Tag Archives: diversity

Springtime Sowing at Seedy Sunday

This past week we have gone through a key moment in the solar calendar as the balance of light begins to tip inexorably towards more light and less dark. Many traditions celebrate this time as one of the “quarter days” in between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The exact date changes depending on where the sun is but is usually celebrated (by those who still pay attention to these things) between the 1st and 3rd of February. The festival, known most commonly as Imbolc – pronounced “ee-molk” – is a recognition of the changing of the seasons; a time when life begins returning after the winter months, and when the ground begins to warm up sufficiently for seeds to be planted.

It is fitting, then, that the first Sunday of February every year sees the return of the UK’s largest seed swap, Seedy Sunday (1), held this year on Sunday 1st February in its usual location of the Brighton Corn Exchange. Seed swapping is an important way to help you to grow more and stronger varieties, and to help to preserve genetics of existing varieties as more than one person will plant them.

The Seed Swap table. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

The Seed Swap table. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Er…why don’t I just go to the garden centre?

When you save seeds from your crops using open-pollinated methods you are preserving the variety of plant – be it flower, vegetable or other crop – and thus ensuring that the plant’s genes can continue to the next generation. By doing this you make the variety more stable and also you create a seed which is adapted to whichever environment you have grown it in, so you know it will do well there. However, being open pollinated, the seed will also easily adapt to other environments.

If you are a grower but you do not save seeds you will have to keep buying new seeds from a commercial company. There are very few commercial seeds available which have been produced using open pollinated methods; indeed, under EU regulations, it is currently illegal to sell such seeds without registering them for ‘Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability’ (2) and proving that the variety is ‘commercially viable’ (3). As open pollinated seeds are usually non-uniform and adaptable this is usually not possible; so the vast majority of commercial seeds which are available to buy will have been produced using other methods, usually hybridisation.

Such techniques are fantastic for producing a clear strain of crops which will all crop at more or less the same time and which need a specific environment to grow in, hence their popularity with farmers growing on a large, intensive scale. However, when you grow crops from hybridised seeds it is very difficult to save seeds successively from them, as the offspring of the plants will revert to either one or other of the parent genes and your seeds will not be true to type. If you want it to be worth planting your seeds – and even on a small, home scale it is still important that you utilise your energy and resources efficiently and effectively – there is little point in planting seeds which have been produced from a hybrid parent, as you have no idea how they will turn out. This, conveniently for the commercial seed companies, means that you have to keep going back to them for your seeds year on year. So seed swapping is beneficial even for no other reason than financially. For more on why it may be a good idea to save seeds, as well as practical ways to get the best from your saved seeds, please see my articles here and here .

This way for seeds! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

This way for seeds! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Brilliant! So how does it work?

One of the main ideas of Seedy Sunday is to create not only a space for people to come and exchange seeds, but to encourage education on issues around seed saving and exchanging, as well as creating links and networks with different groups from around Brighton and even further afield. The Corn Exchange (part of Brighton Dome) is a vast hall, almost ample for the number of different organisations who came along – although this year the event is growing so much that we had to have a few stalls in the foyer and cafe. On entering the Corn Exchange one is greeted immediately by a large barrow, alluringly spilling vegetables, from Barcombe Nurseries (3); then, after purchasing your ticket, which sets you back three pounds, you walk between light-bedecked twinkling trees – very appropriate for Imbolc as a time of celebration of light – and into the hall itself.

Lights in trees greet the attendees. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Lights in trees greet the attendees. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Greeted by Abundance. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Greeted by Abundance. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

What to do?

This year we hosted around 54 different groups, from commercial sellers such as Infinity Foods (our main sponsor) (4) and Foodshed (5) to charities such as RSPB Brighton (6) and Sussex Wildlife Trust (7); gardening groups such as Craven Vale and Whitehawk Allotment Society and Moulsecoomb Forest Garden (8); as well as exciting organisations involved in work to help people become more aware of food, seeds, and their role in gaining the most from them such as Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (9) and Brighton Permaculture Trust (10). All these, as well as campaigns like Beyond GM (11), and then organisations who may be more expected at a seed swap event: people selling plants and seeds such as Pennard Plants (12) and Special Branch Tree Nursery (13).

