t the best time to see the gardens at their glorious best, but there was still plenty of interest in the low-maintenance and therapeutic gardens, the veg growing area, and my favourite area, the heritage orchard:
All in all, it was a fascinating visit to an incredibly important project. Without the work of the Heritage Seed Library, a great many varieties of seed would have been permanently lost. True, not every heritage seed variety automatically deserves to be grown. Some varieties have fallen out of favour because they’ve gradually lost vigour, or have just been superseded or supplanted by better, stronger cultivars – often off-shoots of the originals – which seed companies will naturally prefer.
But in an age of increasing agricultural monoculture, vanishing wildlife and dwindling variety in the shops, it’s supremely important to keep our options open, and our genetic seed stocks as diverse as possible. Katrina told us of a couple of cultivars that the HSL no longer makes available because they became so popular they were re-stocked by commercial seed breeders and are now available in all the major seed catalogues. That, of course, is a major win for the HSL, although they’ll always keep a small batch of seed in reserve – frozen, if necessary – just in case the situation changes back again.
How to Join Garden Organic and the Heritage Seed Library
Now is the perfect time of year to join Garden Organic and take part in the Heritage Seed Library project as a grower, or even a Variety Champion. The new seed catalogue has just been sent out to members (I put my 2018 order in this morning) and it contains a gloriously wide range of heritage and heirloom veggies to choose from. The price of HSL membership is £51 per year, for which you get a full membership of Garden Organic – including their bi-annual newsletter and discounts at their online shop – and a chance to request up to six varieties of seed from the HSL list, plus a lucky dip variety (which has a quite high chance of being Calalloo…) if you’re so inclined.
I’ve been a member for two years now and am looking forward to my third; I’ve grown some fascinating cultivars – runner bean ‘Blackpod’ and pea ‘Kent Blue’ being particular favourites so far – and have enjoyed adding a wider range of vegetables to the harvests from Plot #59. I highly recommend taking out a membership, or buying one for a friend or family member, and doing your bit to help preserve vital heritage seed stocks for future generations.