For Seed Week, our Northern England Coordinator, Catherine Howell, has gathered stories from some of the wonderful people she is lucky enough to share the region with. Scroll away, or skip to a chapter that catches your eye:

Chapter 1 – Growing a seed library, Toxteth

Chapter 2 – Potato Day, Norton

Chapter 3 – A multidisciplinary project, from the Tees to the Esk

Chapter 4 – Plant breeding in the inner city, Stockton-on-Tees

Chapter 5 – Seeds in the library, Bradford

Chapter 6 – Upskilling seed stewards, Shropshire

Chapter 7 – What Northern England can learn from Southern Mexico, Lancaster and Doncaster

Chapter 8 – Vertical growing, Newcastle upon Tyne

Chapter 9 – The Sound of beans, Teesside

Chapter 10 – Diaspora seeds, Lancaster


Jackie: Squash CIC, Liverpool

Growing a seed library

Hello Jackie!  Can you tell me a little about yourself? How come you’ve ended up where you are now?! 

I have been working in community arts and health for all of my working life and became interested in growing over 30 years ago after wwoofing in South Wales. I came straight back and got an allotment. Since then, growing has always been a passion, as has seed saving too. I was also involved in getting some growing projects off the ground at the Old Police Station in Lark Lane. In 2013 I was approached by Squash to work on their Toxteth Produce Project with local volunteers to develop the Grapes Community Food Garden and the Toxteth Seed Library.  Since then, I’ve been working part time as the Horticultural Lead with volunteers from the local community to develop the growing spaces we have along Windsor Street.

Squash sits within a strong community.  Who are the people who get involved with your project and how do they take part? 

Squash is a Community Interest Company (CIC) – a not for profit membership organisation that is accountable to our community. We work alongside local residents, embracing art, creativity and food as essential tools to improve health and well-being. Taking a seasonal approach, we explore new ways for our neighbourhood to flourish through participatory arts and community design practice, creating special, seasonal events, land-based rituals and festivals, promoting food growing, cooking, craft skills and enterprise and through providing meaningful training, volunteering, work and consultation.  The weekly gardening and cooking sessions in the Grapes Community Food Garden are drop-in and open to all with meal is shared together at the end of the session. All of Squash events and activities are free / by donation so that everyone in the community can take part.

Tell me a little more about the Toxteth Seed Library.  How did it come about? 

The Toxteth Seed Library started in 2013. We arranged for an expert from the Heritage Seed Library to come and hold a workshop for our garden volunteers. We approached Toxteth Library (also situated on Windsor Street) for permission for to build some small beds in their small courtyard situated at the back of the library to grow plants for seed.
The first year’s harvest was just enough to fill a biscuit tin! Since then, we have been learning and allowing suitable plants to go seed from our three growing sites on Windsor Street, L8.
We hold annual seed saves and shares now attracting many community gardens, growers and allotment holders from all areas of Liverpool and we have seeds available for donation all year round in the Squash Shop.

What would you say are the best things about the Seed Library? 

The annual seed saves and shares have gone from strength to strength. Participants used to bring packets of shop-bought seeds and now they are bringing seeds they have grown and saved themselves: lots of interesting and diverse seeds and stories have been shared. It has brought many members of the Liverpool growing community together.

What does the future hold? 

I would like to learn more about what is possible and what other people are doing. I’m looking into collaborating with others and encouraging more people to grow plants, save and share seeds no matter how much space they have available to them.

Toxteth Seed Library

Jamie: Sow Northern, Norton

A mobile seed library and new potato day

Hi Jamie!  How have you found yourself here?! 

I started growing veg during my late teens. I think mainly because my parents grew a bit, and then I got a job as a gardener at a local care home. Growing was something that I found enjoyable and would feel energised after a day working with plants.

In my early 20’s I started a garden maintenance business which (as far as I was aware) was the only garden maintenance company in our area to avoid using chemicals or manufactured plant additives.
I have been conscious of human environmental impact ever since my Mam took me to see Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior when I was a kid, so keeping things natural felt like the right thing to do.

The gardening business was superseded by doing other things that took my interest, like community art and music events, but the passion for growing never left.  My partner and I went on to grow veg wherever we had the opportunity. We’ve grown in small gardens and a few allotments over the years.

A couple of years ago, I started reading about seed sovereignty, and the need to save our own seeds — to keep growing the varieties that are being lost by large scale commercialisation.  I was also conscious that by saving seed, it meant that we could give seeds away to people who might not have access to them.

I attended a seed swap in the nearby town of Middlesbrough and was highly inspired by this event. No money involved, just nice folks chatting about growing and swapping and giving away seeds.
So we started saving seeds and set up a seed swap at the local sustainable market.  We’ve been doing this regularly ever since.

I attended the Seed Sovereignty Programme’s year-long seed saving course last year, which has been incredibly useful to learn how to save good seed properly.

Sow Northern is based in Teesside.  Who are the people who get involved with your project and how do they take part? 

The seed swap stall at the local Norton Green Market in Stockton is a great place to chat to anyone and everyone about growing and seed saving. We meet people from all walks of life who are at various stages of their growing journey.

