On the edge of Dartmoor National Park in South Devon is a truly wondrous place for research and experimentation. At Incredible Vegetables you’ll find Mandy Barber amongst a mini jungle of unusual edible crops, many of which I doubt you will have seen or heard of before, but which are proving increasingly popular as people realise the need for climate adapted, resilient crops. We hear from Mandy about her work and one of her favourite open pollinated perennial varieties:
“I run a project called Incredible Vegetables in Devon. I’m a grower, researcher of perennial edible plants, budding plant breeder, seed saver and also have a small permaculture plant nursery. I’m passionate about researching sustainable food crops that have built-in resilience as well as wild edibles that have the potential to become future staple foods. The aim of Incredible Vegetables is to create a diverse botanical reserve of useful edible plants including perennial edible roots, shoots, tubers and rhizomes, leafy greens and provide these plants and seeds for others to grow.
One of my favourite perennial open pollinated varieties is Skirret ( Sium sisarum) a hardy herbaceous perennial root vegetable that is part of the family Apiaceae. It produces a cluster of sweet tasting slender roots. Skirret dates back centuries, pre-dating the potato, and was one of the main root crops eaten across Europe before potatoes were introduced. The flavour is somewhere between a parsnip and a carrot, with a hint of pepper. They were popular in Tudor and Stuart periods and were used in sweet and savoury dishes. It can be eaten raw, but is lovely sautéed or roasted. It also has the added benefit of being a beautiful ornamental and is a very beneficial plant for insects.
I have been working with skirret for quite a few years now and 2020 marked my first commercial production of skirret seed. The fantastic thing about this perennial root vegetable is that it can be perpetually divided and re-planted without any fuss. The aim is to select for larger sweet roots without a woody centre and save the seed from those plants to grow on again. There is a lot of room for improvement with this crop, but myself and other skirret enthusiasts are taking this on board with our research. Sweet and crunchy skirret roots the size of carrots would be the ultimate dream!”
Follow Mandy @incredible_vegetables
Schumacher College is an alternative Higher Education college situated on the historic Dartington Estate in South Devon. They have recently launched a BSC in Sustainable Food and Farming and are in their 9th year of running the Practical Residency in Sustainable Horticulture. We hear from Head Gardener and Programme Lead, Colum Pawson, all about the College’s new growing project to bring together different courses at Schumacher College to sow, care for, harvest, process, spin, dye and weave Flax into linen.
“Last year we grew flax for the first time at Schumacher College on the Dartington Estate in South Devon. The seed was donated to us by the Monreagh Heritage Centre in Ireland, who grow it as part of their education programme. We are growing it on our new Engaged Ecology Masters course, where we will be processing it into linen as part of an experiential exploration of the social, political and economic issues related to fibre production.
It has been such a pleasure to explore the growing of a fibre. Clothing is often taken for granted and while we may take time to connect with our food and where it comes from, few of us do this with our clothing.
We have found it a beautiful plant to grow and then to ferment it, split the fibres, comb, spin, weave and then dye it. Working with plants we have grown ourselves gives us first-hand experience of what it takes to produce our clothing. We have saved our own seed for next year and are looking forward to producing our own Schumacher College variety of flax as the plants adapt to our growing conditions year after year”
Pippa Rosen from Beans and Herbs at The Herbary in Wiltshire runs a seed business which has been organically certified for seed production for 20 years. Nothing is brought onto their holding – no animal manure is used, and no blood, fish or bone. Fertility is maintained only by plants, creating a completely sustainable growing system. They sell only open-pollinated varieties and strongly encourage seed-saving.
If they grow it, others can also grow it, and save their own seed.
Pippa reminds us that it’s important to label all packets with seeds’ varietal names and the year of harvest. Then to store them at a constant low temperature and low humidity.
Think local and take your spare saved seed to your nearest seed swap event!
We asked Pippa to share her favourite open pollinated variety of squash and why she loves it.
“My favourite open pollinated squash is called Ebisu. It’s the greatest squash there ever was! Originating from Japan it does extremely well in our UK summer weather. We love it so much we’ve grown it in West Wiltshire for many years. It’s a medium size squash so whatever kind of summer weather we get, it still gets good ripening and will therefore store very well. Ebisu has an outstanding sweet flavour and texture with lots of orange flesh, not just a bit round the edge; making it a perfect squash for roasting, frying or for soup.
The seed is easy to extract for seed-saving. If you’d like to try this delicious squash Organic seed of Ebisu is available from www.beansandherbs.co.uk“
“We love saving tomato seed at Trill Farm Garden. They are one of the crops that really show diversity – whether its size, shape, colour, taste, patterns, growth habit, so we often try different varieties each season, and those that we are impressed with we select the best and save from. Saving seeds from tomatoes is also a simple but interesting process with the fermenting and then drying.
