Protecting seed varieties preserves our Irish heritage
As corporations take over the ownership of our seeds, the diversity of our food tastes, shapes and sizes is being lost in the interest of profits
Many amateur food growers will have tried saving seeds from their own produce at some stage. Last year, our kids grew sunflowers and were able to harvest the seeds from the flowers, not only to eat but also to save over winter and use for sowing the following year.
Over the years, I've also saved seeds from tomato varieties that I particularly like, and from other vegetables such as runner beans, squashes and pumpkins.
I am no expert on the subject, but whenever I save seeds, I am always struck by how much the process can teach us about the cycle of growth, maturity, decay and regrowth that's so essential to life on this planet.
Before Christmas, I had the pleasure of having lunch with a remarkable lady, Anita Hayes, who founded the Irish Seed Savers in 1991. Worried by how traditional and often rare varieties of Irish grain, fruit and vegetables were being lost, she began to identify and conserve these for future generations.
The Seed Savers organisation as we know it, based at Capparoe in Co Clare, was to come much later – at the beginning most of the work was done by Anita herself at her farm near St Mullins in Co Carlow.
So, why is this important? Well, basically, man has been cultivating food for about 10,000 years. For the vast majority of that time, seed varieties were kept alive by being passed on from generation to generation.
It's only really in the last 100 years that seed ownership has effectively passed into the hands of corporations – in that time in Ireland more than 90pc of seed varieties have disappeared.
This is grim news because it means that the very things that give us such immense joy in our food – the abundant diversity of shapes, sizes, colours and tastes – are being lost in the interest of yields and profits.
Sometimes a particular variety of vegetable, fruit or grain simply doesn't cut the mustard. Its yield is poor, or its taste is terrible.
A sort of consumer-led natural selection occurs and a seed variety dwindles in popularity or dies out entirely.
Oftentimes, consolidation of seed varieties occurs because manufacturers are selecting a small number of favoured varieties because of their propensity to store or travel well. Specific varieties are then being promoted not because of their taste or nutrition value, but that they work better in a global supply chain. A great example of this is what has happened in the global apple business, where just a handful of varieties now dominate.
The work that the Irish Seed Savers do is very valuable, and largely unsung. Protecting our food heritage is as important as protecting our cultural heritage, and our native seed varieties are just as important as our native songs, poetry, art and historical artifacts.
The Irish Seed Savers' successes have been notable. Since 1991 they have created a native apple collection containing more than 140 distinct varieties and a seed bank containing more than 600 rare and endangered vegetable varieties.
When we met for lunch, Anita kindly provided me with a tray of seed packets containing some of the seed bank's gems. Wonderful, evocative names are here such as Londonderry Broad Bean, Lucky Leprechaun Tomato, Daniel O'Rourke Pea and O'Driscoll Climbing French Bean. This year I will also grow Delaway Cabbage, a cut-and-come-again variety saved for generations by the Hughes Family in Co Mayo.
These are varieties that are quite literally a gift from our ancestors – expert growers of their time, who meticulously cultivated and saved these wonderful varieties to pass on to future generations. They are ours to use again thanks to the work of Irish Seed Savers. Because they are native Irish varieties, they are uniquely adapted to Irish soil and climate conditions.
It shows my ignorance of the whole thing that I assumed seeds in a seed bank were suspended in some sort of splendid isolation (in a vault perhaps?) – but they are not.
To save seeds, you have to use them. You have to sow them, grow a plant to maturity and then save the seed from that plant again. It is relentless and laborious work. That means Irish Seed Savers need to employ expert staff and have an income. Their very survival, and the survival of this incredibly important piece of living history, is now under threat.
Our Government should be supporting them (and it does), but to my mind, it's far too easy to say that it's someone else's problem. There's a potentially sustainable social enterprise there if we support them as consumers.
Each of us can support their work by donating or buying seed. Purchasing seeds from them is the more powerful action – taking their work and turning it into a living, breathing act of conservation in your own garden.
We can also do our bit by saving our own seeds and showing our children how to do it. Don't get me wrong – doing my annual seed order is one of the highlights of my growing year, but that's not to say one can't enjoy the process of saving seeds of your favourite varieties. By doing so we are keeping this wonderful tradition alive.