We speak to people who aren’t growing but have an interest in doing so and we try to support those people in any way we can. There are a fair few people already collecting and saving seeds, but it’s great to chat to those who aren’t.

We’ve both taken part in and organised a few local events to support people to either start growing or grow more than they are.

I heard about the Potato Day concept and thought it would be a good thing to do in our area, as this would be another opportunity to support anyone who wants to grow veg.

Buying seed potatoes at wholesale prices and selling them at those prices to help reduce some of the barriers to growing — what could be better than that to try and enable more people to get involved in locally grown food?!

Our first potato day is in a week’s time (Sunday 3rd March), so we’re looking forward to that!

How did the mobile seed library come about? 

We were doing the seed swap every month but otherwise the box was just on a shelf at our house, so I thought about offering the ‘box’ to anyone else who wants to run the swap at their own event. It made sense to make the seed swap available wherever it would be useful.

Most of the time the seed swap is there with one of us from the Sow Northern group, but I think there is something just lovely about an ever changing, ever adapting box of seeds that travels around the community.

And how does it work well? 

Using it as an opportunity to strike up conversations about growing. Seeds are beautiful things, so sharing that beauty and the promise that they hold is really an amazing thing to be able to do. As well as enabling people to grow varieties that they might not have heard of.

What’s next for Sow Northern and the seed library? 

We’re going to continue keeping the conversation going about growing veg and saving seeds.
There are a few other events planned for during the year, and we’re working on some projects to encourage and support more people to grow food and save seeds.  We’ve started growing some seedlings that are specifically to give to schools in the local area. We’re also trying to get a community growing space up and running, which will help to provide a physical space, some shared knowledge and resources to people to either grow some, or grow more!

Sow Northern has a website and is also on Instagram.
Find Sow Northern’s mobile seed library at Norton Green Market.

Jennifer: UN_EARTH, Westerdale

A multidisciplinary seed project from the Tees to the Esk

Hello! Can you explain to me a little about you and your background? 

Yep, my background is some studying – art history (Scotland) and urban studies (Estonia) – with loads of waitressing in-between (London). I wasn’t a very good waitress because I’ve got the coordination of a drunk panda, but I really enjoyed it, especially working around so many different languages and ways of communicating. When the shift was slow, I’d get people to write down and translate random phrases for me and ended up with everything from Finnish movie quotes to elaborate Neapolitan insults (something to do with yellow p*ss and a service station!) Anyway, I think that messy mix of voices is partly what we’re hoping UN_EARTH can make room for.

And the Un_Earth project?  When did it begin, where are you now and where do you hope to be? 

It’s super early days. 2023 was very much about getting seeds in the ground and different voices around the table (well, laptop screen!) The work we’re hoping will come from this is focused on the intersection of grown and built spaces, and urban and rural territories, embedding practical planting action, such as seed saving, within wider efforts at tackling social inequality.

This began from two points. First, encountering some great work in and around the field of architecture and urbanism by people trying to understand the shifting neoliberal and financial forces that have hollowed out planning imaginaries, and how to counteract the dominance of speculative real estate. Second, discovering some pretty inspiring projects here in the Tees-Esk region organised by actors like the Seed Sovereignty Programme and local farmer Fraser Hugill who, in different ways, are helping build supportive networks for people attempting to engage with agroecology from really varied starting points.

I’m interested in the potential overlap of these two areas of action, resistance, and hope; despite the fact they often feel worlds apart. In doing so it’s been really great to learn from Helsinki-based architect Leonard Ma who is doing some great work to both strengthen agricultural communities and resist speculative real estate tendencies via the Metropolitan Rural Futures working group. Our hope is that, over time, we’ll be able to develop strategies in dialogue with these international efforts, but also respond to the specific conditions of the North East region including its deepening poverty, struggles against the UK’s persistent spatial inequality, and really mixed rural and industrial character.

2024 will be about making small steps in this direction. We’ll expand our seed trials in line with our long-term grow plan, and, fingers crossed, be able to start constructing a micro grain dehuller. Developing a smaller scale of processing machinery is a chance to bring together the rural and industrial skill sets of the area, as well as help generate economic and experimental alliances between small farmers, smallholders, and urban cultivators. Handily, machinery also acts like a hinge between grown and built spaces.

Un_Earth is pretty unique in that the people who are collaborating are from very different backgrounds, not necessarily growing!  Can you give some examples of who those collaborators are? 

Well, I should stress that collaboration so far has been informal as we’ve been working unfunded. So, it’s very much a case of people being super generous in sharing their time and thoughts. This includes different scales of growers in the Tees-Esk area who participated last year in trials of carlin pea and field bean seeds – despite tricky weather and troubles organising meetups, thanks to those who stuck at it!

