Kate Harrison has been Chair of Seedy Sunday since 2019, and on the organising committee since 2017. She has had an organic allotment in Brighton for nearly 20 years, and enjoys gardening as part of a community, and experimenting with growing unusual fruit and vegetables.

Seedy Sunday Brighton and Hove is the largest and oldest of UK seed swaps, running for almost 20 years now. Always on the first Sunday in February, alongside the seed swap table, the event includes diverse speakers, over fifty community and commercial stalls, children’s activities and a pop-up café. It is a real community gathering, attended by between two and three thousand people during the course of the day. This year, due to COVID, it’s going ‘back to basics’ and focusing on the seed swap itself, though at the time of writing we don’t know if the event can go ahead.

Chair of the Seedy Sunday organising committee, Kate Harrison, sat down with a cup of tea and had a Zoom chat with Ros Loftin, who has led the coordination of the seed swap table for several years. Ros is a descendant of a long line of gardeners, and grew up in the Beaujolais area of France. She started gardening and seed saving with her granny from the age of about five, so she knows a thing or two about the art and science of seed saving. 

Why is a local community seed swap such a valuable event?

There are many layers to Seedy Sunday, but let’s focus on three: communities, politics and local food growing. Starting with community: gardeners are busy folk – most of the year we are hard at work on our gardens. Holding an event in late winter is the best time for gardeners to gather together. It’s the start of the gardening year for many people. We don’t just share seeds, but also knowledge. We encourage each other and enjoy chatting about our passion.

The politics of seed swapping is fascinating. Not only are we bypassing commercial ‘big agriculture’, and making growing more affordable, we are often also keeping local varieties alive. The seeds that work well for growing in big monocultures for commercial sale may not be the seeds that a home gardener wants to grow. For example, so-called ‘heritage’ tomatoes may not store or travel well, or may not be a consistent size and shape, but they may taste a whole lot better than the more standardised variety grown for mass production.

Finally, local food growing is a vital part of local food security. By running an event like Seedy Sunday we are keeping growing and seed saving skills alive, and preserving and sharing the seeds which grow best in our local area. Encouraging people to grow and eat their own food also connects us to a simpler way of living. We can appreciate eating with the seasons; instead of eating food which has been flown across the planet, we can learn to savour the delight of asparagus and strawberries just when they are ready in our gardens or allotments.

What advice would you give to someone saving seed for the first time?

The easiest seeds to save are probably beans and peas, which just need to be dried and stored well. Brassicas and lettuce are also pretty easy, but need to be winnowed – I use one of those Chinese wooden steamers with mesh in the base. Tomatoes are a bit more complicated as they need to be fermented for a few days and then dried carefully. I don’t use paper towel as they tend to stick and be hard to separate! There’s lots more information on the Seedy Sunday website.

I’d also advise people not to save some seeds, especially squash and other cucurbits. It looks tempting when you scoop our all those seeds from inside a squash, but it’s very difficult to isolate squash plants unless you really know what you’re doing. This can mean that the next squash you grow may not be anything like the one you harvested the seeds from – and there’s even the danger of toxic squash syndrome. So it’s better to roast your squash seeds and eat them – they’re very tasty and good for you!