Don't those look yummy? Bright orange Tangella tomatoes, which the Heritage Seed Library sent me as a freebie lucky dip. (Photo taken in 2006)
This is not the first time I've plugged the Heritage Seed Library, so excuse me if you've heard all this before. But I thought I'd mention it now because this is the last chance to join HSL if you want to get seeds for this year. Their deadline for seed requests is 1st March 2008.
The purpose of the Heritage Seed Library is to make rare and non-commercial vegetable varieties available to domestic gardeners and to encourage seed saving and biodiversity. Their main focus is on British and European varieties but there are a number of things in their catalogue from further afield too. This is vitally important work because of the unfortunate and short-sighted laws in Europe which forbid the sale of unregistered vegetable seeds. It's actually illegal to sell seed of any variety which isn't on your country's National List. As registration on the National List costs a lot of money and requires the variety to be uniform and standardised (which a lot of heirlooms aren't) the List is made up almost entirely of commercial varieties of interest to farmers, many of which, frankly, are rubbish in the garden ... or just plain boring. If you've ever wondered why garden centres always sell the same old boring selection, that's why. Old-fashioned garden varieties and family heirlooms have been vanishing at an alarming rate over the last 40 years, right across Europe.
A rare Irish pea variety, Clarke's Beltony Blue, from the Heritage Seed Library. (2007)
It therefore falls to the charitable organisations and concerned individuals to rescue and distribute as many non-commercial varieties as they can. Most European countries have their own seed saver organisations. It may seem a bit mad to suggest that anyone would actually be prosecuted just for selling vegetable seeds, but that's exactly what happened in France, where the government's 'fraud squad' ruthlessly crushed the seed saver charity Terre de Semences after they started selling seeds in garden centres. Undeterred, they resurrected themselves as Association Kokopelli and continue to distribute 1200 varieties of amazing heirlooms, under constant threat of persecution.
All the seed saver charities have their own ways of working. With the Heritage Seed Library you pay an annual subscription of £20 and they send you a catalogue of about 200 rare vegetables (from the 800 or so they have in their collection). You can join from outside the UK but it costs £5 extra. You choose any six packets you want, and you can also opt to have a seventh packet as a "lucky dip". You can specify substitutions just in case any of your chosen varieties are out of stock, but in my own experience I've always been sent exactly what I asked for.
Now, I know some people baulk at the cost of joining and it certainly isn't the cheapest way to acquire seeds. But the varieties they offer really are special, and many of them are unavailable anywhere else. I've consistently been delighted and amazed by the things I've had from them. Six choices may not seem a lot either, and I must admit I agonise over my selections because there are so many things in their catalogue I'd love to grow. But to be honest it does me good, because it forces me to think very carefully about each variety ... exactly why I want it and what I expect to get from it.
Other seed saver organisations work differently, and one I can highly recommend is the Irish Seed Saver Association (ISSA). They have some lovely stuff, from Tipperary Turnip (which is actually a swede) to a tomato called Auld Sod. One advantage is that their catalogue is open to all ... you don't have to be a member to buy seeds from them.
You can even take part in their breeding projects if you want. Such as Jo's Purple Podded climbing bean, which comes with a hand-written label asking if you could please send back some seeds from the best and purplest plants you get.
I discovered the delights of ISSA following an appeal for help. A musician friend asked if I knew anywhere she could get seeds of James' Longkeeping onion, as she knows someone who's desperately trying to get hold of it. An English market garden favourite for nearly 200 years, ubiquitous in seed catalogues and mentioned in popular gardening books, it seemed to suddenly disappear. The bloke who wants it says he's been looking for it for 15 years, to no avail. It's his favourite ever onion which he grew for many years before it vanished, "sweet like an apple if you eats 'em raw, and keeps for ages", and he's never found another one as good.
I like a challenge like that, and I soon found the reason for his problem. James' Longkeeping was deleted from the National List in 1993. So it's unlikely to have been offered for sale anywhere since then. No matter how popular or commercial a variety is, deletion from the National List can send it plummeting towards extinction in no time at all.
I searched around all the specialist heritage seed suppliers and couldn't find it. Even the Heritage Seed Library aren't offering it at the moment, and their members have been putting in a few requests for it in the "wants" list. But eventually I did find it, nestling among the rare and curiously named vegetables in the ISSA catalogue. ISSA seems to be the only source for it at the moment.
It brings it home to you how easily these old varieties can be lost, and how important this charitable conservation work really is.