It also includes a bunch of people, some named already, who’ve been willing to advise on this work at a very early (read: super messy) stage, which was great. We organized an informal public chat last November – Real Lemons, Real Girl Scouts – to pull these various people together alongside others who we’d not been in direct contact with, but whose work we’d also found really inspiring. It was a mix of in-person and online voices, and included:
Julia Cooper: soil scientist, committed composter, and head of research at the Organic Research Centre (Prudhoe, Northumberland)
Dan Evans: sociologist, care worker, and Desolation Radio host (Cardiff).
Fraser Hugill: farmer & farm environment advisor (North Yorkshire Moors region)
Holly Keasey: water artist, the W-E-T Centre (Lake Mälaren, Sweden and various Scottish waterways)
Leonard Ma: architect, Public Office and The Metropolitan Rural Futures working group (Helsinki).
Helen Runting: urban planner / designer and architectural theorist, Secretary Office for Architecture (Stockholm).

Oh, and a few of these names recently published great books which we’ve referenced a lot – Dan’s A Nation of Shopkeepers: The Unstoppable Rise of the Petty Bourgeoisie, and Helen and Leonard’s editorial work on Urbanizing Suburbia: Hyper-Gentrification, the Financialization of Housing, and the Remaking of the Outer European City. Check them out!

How has having this diversity of participants helped direct the project? 

A lot! We were keen to focus in on that awkward tension at the heart of agroecology, between trying to grow or produce stuff better and how to ensure equitable access to the output of this labour. To do so can feel really overwhelming because it implicates massive structural inequalities which include, but also exceed, the scope of food-material systems reform. However, with a growing percentage of the UK population unable to access sufficient nutrition, I don’t think you can afford to duck that complexity or its politics.

This is where bringing together diverse thinkers-doers becomes super important, because it helps map paths through this complex and often just downright frustrating terrain, see-sawing between the details and the bigger picture without getting completely lost. You can’t do that alone. In terms of our project, getting this input right from the beginning has both brought it to life, and given us the confidence to continue.

And has it been challenging with such a range of voices? 

No, the complete opposite. Firstly, in terms of that specific event (Real Lemons…), everyone we asked to participate was super open and willing to get stuck into the chat even if the topic was to the edge of their normal research or practice focus, which we were really grateful for.
Secondly, looking to the diverse community engagement we’re hoping to build long-term, a range of voices is such an important challenge to how, where, and for whom issues like agroecology are tackled. If you’re genuinely going to try and make this stuff relevant beyond itself, reaching out to people who aren’t already on board with a given set of values, and build cross-class alliances, then you’re going to need to embrace a whole mix of tastes, tones, and humours, and enjoy that dissonance.

What do you feel is the greatest success of the project to date?

That anyone bothered to show up for our November event, Real Lemons! It was pretty grim weather-wise and a key road to the venue (Lazenby Village Hall) was closed – my superior event-planning skills were clearly on full display. Thanks to everyone who made the effort!

You can contact Jennifer via Catherine, Northern Region Co-ordinator, 

Nathan: Cultivate Tees Valley CIC, Stockton-on-Tees

Plant breeding in an inner city community garden

Hi Nathan!  Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself? 

I am currently one of three directors for Cultivate Tees Valley CIC, who I first started working with as a volunteer in early 2019. Cultivate work in the community, and in collaboration with other organisations, across the Stockton borough, and our main focus has been on transforming unused, primarily urban land into spaces where people can come together to connect and grow food in an environmentally conscious way.

Around the time I came on as a volunteer, I had just completed a Permaculture Design Course, but for the 5 years prior to that I worked as an academic tutor in the Philosophy Department at Durham University, where I also did my BA, MA and PhD. But I have quite broad interests outside of Philosophy and I have been an avid gardener and forager for the last decade or so.

For several years I have also been interested in plant breeding, and for the last few, I have been looking for ways to make this a bigger part of the work I do through Cultivate. One of the things this has led to is our Cultivate Kale Project, an on-going, and to some extent open-ended breeding project that we’re currently running at our Arlington (Arly) Park site.

Who are the people who get involved with your project? 

It varies. Arly Park is just outside Stockton town centre, in one of the boroughs most deprived areas. Lots of people from this area use the on-site Ecoshop and many of those visit the garden. Some help out here and there, and pick some food to take home with them, and a few have become regular volunteers. In the past we have also worked alongside Mind to offer support through community and access to outdoor spaces to people with mental health challenges, and we have a number of volunteers who have joined us through that. But because we work at a number of sites across the Stockton borough and have participated in regional events such as the Great Big Green Week and the Festival of Thrift, we’ve also attracted volunteers from a wider area.

Our volunteers get involved in lots of aspects of our work and have been involved at different stages in the Kale Project, from sowing, transplanting, tending, and harvested from the plants, to helping to process the seeds for the next phase.

Why did you decide to include plant breeding in the Arly Park activity plan?  What exactly are you doing? 

Partly because of my interest in it. And it complements things we already try to do, like trying to save some of our own seeds. But there were a number of factors that influenced the decision. The Cultivate Kale Project was an opportunity to put to use something I had started a few years earlier. The original cross out of which the project grew wasn’t planned but came about because the Purple Tree Collard I was growing flowered unexpectedly.  Unlike most kales and collards it can live for 20 years or more without ever doing so. It seemed like too good an opportunity to miss, so I crossed it with the only other flowering Brassica I could find at the time, which was an unnamed ornamental kale. I grew the F1s (first generation) in pots on our patio at home – which wasn’t ideal but was the only space to which I had access at the time – and I obtained seed from these plants. Once I started working with Cultivate it made sense to pitch the idea to my colleagues, and move things to one of our sites, if only for reasons of space. But there was also an opportunity to involve other people in the project if we chose one of the sites with strong ties to the community.

