Climbing beans from the HSL ... Poletschka (mauve beans in green pods) and Purple Giant (white beans in purple pods)
I just wanted to say hello and welcome to anyone who's arrived here after seeing me in the new Heritage Seed Library catalogue. This blog is about heritage vegetables and seed saving (which kind of go together anyway because most heritage veg seeds can't be bought commercially) biodiversity and breeding new vegetables using the rich heritage veg genepool ... not to make profit but to create new varieties for the public domain. And I have a companion website at www.daughterofthesoil.com which includes reviews of heritage vegetables and other useful information.
Like a lot of HSL members I'm concerned by the control big business has over the food chain and the resulting loss of biodiversity. But there is a lot that individual gardeners can do to help which make a real difference. You'll find information on the blog about saving seeds, and also about how to breed your own new vegetables, which you can do even in a small garden, with no specialist knowledge or experience.
First up, I'm not anybody special or an expert in anything. I'm just a gardener who enjoys growing things. I have no qualifications whatsoever as a plant breeder, I don't even have an O-level in biology. I learned everything I know from a book and from experimenting in the garden.
I started growing vegetables in 1998 and began keeping notes about my garden in 2004 purely for my own use. I never thought for a moment anybody else would be interested. Then in 2006 I bought some rare local apple trees from a specialist grower, and although he was very knowledgeable the grower wasn't able to tell me very much about the varieties I'd selected. Nobody else knew much about them either, he said, and that wouldn't change until somebody grew them and shared the information. That was the revelatory moment when I realised that even the most ordinary of gardeners can make a genuinely useful contribution to the available knowledge. Instead of sitting here waiting for the "experts" to tell us stuff, we can try things for ourselves and share the results. I set up Daughter of the Soil as a first step towards that.
Slice of Caro Rich tomato, which is very tasty and contains many times more pro-vitamin A than the average tomato
And the lack of available information was certainly a yawning gap. When I joined the Heritage Seed Library the first thing they did was send me a freebie packet of seeds. It was a bean called Kew Blue. I sowed the seeds and they grew into very pretty purple-flushed seedlings. I posted a picture of them on my blog. But I wanted to know more about them. Were they meant for eating as fresh beans, or for shelling out? How tall do they get? What do they taste like? What colour are the pods? I wanted to see pictures. So I did the obvious thing and googled it. To my astonishment, Google came up with only three hits, one of which was my own blog! None of the hits gave me the answers I wanted. And the photo on my blog was apparently the only photograph of Kew Blue on the whole of the internet!
Things are improving at a rapid rate with more and more people sharing info online, but it can still be frustrating. Sometimes there's no information at all. Other times it appears at first that there IS lots of information, but when you click on the link you find the descriptions on different websites are word-for-word identical. It's not independent information, it's cribbed from a sales catalogue. While that may be better than nothing, catalogue descriptions are of limited use because they just bang on about how great the variety is. They won't tell you the useful things you want to know like how it differs from other varieties or whether it will suit your own personal tastes or growing conditions. They won't tell you about any limitations or disadvantages it has. I found this information vacuum incredibly frustrating.
So that gave me the idea to write reviews of heritage vegetables. Every time I grew a variety I would take notes and photographs and write up a review with as much information and detail as possible. My reviews are not authoritative and they may not always agree with the experiences of others, but they are independent. I don't sell seeds and I'm not sponsored by anyone who does, so I can present a completely unbiased evaluation of each variety, describing its strengths and weaknesses with honesty. This, I hope, is far more useful than a regurgitated sales pitch.
In just a couple of years things have changed enormously. Many people (including many Heritage Seed Library members and members of other seed saving organisations around the world) are now blogging about their experiences with different varieties, and the amount of available USEFUL information is booming. Power to the bloggers! This is an important and very positive revolution in gardening.
I would encourage anyone to start up their own gardening blog. Don't be put off (as I was initially) by a modest assumption that nobody will be interested in what you have to say. Whatever you're growing and however you're growing it, somebody out there is interested. Even your failures are worth sharing. When my runner beans did very badly in 2006 I assumed I'd done something wrong, until I discovered from other blogs that people across the UK were having the same problems and it was just a bad year for runners. Blogging is easy too. All the major host sites such as Blogger and WordPress provide easy-to-use templates. So publishing your words and pictures on the internet doesn't require any knowledge of web design, and it doesn't cost anything.