Along with the stall-holders came a whole host of activities; things to make, such as Seed Freedom’s (14) seedbombs, things to see, such as the numerous plant varieties on sale, and even taste, such as the recipes being demonstrated by the Community Chef (15), and the large selection of honeys on the Blackman Bee farm (16) stall. Children’s activities were also on offer from the Slow Food UK (17) stall and Infinity Foods Cafe (18) were set up in the corner for anyone fancying a breather. And a breather may well be necessary; having weaved your way with fascination amongst the numerous stall holders, you still have not yet come to the helpfully signposted Seed Swap table itself.

On arriving at the Seed Swap table, first thing to do is hand over your own home-saved seeds – if you have any. In previous years the Seed Swap has accepted pretty much anything which people bring, though we have decided to become stricter on which seeds are allowed at the Swap as we realised that some are not worth swapping. For example, commercial and other seeds from hybridised plants have much less value as they will only produce one crop whereas open-pollinated seeds can theoretically be re-grown every year. If you have not saved any seeds, you can still participate in the seed swap; all seed packets are given away for a donation so even first-time growers can get started.

Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Learn, save…celebrate!

As well as the seed swapping aspect, a key part of what makes Seedy Sunday special are the talks, helping to raise awareness of issues around seeds and seed saving, and enabling people to broaden their education on such matters. This year the ‘star speaker’ was a lady from the television – oh yes, we even have celebrities! Her name is Christine Walkden and she participated in a ‘Q&A’ session on gardening tips with Steve Bustin, this year’s chair of the Seedy Sunday Committee.

For those less star-struck but still thirsting for knowledge, we had talks on how to save seeds successfully from Pat Childerhouse and growing seed potatoes from Chris Smith of Pennard Plants (12). There was also a screening of some film clips from an upcoming film on seed saving – ‘From Seed to Seed’ (13) – by Nicholas Bell and Martina Widmer.

As mentioned on the Seedy Sunday programme, the whole event has recently been under threat by the proposed, though currently politically dead, EU regulation on Plant Reproductive Material (14). Last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of seed campaigns across Europe as a reaction to the legislation, with the result that, dire as the consequences of the regulation would have been in terms of biodiversity of our ecosystems and freedom of our people, it at least encouraged many more people who were otherwise unaware of such issues to take an interest in them. For more on the proposed regulation, you can see my article from last year here and a more up-to-date one here.

Though the PRM regulation is politically dead for now, the laws of the United Kingdom and indeed of Europe and much of the rest of the world are still far from accommodating when it comes to seed saving on anything less than an intensive industrial scale, and to discuss these issues we had Ben Raskin from the Soil Association with a talk entitled ‘Why does the European Union keep trying to interfere with our seeds and what can we do about it?’

Such issues are important to maintain an awareness of if we wish to keep saving and exchanging seeds. Of equal importance, however, is the celebration of these activities as a celebration of life itself. That Seedy Sunday is held at the same time as Imbolc is no accident: this is the time when life begins returning, symbolically and also physically. I heard many Seedy Sunday-ers commenting throughout the day that they feel as though they are just beginning to wake up after spending the wintertime ‘almost asleep’: such feelings are characteristic not only because of the grim damp greyness which is the British winter but simply as a manifestation of the cycle of life. For many who attend Seedy Sunday the day is just as much a social occasion as it is for business; and to add to the air of festivity we had the Acabella choir singing periodically throughout the day, with a capella songs about plants, trees and growing.

Even the Corn Exchange decor can be seen as fitting to the event. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Even the Corn Exchange decor can be seen as fitting to the event. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Spring’s coming

So begins a new season: seeds, singing and socialising. Now is the time to start planting the seeds we have gained; both physically in the garden, and metaphorically as well. I trust all who attended Seedy Sunday this year had a thoroughly enjoyable day; any who missed it, why not consider attending next year, or, if you do not live in Brighton, finding your own local seed swap event. If there are none in your area, you may wish to consider starting one. Why not? Seedy Sunday may be the largest seed swap in the country but the whole thing is organised by a committee of just nine people, (including the newest member, me) who are all volunteers. If we can do it, you can as well!