Arly Park made the most sense as we ran regular volunteer sessions there, and because of both its location and the fact that we share the site with several other organisations. It was somewhere lots of people already used. Add to that, that we had grown kale there several times previously and it had proven popular, particularly with people who used the Ecoshop.

The seeds we started with at Arly were F2s – which is where you’d usually expect a lot of diversity to show up, as you start to see segregation for traits. The general aim was just to explore the results of that earlier cross. But we also wanted to see how, by doing this in a community setting, people who probably hadn’t thought much about plant breeding before would respond.

And where are you up to in the overall plan?!  What are you hoping to achieve? 

There was always a reasonable chance that some of the kale plants would prove perennial given their parentage, so this was something we wanted to screen for. While some proved biennial and died after setting seed, several of our plants are still going strong and continue to grow and provide us with a crop. In that respect the project has already delivered some results, as this makes cuttings a viable method for propagating and maintaining them, and we have started multiplying these so that they can be planted across a number of our sites for further evaluation, and eventually shared more widely.

When our plants flowered last year we also obtained a large batch of F3s (or third generation) seeds, and these are likely to contain a fair amount of genetic diversity too. We plan to grow some of these out ourselves, but we also want to explore the scope for breeding with (rather than simply in) the community further, so we’ll also be offering them up to other local growers, with some explanation of what they might expect from them. Alongside that we’re going to try offering a couple of short workshops on small-scale, independent plant breeding. It’s not clear whether there will be much uptake for these, but the hope is that with the kale project to act as a point of entry for people, we can start to create a platform for further collaborative work.

As we take on more breeding projects ourselves this year, we’re also thinking more about how we communicate these efforts to the people we work with and alongside. To that end, I’ve been trying to put together some material explaining what plant breeding is, why we are engaging in it, what work we’re currently undertaking, and how others can get involved.

While there are definite limitations to what we as small-scale, amateur plant breeders can do compared to professional breeders, I feel that with some support a lot more people could get involved and start doing really interesting things. And I think that could also enable plant breeding to figure more in the conversation about how communities can address food (and seed) sovereignty, so one hope is that we can start facilitating a shift in this direction.

One of the strengths of what you’re doing is in its collaborations.  Who are the other organisations that are impacted by your project, how do they feel its effects and what benefits do they take from it? 

We share Arly with Sprouts Community Food Charity, Amal Project, and Corner House Youth Project. I’m not sure the kids who do activities in the garden with Corner House really care about kale, except maybe as something they can feed to the chickens! But the other two organisations both work with food – Sprouts do cooking in the community at Arly (and elsewhere), and the Ecoshop, run by Amal Project, ensures that surplus food and other goods from supermarkets find their way to people who will use them.

We all benefit from working closely together and supporting one another, and our contribution to that is mostly in maintaining the garden as a space we can share, and in sharing the produce we grow. Some of this, for example, goes to Sprouts for use in their cooking (some of which we get to enjoy ourselves), while Amal Project are able to share it more widely with those who use the Ecoshop, and this has included the kales. But while they sometimes prove a talking point, I’m not sure the breeding work we’ve done so far has really benefitted our partners in ways that go much beyond our growing more generally, yet at least.

What are your plans for the future? 

I’m not exactly sure. There are quite a lot of breeding projects I’d like for us to undertake, if not now, then at some point in the future, for example, we’re looking at projects with diploid potatoes, carlin peas, rocoto chillies and naked-seeded squash. And I have been working with dwarf peas for a couple of years now, and that work is on-going. But because we’re still exploring possibilities for more collaborative projects, I think a lot depends on what opportunities arise from that, so it’s hard to say how what we’re doing now will evolve.  Whatever happens, it will definitely involve our communities!

Charlie Gray: Seeds of Hope and Horton Community Farm, Bradford

Seeds in the library!


Maryam and Charlie sowing trays of cultivars for seed saving with Bella

The Seeds of Hope Seed Library was launched in January 2021 and had a wonderful response from folk in and around Bradford, with 60 people becoming members.

The learning curve has been steep, but supported by experienced seed libraries in Dumfries and Galway, and these organisations are all working together to make seed available through northern (book) library systems. The team have also been learning from the pioneering London Freedom Seed Bank about their use of Airtable.

Needing to pass the seeds and infrastructure of the library on as she moves away from the region, Charlie met fellow seed stewards, Maryam and Silvie, to discuss others getting more involved in all aspects of saving seed and running the infrastructure, logging the seeds coming in and out of the library and communicating with members.

‘It’s been lovely how many people have chosen the pay it forward membership option, meaning they buy membership for themselves and one other. We also appreciate members patience as we find what we hope will be a more permanent home for the seeds and the library and improved admin systems’, said Charlie.

