If you want to try growing your own this year, now’s a good time to start planning. Bristol Food Network volunteer Isobel Cox digs deeper into the issues around getting growing and looks at the thorny subject of seed sovereignty.
I’ve been lucky enough to have just moved from a flat to a shared house with a garden, and although a small windowsill is all you need to get growing, I can finally move things up a notch and tackle the Going for Gold action of growing more. In my old flat I grew as much as I could. For example, windowsill boxes of herbs (basil and mint did particularly well), chilli and lemon plants, but I would still class myself as very much a novice. So I’ve been doing a lot of research to prepare for my planned vegetable patch. Something I came across that really intrigued me was the idea of ‘seed sovereignty’, and I decided to find out more. So I spoke to Diane Holness, one of the organisers of Bristol Seed Swap.
Seed sovereignty is based around the idea of reclaiming seeds and biodiversity as public goods. Diane explains how nationally and globally “we’re losing thousands upon thousands of varieties of heritage crops – it’s getting bottle-necked down to a few crops that suit big scale commercial farming and a lot of those are F1 types.”
F1 seeds are hybrids that have been selectively bred – cross-breeding two different parent plants – by large companies who own the patent. As Diane says, F1s are okay “if you’re producing commercially and want everything to ripen at the same time and have got fairly standard conditions. But they are often designed to be used alongside heavy chemicals.”
Also, you cannot practice seed saving with F1s as they don’t evolve in natural ways. Seed saving is “a traditional part of gardening – a way of making sure you can grow crops each year from seeds you’ve saved yourself.” Without seed saving growers are reliant on buying the same types of seeds, year after year, from a few big companies which gives these multi-nationals “a huge amount of control over our food supply which isn’t healthy. So it’s all about keeping control of seeds in the hands of the people – because it is our food supply.”
The loss of our traditional heritage crops would be devastating: “Biodiversity is incredibly important and gives flexibility for breeding new crops. If you have a tomato that’s been grown for 50 to 150 years in Bristol it will probably do well in that kind of climate. Whereas something that’s been designed for mass production, it might look great on the seed packet, but it’s not going to do great in soggy Bristol.”
This might sound a bit gloomy and overwhelming, but there are actually plenty of smaller companies who sell real seeds that you can go on to save, if you know where to look. Diane recommends the Real Seed Company, Vital Seeds, Beans and Herbs, the organic gardening catalogue and joining the Heritage Seed Library.
Bristol Seed Swap are hosting a big seed swap on Sunday 9th February at Trinity Centre.
Diana says, “people bring along seeds that they’ve either saved or have a surplus of, and others can come along and take the seeds they need. That way hopefully seeds don’t get wasted, we can all save some money and we can also keep going with heritage varieties, which the seed companies aren’t necessarily going to keep supporting.”
Anyone can come along to the seed swap from experienced growers to novices. There will be workshops and an information desk for general enquiries. As well as homemade food, there will be people selling wildflower bulbs, plus Bristol’s first-ever zero waste shop Zero Green and grow-your-own mushroom kit specialists Upcycled Mushrooms will have stalls. There will also be a childrens’ area and activities.
Diana is keen to keep the event affordable. She says, “you can buy seeds and we ask for donations. We’ve been divvying little packets up into one person portions – so if you’ve got money it’s 20-25p for the smaller packets – if you’re taking a whole big packet then maybe a pound. Overall, if people can afford to put a couple of quid in when they go to a talk that would be lovely, but if someone is really struggling we’d rather they just came along, had a nice afternoon and got the seeds they need to grow some food.”
I, for one, will definitely be heading down to pick up some real seeds to start off my garden!
Isobel Cox is a volunteer for Bristol Food Network. She lives in Bristol and is studying towards a Food Studies MA at the University of Exeter. Her academic and personal interest is about how to develop food systems that are sustainable for all.