References

  1. Seedy Sunday, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://seedysunday.org/category/about
  2. Raskin, Ben, 2014. “Using a Chainsaw to Crack a Nut”. Soil Association: Bristol. Available online here:
    https://www.soilassociation.org/blogs/latestblog/article/792/using-a-chainsaw-to-crack-a-nut
  3. Barcombe Nurseries, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.barcombenurseries.co.uk/about.html
  4. Infinity Foods Wholesale, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.infinityfoodswholesale.co.uk/about/
  5. Foodshed, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.foodshedbrighton.com/about.html
  6. RSPB Brighton, 2015. ‘District Local Group: Brighton’. http://www.rspb.org.uk/groups/brighton
  7. Sussex Wildlife Trust, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/about/index.htm
  8. Moulsecoomb Forest Garden, 2015. ‘About the Project’. http://www.seedybusiness.org/about.shtml
  9. Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2015. ‘About’. http://bhfood.org.uk/about/
  10. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2015. ‘About’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/about
  11. Beyond GM, 2015. ‘Beyond GM’. http://beyond-gm.org/
  12. Pennard Plants, 2015. ‘Growing the Dream’. https://pennardplants.com/
  13. Special Branch Tree Nursery, 2015. ‘Local Origin and Why it Matters’.http://www.specialbranchtrees.org.uk/why-local-origin.html
  14. Seed Freedom, 2015. ‘Home’. http://www.seedfreedom.net/
  15. Community Chef, 2015. ‘About’. http://communitychef.org.uk/about/
  16. Blackman Bee Farm, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.blackmanbeefarm.co.uk/about-us.html
  17. Slow Food UK, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.slowfood.org.uk/about/about/
  18. Infinity Foods Kitchen, 2015. ‘About’. http://infinityfoodskitchen.co.uk/about/
  19. Bell, N, 2013. ‘From Seed to Seed: an educational film on the production of seeds’. Civique Forum, 19/4/2013. http://www.forumcivique.org/de/artikel/seed-seed-educational-film-production-seeds
  20. Community Plant Variety Office, 2015. ‘Draft New Plant Reproductive Material Law’. http://www.cpvo.europa.eu/main/es/home/news/press-releases-and-communications/228-draft-new-eu-plant-reproductive-material-law

On travel and diversity

The idea of gardening abundance is a metaphorical one and this blog is not only about gardening. A key way in which we can take our preferences into our own hands, however, is to take all the strings of logistics right back to the source. Access to land can increase our autonomy and probably improve our wellbeing when it comes to a great number of things, from food production and distribution to allocation and sharing of resources, or simply access to green, living spaces. Issues surrounding access to land date back quite a long time through history, and it is important to understand the complicated factors surrounding land issues if we are to understand the reasons for  the uneven land distribution which we find in our world today, and indeed, respect and use our land in a way which will benefit more people. These fall broadly into three main categories, which I shall discuss below: the challenges of getting land in the first place, where to find knowledge and gain skills, and how to develop and learn when you are stuck in one place.

Finding land

Historically, the question of who owns which part of land, when it has appeared as a concept – as many cultures do not recognise the idea of ‘ownership’ of land at all (see for example 1) – has been one of simply whoever has the most power gaining the most land. This was enshrined in law in Britain during the succession of “Inclosure” (in Old English) or Enclosure Acts which were passed by a series of UK governments between 1604 and 1914, turning what was once common land into private land (2). However, I shall not dwell on such issues, as it is clear that in spite of who claims to have the law or power on their side, access to land is both achievable and possible. This can be shown by the number of squatted communities in the world (see for example 2, 3), the success of guerrilla gardening (see for example 4) and the number of projects in the UK where people have begun living on the land and afterwards got ‘retrospective planning permission’ (6); permission which would probably not have been given had they asked the ‘powers which be’ and waited for it.

Of course, if you are working on the land without the permission of those who claim to own it, there is always the issue of security. But will the security of the piece of paper which you obtain at vast expense protect you from the sudden violent rainstorm which destroys half of your crops? The unexpected drought which comes, when you investigate it, from the aqueduct which carries your water from the source high above your land having a gate installed in it by a multinational water corporation, who have signed a contract with the local council for ‘rights’ to  number of litres per year rather than a percentage of the actual amount of water? The complaints from your neighbours whom you have not bothered becoming friends with as you know you have the legal right to be there? The lightning when it strikes?