They have now made connections with the local library in Bradford, who are happy to host the seeds there and look at how it might integrate with the City of Bradford’s metropolitan district library service. The more we can connect and offer multiple services together, the more we strengthen local connections and that’s what Seeds of Hope is all about. To find out more or to offer support, you can email

Seeds of Hope


Daphne Du Cros: Little Woodbatch and Shropshire Good Food Partnership, Shropshire

Upskilling seed stewards

Daphne is based on the southwest tip of our Seed Sovereignty Programme’s northern region, in rural Shropshire. After completing a PhD in food policy, she’s built a thriving and beautiful smallholding, Little Woodbatch, and is drawing on the strengths and skills within her community to make significant steps in achieving food sovereignty in the county. Daphne is pictured with colleague Esther Copper-Wood, in our We Feed The UK photo booth at the Oxford Real Farming Conference.

Little Woodbatch produces high quality, open pollinated seed as part of its vegetable production, and this forms the basis of the stock distributed through the Bishop’s Castle Community Seed Bank. Launched during the pandemic period of 2020, when the fragility of our seed supplies was a real wake-up call to growers across the country, the seed bank is an integral part of Bishop’s Castle Community Food Resilience Plan. Volunteer run, distribution currently takes place at the monthly farmers’ market and the seed bank collaborates with the food bank and library to distribute seeds, providing easy access for all members of the community to grow their own food.

Daphne and the seed bank volunteers have plans to scale up in 2023, increasing their reach across the region with the Rural Seed Bank Network project, as part of the broader remit of the Shropshire Good Food Partnership. The aims of the Shropshire Rural Seed Bank Network are:

  • to share knowledge of seed saving, growing and seed sovereignty across the county
  • to foster community food security and independence through inclusive access to open-pollinated seed and the knowledge of how to save and share it
  • to support the species genetic diversity of seed stock outside of corporate ownership
  • to build community resilience in the face of climate change and food system shocks

The project will:

  • skill up 5 Seed Stewards across the Shropshire region
  • provide guidance and support in developing a local seed bank initiative for each Steward’s locality
  • help launch the new seed banks, by providing a starter supply of different open-pollinated seed varieties
  • communicate the value of seed and self-sufficiency to communities through home growing and seed saving to become more food-resilient

To find out more about the Rural Seed Bank Network project in Shropshire, or to become involved in this wonderful initiative, contact Daphne via Instagram at @littlewoodbatch and @shropshiregoodfood

Little Woodbatch

Shropshire Good Food Partnership


Emma Cardwell: Lancaster Environment Centre and Warren Draper: Bentley Urban Farm, Lancaster and Doncaster

Seeds and Dreams: What can Northern England learn from Southern Mexico?

Emma Cardwell is a lecturer in economic geography in Lancaster Environment Centre, with a specialism in politics and justice in food production.  Together with Warren Draper, they are both members of the Bentley Urban Farm Collective, a grassroots organisation in Doncaster that focusses on both local food sovereignty and international solidarity.  They reflects on what the UK can learn from Mexican seed saving culture…


Bentley Urban Farm

Common land, seed sovereignty and community in Mexico

Chiapas, in Southern Mexico, was made famous by the Zapatista revolution: a political movement closely tied to agriculture and food sovereignty. The 1994 revolution was a radical local response to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) — and more specifically, its impact on agriculture, food and land in Mexico, where over 50% of land is in common ownership; held and managed collectively by communities. NAFTA threatened this way of life. As part of the agreement, the US government stipulated that the Mexican government had to remove the rules protecting common property.

Mexico also has a very high level of agricultural diversity, especially for culturally significant crops like maize. Free trade with North America threatened local economies by flooding Mexican markets with US grown, heavily subsidised monocrops. This threat to localised agroecological systems was so important that the Zapatistas labelled themselves ‘the men, children and women of maize’. Zapatista territories in Chiapas have increased in area since 1994, and both Zapatistas and other Chiapas peasants are big proponents of seed saving and sharing: it’s estimated that around 90-95% of seeds planted in the region originate within the communities, with very few people buying industrial seed. Whereas in the US 93% of local seed varieties being sold in 1903 were effectively extinct by 1983. The not so Green Revolution tied agribusiness to the petrochemical industry, with a small number of large corporations dominating the global food chain. But, as Vandana Shiva points out, these tend to be involved with the supply of a small number of commodity crops, with a large amount of essential micro-nutrients being grown by peasant farmers.

For the people of Chiapas, seed, land, culture, and community are very closely related. As one Mayan farmer from the Chiapas highlands put to local sociologist Carol Hernández Rodríguez, “This union between human and seed is sacred; it is something that must be respected, a right to life, a principle of our own existence in freedom. That is why it is unacceptable that corporations seek to appropriate the seeds of the world.”