The other great thing about tomato seed saving is that most varieties do not cross pollinate so we can grow a range of different varieties in the same tunnel knowing that if we save seed from them it is unlikely that they will have crossed with others growing nearby”
“Saving biennial crops is really interesting as you have to focus in on the genetic differences between the plants to allow for thorough selection. You start noticing things that you would not usually notice if just growing the crop for harvest.
The other great thing with biennial seed crops is that you see the plants grow to a stage that you would otherwise not see, and this can often bring added benefits to the garden – not just the beautiful flowers like these parsnips, but also the insects that they attract (in the case of umbellifer crops these are often numerous types of parasitic wasps and hover-flies which predate on some of the garden pests like aphids).
Saving seed not only gives this added connection to nature but also to our ancestors who saved seeds as a normal part of farming and growing, which has all but been lost over the last few decades. There are few things much better, as a grower or farmer, than winnowing seed that you have grown and saved for future crops. I cannot imagine ever taking for granted the simplicity and beauty of the craft of seed saving.”
Becky is part of the team at Whippletree Farm situated in the Teign Valley, just inside Dartmoor National Park in Devon. Since 2018 she has been developing a no-dig market garden on about 1/3 acre of the site. Becky is an active member of the regional community group ‘The South West Seed Savers Network’
“This year I have successfully saved open pollinated seed from red deer tongue lettuce as well as goldiana and indigo cherry tomato varieties. Three of the varieties in the photos were grown from South West Seed Savers Network members’ saved seeds which we swapped at our annual seed swap in 2020.
I plan to save as many open pollinated tomato varieties as I can this year, and I am determined to start learning how to save seed from my personal favourite vegetable; shallots – I really love the Zebrune variety!”
Little Bishops Organics is a new and thriving Community Supported Agriculture farm near Kentisbeare and Cullompton in Devon. The very talented Chloe Blackmore and Dave Parry can be found selling their delicious Organic veg each week at Cullompton farmers market.
Chloe comes from a family of growers and sought out her Father, Cyrill, to tell us about his favourite variety of parsnip.
Cyrill chose as his favourite the open pollinated variety; White Gem Parsnip, because “They have a nice shape, good flavour and they look nice and bright! They also grow to a decent size which people like rather than the really small slender varieties that the supermarkets tend to sell”
Chloe and Dave are also keen seed savers and these dwarf borlotti beans were the first crop that they saved for seed here on their new site and they are excited about growing more seed crops this coming season!
“Vallis Veg is a market garden, campsite and hub of nature based activity on the edge of Frome, Somerset. We provide fresh, ecologically grown veg via our box scheme and through Frome food hub, and we are currently setting up a small solidarity box scheme inspired by other growers in the UK and the urgency to get good food to everyone and be as inclusive as possible.
We save seed because it brings us great joy and satisfaction, and observing plants adapting to a landscape is truly amazing. But we also save seed because those skills have been somewhat lost over the past century, meaning we rely more and more on bigger scale seed producers outside of the UK.
We want to be part of the growing movement to make seed sovereignty possible and to put seeds back in the hands of the people. So we aim to focus as much of our time and energy as possible on getting training, practising our skills, and sharing our home grown seed with as many people as possible!
My favourite seeds to save are all types of beans and peas, squash and rare chillis!”
“I’m Liv at Down Farm in North Devon. We are an organic market garden growing veg for a small box scheme and markets. We also produce a small amount of commercial seed alongside the veg including parsnips, Calabrese and some slightly less successful lettuce this year.
We grow seed for the same reason we grow veg; to make our food system more resilient and without seeds you can’t grow anything! It’s our small way of contributing to seed sovereignty in the UK. Plus it’s fun, the flowers are always beautiful and gives us a new challenge on the farm”
Follow Liva and Henry @downfarmwinkleigh
“We are Springtail Farm, a small market garden on rented land at Fivepenny Farm in West Dorset. 2021 marks the beginning of our third season here. There will be four of us working this season, running a veg box scheme, selling wholesale to cafes, shops and restaurants and also selling at a weekly market.
The more we learn, the more seed growing and saving will become part of what we do. This year we will be saving: Tomato, Chilli, Pepper, Agretti, Bean and Flower seeds, and ideally more than this also.
And why save seed? Well, in our few short years as growers so far, the importance and vitality of seed has felt very apparent. We can only hold the seeds that we have in our hands today because of the seed growing and saving work that people did many many generations ago. Without seed growers and savers there is no future of seed borne crops. The importance of this become more evident to us lately, the effects of Coronavirus and Brexit, causing seed shortages. If certain seed crops are grown by just one or two farmers this can lead to widespread issues for countless growers if there is a seed crop failure or seed borne virus for example.
On a more optimistic note, there are many many people working to protect and grow healthy and vital seeds and recent events have shed more light on the importance of this. And as new entrant growers it definitely feels like there are many exciting things to aspire to in this lively world of seed.”