You can buy a selection of Seed Savers seeds from the GIY webshop at www.giyireland.com/shop.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.
Grow it yourself diary week 86
Though it is still cold, there is occasional respite from the winter weather and the occasional bright days when we can get out into the vegetable patch are to be celebrated.
Perhaps it is the contrast with all the dull weather we've had of late, or maybe it has something to do with the way the light falls at this time of the year, but the bright sun and blue skies (when they come) are simply stunning – enough to bring a smile to your face.
Last weekend, I was able to get out in the garden to enjoy it and, as usual, I found that the muckier the job, the happier I am.
I started by giving the henhouse a clean out and then barrowed over a few more wheelbarrows of compost from the compost corner to the polytunnel.
There's still a good deal to eat in the tunnel – spinach, some kale, a few cabbage and calabrese plants and plenty of salads and oriental greens – but the place was sort of tired looking with lots of weeds that have grown over the winter; grass on paths and the like. So, I spent an enjoyable hour or two doing a general clean up.
The perpetual spinach plants are showing some new growth. I removed any old or dying leaves to allow the plant to focus on that new growth.
Elsewhere I did a good weeding – running the hoe up and down in the soil and removing any larger weeds by hand.
When I had all the beds clean, I spread about an inch of good compost on any bare soil, and gave the plants a gentle watering.
When standing back to admire my handiwork, I was again struck by the vibrancy of the colours – beautiful, fresh-looking brown earth and verdant green leaves.
Then, to the house for a wash and cold beer to toast my hard labour.
Grow your own body fuel: Jerusalem Artichoke
Why Grow it?
These knobbly roots are not to everyone's liking and they have an unfortunate association with flatulence (they are often nicknamed, rather unimaginatively, fartichokes). On the other hand they are a cinch to grow, suffer no diseases, are exceptionally prolific, will grow pretty much in any soil, and to my mind make for a great winter soup. The tall plants (up to 3m) are grown for their tubers which grow underground.
Sow them exactly as you would spuds – get yourself some artichoke tubers, make a hole about 15cm deep and drop a tuber in to it at every 30cm in a row. Then backfill with soil. Don't worry about including them in any rotation – they can be grown wherever you have the space, but since they grow exceptionally tall, choose your site carefully.
Earth up the plants several times in the season to provide some support to the plant as it grows and also to increase yield. When they are 30cm tall, earth up to 15cm. In the autumn when the leaves go yellow cut the stems right down to ground level and compost them.
You can start harvesting artichokes in October or November and they will stay in the ground quite happily right through the winter. You can remove them and store in a box of sand in a cold (but frost-free), dark shed. They will last until April this way. If left in the ground they will eventually succumb to slugs and they will probably prevent you from preparing the bed for whatever will be grown there next year. Make sure to remove absolutely every last tuber from the soil – otherwise you will be plagued with them growing back next year.
GIY Recommended Varieties
Fuseau and Gerard. The former is a good option for smooth tubers.
Try to make sure you only use the least knobbly tubers to grow from – the smoother the tubers you use to grow plants, the smoother the resulting crop will be. You will know why this is important when you go to peel them.
* Divide large tubers before planting – each one should be about the size of a golf ball.
* You can cut the plants down to 1.5m in late summer. This apparently focuses the plant's energy on tuber production.
Watch GIY tutorials on growing vegetables at www.giyireland.com/videos.
Things to Do This Week
Blades on shears, forks, spades, and other tools will benefit from an annual overhaul with a sharpening stone. Prepare the blade with a drop of three-in-one oil. Push the tool forwards and to the side on the stone, exerting a little downward pressure. Turn the tool over and, holding the blade almost flat against the stone, brush it across the surface to take off any rough edges. Only sharpen the outside blade on bypass secateurs and the upper surface of hoes. Wipe over the blade with an oily rag before storing.
Date for your Diary
Seeds, sow what?!! GIY Waterford would like to help you get started with growing this year. The big topic is seeds: what to grow, how to grow them and when. This month's meeting is on Wednesday, January 29, at 7pm in Oasis Garden, Comeragh Centre, in the Northern Extension estate. All are welcome.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Facebook: Waterford GIY. More details at www.giyireland.com/events.