From Chiapas to Doncaster

Here at Bentley Urban Farm, a community agroecology project in the North of Doncaster, South Yorkshire, we believe that the relationships between seed, land, culture, and community are just as important in Northern England as in Southern Mexico—and that we have a lot to learn from the communities of Chiapas. In 2021, we were involved with other collectives and communities from around the UK in organizing a visit from representatives of the Zapatistas to Wales, Scotland, Ireland and England. Peasant activists from Chiapas met with local land workers, unions and social movements to compare politics, agriculture and activism in Mexico and the UK.

Learning about land rights and food sovereignty in Chiapas encouraged us to think about land access, food and community resources where we live. This forced us to question many things that we previously took for granted.Why and how is access to land so limited in the UK?

Bentley Urban Farm is on an acre of land at the edge of an ex-mining village, surrounded by intensively farmed agricultural land (though known more for mining and industry, Doncaster is 60% agricultural). The site used to be a council nursery and horticultural training centre, and before that a petting farm. Both were a hangover from a time when local authorities invested heavily in farming and market gardens, something we can only dream of today. But if we go back even further than that, Ordnance Survey Maps show us that the farm, which is open to all and aims to support biodiversity and community access to healthy food and outdoor space, sits on the corner of what was, until the 19th century, a huge area of common land called Bentley Commons. These commons were there for community use, just like the (much smaller) urban farm, and just like the community land that is widespread in Mexico. Why did we lose these common rights, and what does this loss mean for communities, biodiversity, and food sovereignty?

Historic maps show a surprising amount of common land in North Doncaster (and throughout the UK) was still accessible to the public less than two hundred years ago: our own attempt to create a community agricultural resource seems tiny in comparison. Knowing all the good that access to land, community and real food can bring, it’s not hard to imagine what a hugely beneficial resource these commons would provide to communities all over the UK. Access to the commons seems almost anachronistic in 21st century Britain, like something from another time, but the case of Mexico — where most land is still held in common — shows that it doesn’t have to be this way.

What might seed sovereignty look like in a place where people have meaningful access to land commons, as well as the commons of home-grown seeds? Chiapas — where seed saving is so strong — presents a clue to the possibilities of widespread land access in the UK for seed-saving. And for those of us interested in food sovereignty, we think it’s important to situate questions about crops in the wider aspects of community, culture and access to land. It is one thing to have seeds and dreams, it is another thing to have somewhere — and somebody — to plant them.

Bentley Urban Farm


Mark Ridsdill-Smith: Vertical Veg Gardener, Newcastle upon Tyne

Greening the Grey

Perhaps more than any other region, the north has the highest proportion of urban food growers.  Whilst many have access to gardens, allotments and community growing spaces, our small scale yard and container gardeners have a valuable contribution to make, not just in providing the green backdrop to our most densely populated areas, but also in terms of food production itself, with perhaps the shortest supply chain of all – sometimes a matter of a few metres!

Mark Ridsdill-Smith, aka the Vertical Veg Gardener, is based in Newcastle and champions the potential of urban food growers, something he explains here.  He is the author of ‘The Vertical Veg Guide to Container Gardening’ 


Vertical Veg Gardener

Can you tell us a little more about what you do and how you found yourself in the heart of one of our beautiful northern cities?! 

I started growing food on my balcony when I lived in London – it was my only option as I wanted an allotment but could get one! After discovering that I could actually grow quite a lot of food on the balcony – and enjoy all the other benefits of gardening – I started Vertical Veg to spread the word and support other people in cities who don’t have gardens to grow food in containers. When my wife got a job at Newcastle University ten years ago, I switched from balcony to backyard growing – and now I grow in the concrete front yard of a typical 1930s house.

You’re a passionate advocate and spokesperson for container growing.  What is it about this that really excites you? 

It’s the ability to garden almost anywhere – and transform lifeless, sometimes ugly, concrete spaces into lush, green spaces that add beauty, support wildlife, give joy AND provide delicious and nutritious fresh food to eat. I also love how it offers opportunities, even in a flat, to recycle our food in a wormery and connect with others in our local community. Seed saving is possibly not always people’s focus for container growing, but it it’s absolutely a possibility.

What do you think are the benefits for seed saving for container gardeners?

For those of us living in the middle of the city, perhaps the most significant benefit is the opportunity to reconnect with the full seed to seed cycle, practised by our ancestors for thousands of years. Additionally, of course, it’s rewarding, it saves money, and it’s lovely to have a supply of seeds to swap with others – particularly if you can get hold of interesting or unusual varieties.  This is in turn provides the opportunity to meet and exchange seeds (and advice) with others in the same area.

What kind of adaptations need to be made for saving seed from small spaces?

In terms of adaptations, probably the main thing is focussing mostly on the self pollinating crops, like tomatoes and peas, that don’t require large populations to save healthy seed. Of course, when our rocket and orache plants go to seed, we can still save these, too – but more for our own use than to share as a named variety with others. I save a lot of orache and nasturtium seeds to grow as microgreens – as the seeds are expensive to buy.

How easy is it actually?!

As long as you focus on the easy crops – like chillies, tomatoes, peas, lettuce and French beans – and know a few basic rules, like only saving from healthy plants, it’s easy and straight forward to at least start saving some seeds. There is, of course, always more to learn.

And your own Desert Island seed?! 

