Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Urban Food Growing: All about seeds

I'd never really thought much about seeds. My approach was firmly rooted in buying them in garden centres, and planting them. Just that somehow, I've not been particularly successful at growing from seed. Well, now I know why this could be.

Matthew Love from the East Kilbride Development Trust took our food growing course session on a tour de force in his presentation/talk on seed saving. It's rare to learn so many new things in just an hour, and it was mindset changing stuff. Did you know that the seeds you get to buy are really rather rubbish because they are the cast offs from the agricultural industry? The farmers get the good seeds, gardeners get the shite ones, so little wonder we're not doing too well on the planting from seed front.

What's more, seeds on the market are controlled by seed producers who have to register seeds. This is expensive and leads to a reduction in variety of seeds. So localised seeds are become rare and are not available commercially. We're losing variety, and particularly that which grows well right here.

The seeds that are on the market are more often than not aimed at industrial production of food, which is done differently to the food growing of your average gardener. For example, if you grow peas on a farm, you will be looking for a low growing variety that can be harvested by combine harvesters. If you are a gardener, you obviously don't have a combine harvester and don't need low growing peas. In fact, your garden would make much more efficient use of space if your peas were high growing so you can use the other space for lettuces.

And finally, because most of agricultural mass production of food is done in countries with a bit more sun than the west coast of Scotland, the seeds are of mediterranean origin which doesn't make for great growing in Scotland.

What the urban food grower needs are seeds which work well in the local climate and makes best use of what that climate is like. This is even different between Glasgow and Fife, so local really means a rather small area. The East Kilbride Development Trust has a perfectly simple but inspiring answer to the seed conundrum: Saving seeds from vegetables that grow well locally, either through existing knowledge of varieties that do grow well or by trial and error. Then, swap the seeds. The whole ideology is that of making seeds available and enabling local food growing, so the seeds are always free. Ingenious.

Matthew is in the process of developing seed saving network for Scotland which will contribute to affordable and sustainable food growing, while develop seed knowledge and enabling people to be more self reliant. He runs an annual seed exchange event and I can already not wait for it to happen some time in early 2011 (although to be fair I walked away with more seeds than I can plant in my small space in the coming year as it is).

There were also lots of tips on how to save seeds yourself as well as general gardening advice. I know what I did wrong this year now and can avoid my mistakes next year. I also walked away with half a cherry tomato, of the winner in Matthew's tomato growing test - a cherry tomato that will do well in our climate. Half a tomato which will give me about 30 seeds. Method: scoop out seeds into a jar, add some water, stand for 3 days until the gooey stuff around the seeds gets mouldy and separates from seeds. Then wash away the mould, catching the seeds. Dry off and leave to dry for a few days. Store in a cool, dark and dry place until next spring.

Find out more about tips that the East Kilbride Development Trust has on growing food, and join the mailing list if you're interested in the project. If you're in Scotland and interested in growing food, I can only recommend to contact Matthew about the seed exchange project.

Now it's your turn to share your food growing stories!



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