Monday 15 December 2008

Here from the Heritage Seed Library Catalogue 2009?

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 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!


Joanna said...

So interesting to read how you got into all this - very inspiring. I don't keep nearly enough garden records, mainly because I'm not a very meticulous person. And in 2006 I didn't read garden blogs, so I've only just discovered why those runner beans didn't grow - I'll plant some next year for the first time since then

Thanks Rebsie, and it's great to read your inspirational blog


Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks Joanna ... I appreciate you taking the time to read my stuff!

I'm not always very meticulous either, but in some ways the blog helps me to focus on things more, knowing there's an audience for it.

Bishops Homegrown said...

Hey Rebsie, great post and congrats on getting published! Keep up the good work and keep on recruiting new gardeners and experienced alike into the plant breeding circle!

Celia Hart said...

My copy of the HSL catalogue has just thudded through the letterbox and OH LOOK! you're on page 9 Wooohooo!

Th HSL catalogue is the best pressie ever at this time of year. I'd better not keep it in the studio or nothing will get done today! Can't wait to put my feet up with a nice glass of ginger wine (plus whisky) and read through every page before I select which varieties to request this year.

Celia (happy bunny!!!)

PS well done organising all the info into your website, a fantastic resource.

Kath said...

As you know Rebsie, you and Carol Deppe certainly got me motivated to grow heritage varieties and to try plant breeding. I still haven't grown out any of my crosses - next year is looking SO exciting! So thanks for your encouragement. To anyone else reading this - it's not difficult and you know you are the first person who will taste this new variety. It's got to be worth a try!

Finduscrispypancake said...

I really enjoy your blog, and its facinating to read about your pea experiments, i noticed your blog about GM a while ago, and it struck me as something that we should all be concerned about. i am going to America for the christmas holidays, and wanted to buy some seeds over there, especially some corn ( seeing your red corn inspired me), and i was just wondering, given the potential for cross pollination with GM varieties in the US, whether this is a good idea, and whether there is any mark of "safe seed" to look for? i wouldn't want to inadvertently buy GM corn.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Alan - thanks! Keep your good work up too.

Celia - yes, I know that feeling! There's still something about the HSL catalogue that makes it more exciting than any commerical ones. It's probably because you're limited to 6 choices, which really brings home to you how precious the seeds are, and makes you put some thought and care into choosing.

VH - I can't tell you how delighted I am that you've taken up plant breeding. And I have a hunch you're going to turn out to be good at it. ;)

Peter - thank you! I think you're right to be cautious about sweetcorn seed as it can cross-pollinate at long distances which gives it more risk of GM contamination compared with "inbreeders" like tomatoes. I did read about one US seed company who recently tested their corn seeds for traces of GM and got a completely clean bill of health, but I can't remember which one it was! I'll ask my American friends for some recommendations.

Ottawa Gardener said...

Congrats on your well deserved publication and your promotion of the important activity of taking back seed saving and breeding. These important themes are being seen more and more in blogs I've been reading recently!

Anonymous said...

Great post Rebsie!
I always learn something fascinating when I read your blog, and I've been gardening and seed saving 30 years.
Information is power, especially for gardeners. When I learned to keep a very basic garden diary (pre-digital age), my gardening improved hugely.... and now to be able to follow other gardeners' journals and notes, and photos, is something I'm still pinching myself about

EJ said...

I agree very interesting and inspiring!
Mnsanto's Destruction of Seed cleaners and the Immense Threat to Human Access to Seeds

Send Flowers said...

That was a really good post... thanks a lot for sharing...