Almost any food is improved with chilli in my view – so I’d take some Alberto locato chilli seeds, my favourite chilli variety!

The Vertical Veg Guide to Container Gardening


Nell Catchpole: Sound Artist, Teesside

The Sound of Beans

The Seed Sovereignty Programme’s Northern Network gathered last autumn for a Beanfeast – a celebration of growing, sharing and eating pulses. The day included workshops and talks, films and swaps, and was ‘documented’ with the help of Nell Catchpole – musician, sound artist and broad bean enthusiast! Listen below (it’s best with headphones!), then read about how the sound art was created.

Recording sound art at the Beanfeast


Tricky first question!  Nell, can you explain what’s meant by a ‘sound artist?’ 

I work with sound as a medium of expression – a bit like a sculptor works with clay.  But I also invite people to listen attentively – differently to the everyday.  There are lots of more complicated answers I could give! 

Much of your work is centred around specific places and spaces, the outdoors, nature… What draws you to these environments? 

I first began exploring sound-making in my childhood landscape of East Suffolk. As I developed this artistic practice, I was drawn by my deep connection with nature, the materials and living organisms in the environment.  Working collaboratively in and with a place brings me closer to it: I feel I’m honouring the space and the beings in it as well.  The sound-making process is also a way of enquiring into my relationship with the environment and the more-than-human world. It has a feel of ritual. 

We know you’re a grower, and a fellow seed saver: What inspired you to accept the Beanfeast commission? 

I was intrigued: I’d never been to a gathering like this before. My understanding about saving seeds is very limited, but I was certain that I would feel a sense of affinity with people who grow and share seeds.  I was curious to see how people’s knowledge of growing and their seeds could be communicated through sound. 

How did you collect material for the Beanfeast piece?  What did this involve? 

I have a responsive way of working, depending on the context. I brought a couple of sound recorders, leaving one in place whilst moving around with another, but I have to be selective about which recordings I make or I’d have hours of material to edit!  Using careful listening and interviews, I tried to focus on what had brought each person to growing. There were key themes which seemed to resonate.  Each person was invited to make sounds with their beans. You can learn a lot from the way people touch and handle and move seeds – their knowledge and their sense of care.  We also did one group bean-shaking which was really fun! 

The northern seed savers are a pretty mixed bunch.  You mentioned key themes…? 

I’m a novice so I really enjoyed hearing people’s growing challenges – especially in relation to our different northern microclimates. There was interesting dialogue about the life of seeds and how they’ve travelled across continents over time.  And people spoke about the ‘old ways’ and the really ‘old ways’:  How some of the traditional vegetable growing we may have encountered as we grew up has its drawbacks and some of the older knowledges are being rediscovered and brought back into practice. 

Have to ask this: favourite sound on the day?! 

I hope listeners will really enjoy the different sounds of people moving and shaking their seeds. I think it’s beautiful. But it was the hubbub of different accents and ages, of stories being told whilst seeds were being swapped, that I thought was special. 

What’s the role of artists such as yourself, and your work, in the seed sovereignty movement and the wider ambitions of more earth-centred living? 

This is very close to my heart and on my mind. The Arts can communicate things that can’t be expressed in other ways – a vital ingredient in moving towards more careful and sustainable ways of living. As artists, we can create a space or experience by which people can process their feelings, empathise with and be curious about their relationship with the Earth. But I also aim to be useful and practical:  I can demystify the tools of my trade – such as my recording equipment – so they can be used by others in whatever way they might find helps. Artists need to be ready to respond to what is needed in that more practical way, taking the role of a facilitator, supporting others to develop their own ideas.  Since I work a lot with sound recording, there are so many possible uses of the equipment to document and tell stories in all kinds of ways.

I think as a sound artist the idea of amplifying the sounds and voices that wouldn’t otherwise get heard is a useful and powerful contribution. Maybe most importantly, singing and music-making us a way of togetherness and celebration is something we all need more of, and again, we could look to those societies where food production and community are more intertwined.  Maybe we need a big sing-along at the next Beanfeast: I like the idea of inventing new traditions!

Beanfeast: The Best Bits


Dennis Touliatos: Lancaster Seed Library, Lancaster

Diaspora seeds

Dionysios (Dennis) arrived in the UK from Greece 15 years ago. He is the main grower and FarmStart trainer at The Plot, an organic market garden south of Lancaster which trains new entrants to commercial organic horticulture, a member of The Lancaster Seed Library and a researcher at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University.

You can catch him speaking about diaspora seeds at our Seed Gathering on Sunday 12thFebruary, and below he shares more about flying the flag for seeds sovereignty.


Based in Lancaster – can you explain how you found your way to the north west?!

I arrived in the UK as an economic migrant from Greece around 15 years ago, aiming to get more hands-on experience in different types of farming. This interest was sparked by my degree in organic agriculture and learning from my grandparents in Greece who were essentially small holder subsistence farmers. I spent time mussel farming in the West Highlands of Scotland, working in horticulture around Edinburgh, lived and worked on a biodynamic dairy farm in the North Yorkshire moors to name a few. But as every farmer is also a researcher, after a few years of working on farms I felt like I had more questions than answers and wanted to develop a deeper understanding of food growing, particularly of plants and horticulture. I already had a BSc in Organic Agriculture from Greece and to widen my knowledge I embarked into a fully-funded PhD in plant biology at Lancaster University – which initially brought me to the North West. I have pretty much stayed in the area since then.