The number of gardeners who now have blogs has grown steadily over the last couple of years, and a natural thing to evolve from this is a global online seed swap. With the support of Patrick in Amsterdam who hosts and maintains the website, the Blogger Seed Network is a fantastic source of seeds (and tubers) for just about anything, many of which are incredibly hard to find anywhere else. You don't have to have a blog to take part in trades ... it's open to everyone. This network is already proving to be special and important, hugely increasing the flow of seed material and diversity around the world. It supplements the work of the HSL and other seed saving organisations, bringing members into direct contact with each other.
One of my home-made pea hybrids with bicolour pink and white flowers
Heritage vegetables are only one side of what I do in my garden and write about on this blog. My other little crusade is to reinvigorate the lost art of amateur plant breeding.
100 years ago, pretty much every gardener did a bit of plant breeding ... even if it was only by selecting the best plants to save seed from each year. Our ancestors didn't have any understanding of genetics, but that didn't stop them achieving great things through trial and error and a bit of observation. The British nurseryman T.A. Knight is most likely the person we have to thank for our modern peas. Until the 1820s all peas were starchy and bitter. Knight spotted a single wrinkled seed among his crop of smooth, round seeds. He was curious about this oddity, and planted it. Knight noticed that the wrinkled peas tasted sweeter than smooth ones, and began selecting them as a basis for new varieties. He had no idea that sugars shrink more than starches do and that the wrinkliness is a result of a higher sugar content. There was also very little understanding in his day about the laws of inheritance, and it was well over a century before the discovery and naming of the two recessive genes responsible for wrinkly sweetness in peas. He was simply an observer whose sharp eye and enquiring mind helped change the course of culinary history.
Knight's story is an important illustration of why you don't actually need a degree in genetics to be a plant breeder. You can do it on any scale and it can be as simple as observing and selecting. It can be as simple as allowing an accidental cross to grow to maturity instead of roguing it out, or saving and sowing seed from a commercial F1 hybrid to get a galaxy of segregating variations, whose pedigree you may never know but they will still be lovely. Armed with a very basic understanding of genes, however, you can get stuck into more precise experiments. The notion that new varieties can only be developed by crop scientists and requires field-scale trials is nonsense. Anybody can do it.
Which leads to the question, why would you want to? Aren't there enough varieties already out there? Actually no. Despite the proliferation of new releases in the gardening catalogues each year, genetic diversity in food crops is dwindling at a scary rate. "New" varieties are often little more than marketing. And as most of the seed companies' business comes from commercial growers and not gardeners, the number of new varieties being developed for gardeners is close to zero. That's why gardeners are lumbered with nearly all dwarf peas (designed for ease of mechanical harvesting) when tall ones give much better yields, crops which ripen all at once when we'd prefer a steady supply over several weeks (again, for mechanical harvesting), and thick-skinned fruits (to withstand packing and transport). The rapid move towards F1 hybrids is another harmful trend, giving seed companies increasing control over what we grow. F1 seed is overpriced, overhyped, and doesn't come true from seed the following year ... so if you want to grow the same thing again you're obliged to go back and buy it again instead of saving your own seed. (Call the companies' bluff by sowing the seeds from hybrids and select the best plants each year to make an open-pollinated version.)
Add to that the problems caused in Europe by the short-sighted legislation in the 1960s, when in an attempt to thwart rogue traders the Common Catalogue was introduced across Europe to standardise vegetable seeds. It's illegal to sell seeds of varieties which are not listed in the Common Catalogue and inclusion on the list requires an outlay of hundreds of pounds for each variety. The result, over the last 40 years, has been a disastrous loss of biodiversity in every food crop across the entire continent. This is of course why the Heritage Seed Library exists (along with its many sister organisations across Europe) and why its work continues to be so important.
Purple and green sploshed and speckled peas, an unexpected result from a cross between a heritage pea and a modern one.
Back garden plant breeding is not just a rewarding hobby, it's an urgent imperative for the survival of our biodiversity. I hope that by sharing some of the basic information on how to do it, I might inspire others to give it a go. The varieties you order from the HSL each year make great candidates for home breeding projects, as they have a rich and varied genepool and often have traits which you'd never find in a modern commercial variety. Breeding from heritage varieties can produce spectacular results and it doesn't harm the variety in any way, as it's "as well as" not "instead of" maintaining the original strain as a pure variety.
Nature's way is abundance, she likes to mix things up, and there are plenty of genes to go around. Have some fun!