Seeds bring together the past and the future in one neat little package. They are the legacy of farmers and gardeners who have honed a variety for generations. They are a vessel with infinite potential to grow and develop and reproduce. Farmers, growers and breeders work in partnership with our crops to guide them to grow well and produce food to nourish us.
Time and experience have told us that breeding and selection are a delicate balancing act – we need to create crops which have the characteristics we need whilst also respecting the need for genetic diversity – for the health of the plant and for the use of future generations.
Seeds hold a window into our past. There are few opportunities where we can smell, see and taste the food our of our ancient ancestors. This is an experience totally different from reading information in a history book. Yet, in the South West we have one of the oldest bean varieties, ‘Martock’ Faba bean which has grown in the Somerset village of Martock since the 12th century. The beans were grown and dried to be stored to eat as a staple in the medieval diet. The bean is still grown by gardeners today as well as being safely conserved by the Heritage Seed Library (HSL) who do vital work in preserving crop diversity in the UK.
Another South West variety preserved by HSL is the ‘Devonia’ Tomato. Grown in Braunton, Devon by Mr Peter Bryant Westcott, this tomato has been grown in the Westcott family since 1890s. Recently, Riverford Field Kitchen have picked up the variety and grow it to supply their Field Kitchen menu. The toils of a Devon family continue to be celebrated in a local restaurant over a century later.
Stewarding existing varieties is only one part of seeding our future, we must continue to breed seeds for our changing climate and cultivation methods. These are our emerging seed stories.
In the South West we have a vibrant community of farmers, growers and gardeners who are breeding or improving varieties for our local climate. Devon seed company, Vital Seeds produce much of their own seed. As they grow seed each year, they gently steer varieties to perform well in the wet and mild South West climate. This soggy climate often creates disease issues during the growing season, most notably blight in tomatoes. Diane Holness of Bristol Seed Swap has noted a gap in the market for a blight-resistant open pollinated tomato and has since been running a breeding project in her own back garden.
We can all support seed sovereignty in your own way, from saving your own to buying local seed. For more information on the Seed Sovereignty Programme in South West England contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
With thanks to Catrina Fenton, Head of the Heritage Seed Library for photography