Your life is pretty much focused around food growing, seeds and sharing.  What kind of things are you getting up to? 

My main passion now is The Plot, our organic market garden in Lancaster, that hosts North Lancashire’s FarmStart scheme and is part of a wider local food movement facilitated by FoodFutures. I am fascinated by the challenge of making a small organic market garden financially viable and resilient, and doing this within a wider food system that is dictated to fast-paced economies of scale and corporate interests. I also love the training element of FarmStart and seeing farmstarters on The Plot develop into commercial organic growers with a deep understanding of Agroecology as a movement.

This practical doing is really complemented by the research I do at Coventry University. I am currently working on a collaborative project with the Soil Association that is exploring key approaches of agencies that have successfully improved the health and sustainability of diets in communities.

I am also very intrigued to explore how to make on-farm seed saving work within a certified organic, commercial context as I currently rely on buying commercial organic seed and some organic F1 hybrids for specific crops. I have developed this interest and my seed saving skills through doing – being an active member of Lancaster Seed Library and by attending networking and training events hosted by the wider seed sovereignty movement.

Lancaster Seed Library is just one of your great initiatives.  What inspired you to set up the project? 

The Lancaster Seed Library was set up by the collaborative efforts of several amazing doers in Lancaster. It came out of Transition City Lancaster and it was inspired by a need – the local seed saving group had gone dormant and there was no one in the area running training or skill shares around seed saving. There were also no local producers of organically grown seed.  And so an initial group set it up to fill this gap with the support of funding from Heritage Lottery Fund.

When I started to get involved, the emphasis of the project shifted more to using the seed library to start a conversation and get local growers excited and interested in saving seed. Now we continue to do this, but we are also interested in developing our seed saving skills further.

How does it operate? 

Lancaster Seed Library seeks to be very low maintenance and is run by a small group of committed members. The project is made up of three key elements:

  1. Our living lab, which is located at Claver Hill community food project. This is where core members grow plants for seed saving and it is used for running training and skill shares.
  2. Seed library cabinet in Lancaster’s Central Library and Sew and Sow BoxesOur main cabinet is located in Lancaster Seed Library and in several locations around Lancaster City. We fill them with saved seed for people to take, grow and then hopefully return some seeds too. They are based on trust and a network of wonderful women who care for them through Lancaster Sewing Café. 
  3. Seed swap and training. We attend and support an annual potato day and seed swap each January, which is where we get to meet a lot of new people. We use this event to invite people to two seed saving training sessions which aim to upskill attendees and help them start seed saving in the growing season ahead. We then hold small gatherings every 3 months where people can join us with practical activities at Claver and ask questions, and we finish we a small seed saving cleaning and packing session in the winter- to get ready for the next seed swap!

Where do your seeds come from?  Do you have criteria for being included? 

Our approach is pretty organic! They come with the people involved with the seed library and their interests. We also select a range  of seeds to grow each year that support us in learning about and practicing a range of seed saving techniques. These are often bought initially from Real Seeds and then we use the seeds we have previous saved. We have also grown some varieties that we got from other seed swaps e.g. from a seed swap in Leeds.

Setting up a seed library is not without its challenges!  What have you found has been difficult? 

There is a permaculture saying that goes something  like this: “We are all great in building composts toilets, but we still haven’t learned to listen to each other”.

We have never had issues with funding, lack of seed saving skills, lack of growing space or interest in taking seeds to grow. But people challenges have been the main challenge so far – from finding people committed for the whole growing season to support healthy plants and initially returning seeds not being of a high enough quality to swap, through to the forming of the initial group and being clear on the purpose of the project. We still work with these and have learnt to be patient in building a local seed saving movement. We have also learnt a range of tools and practices over the years to enable us to embrace them and cultivate an environment where people thrive e.g. dragon dreaming, sociocracy…

And the best bits?! 

The best part is when we meet friends from around the country, and beyond and they show us – with a smiling face – a handful of seeds that they grew and saved from Lancaster Seed Library seeds. We have also come to love the winter seed cleaning and sorting session. We always hold this in our home, with shared food, and it’s a great way to catch up with people whilst admiring the beauty of the seeds that have been grown.

What are your plans for the future (library or otherwise?) 

To keep doing what we are already doing but get more people involved! We are also in the process of setting up a polytunnel for growing and saving seed at Claver Hill community food growing project-to increase the amount we can grow, share and swap each year.And finally, we are part of a wonderful ‘Northern Seed Savers Network’ that is currently discussing setting up a local seed producing hub of some sort in the north of England. This is very exciting and after 8 years of running the seed library as a community group it feels like a great next step.

And, final question – Desert Island seed?! 

A handful of big ‘Black Emperor’ runner beans!

The Plot


Sew and Sow Boxes

Real Seeds