For many, the idea of having a piece of land to work on is not only a distant dream but an impossibility. This is simply because they are considering land prices, planning permission and scarcity of land as insurmountable obstacles rather than intriguing challenges.

Have land – now what to do?

If you have grown up following the rhythms of your environment and learned how to utilise bits of it to help keep you alive then you still have the mutual connection which will greatly enable you to grow and build with confidence and abundance. For many in the last couple of generations, however, this connection has been somewhat cut; not severed completely, or we would never be able to survive, but made very much smaller. Now as more and more people begin recognising the importance of respecting the land and are deciding that a great way to do this is to move onto the land themselves (see for example 7), there is also the challenge of arriving in the field and not having a clue what to do with the things you find there. You can study how to grow, but most ‘conventional’ agriculture takes into account profitability as the highest goal and is therefore more likely to damage the land than enhance it. Other ways of growing are available to learn about. This can be done formally, through apprenticeship schemes such as with the Soil Association in the UK (8) or the Biodynamic or Demeter Association worldwide (9); or through courses such as the Permaculture Design Course available worldwide (10, 11) and the Permaculture Diploma in the UK (12) or more research-oriented courses such as those at the Centre for Agro-ecology, Water and Resilience (13) or at the Schumacher College (14). If you do not have the time or money to go for one of these there are more informal ways of learning, such as using exchange programmes like Helpx (14) or Worldwide Work on Organic Farms (15) to find a time and place which suits you and gain practical experience.

At the recent Oxford Real Farming Conference (16), I was present at a very enlightening discussion about the ‘rural-urban divide’ and how this can be overcome to help farmers work more efficiently and less stressfully, and help those wishing to start out in farming to begin. The discussion touched on a range of issues, but one which kept coming up was the idea of city people, who live at a faster paced life than those in the countryside, feeling that simply because they have spent a couple of months studying they know how to change styles of farming which have been in place for generations. This viewpoint, though it is not necessarily completely arrogant (as farmers probably can learn a lot from city folk; but it has to work both ways), is something to be aware of; as is the tendency, mentioned by one amused farmer, of city-dwellers to find problems with everything, and to expect solutions to come immediately or panic must ensue. “You have to just be a bit more patient”, he commented; things are changing, it just takes time.

The issue of time

This is perhaps the most complicated issue of all, and one which I shall be writing much more about. As mentioned in my Web of Biodiversity, it may vastly help us to go about achieving our individual and collective goals if we bear in mind a celebration of a culture of biodiversity; which means not just in the seeds which we plant once we have gained access to land, but in the diverse nature of all the myriad characters and stories which make up human existence. If we are truly to understand and celebrate this, perhaps it is useful for us to travel at regular intervals in our lives, to experience the vast range of ways in which we can live in this world by seeing how people do it in other places. Travel can also be a fast way of helping us to learn, as well as helping to open up the mind, though this can be done in many ways, including sitting alone in your room, as long as you have the right stimuli.

Yet how can one care for the land and travel around learning about how others do it? If we are to truly gain an abundant harvest from or land, we need to be there, utilising the permaculture principle of ‘observe and interact’ by experiencing what the place is like throughout the seasons, learning the habits of the plants and creatures on it, in order to discover how best to design a system which will work with the natural flows whilst providing produce and joy for ourselves. This necessitates staying in one place.

However, a simple observation of many natural phenomena is that when they stay in one place with no movement, this can be highly detrimental. Plants and trees need air to move through their branches and leaves to help keep them oxygenated; water if it is left standing with no current will go stagnant. The same seems to be true of humans; if we stay in one routine for too long, we can end up losing sight of the holistic picture and become lost in our own bureaucracy.

Travelling farms

This is not true of everyone, however; as mentioned, the human race is made of a huge diversity of characters and many people may be happy to always live in the same place.  Equally, there are many who will never have any interest in having a hand in where the products they use come from, or in truly living in connection with nature, and so it doesn’t matter where they go. For those  who are interested in experiencing it all, it seems there can be a new way of looking after the land. Those who wish to learn to grow can travel from farm to farm, learning as they go, and with the understanding that they can also give, in terms of bringing new energy as well as manual labour and human strength. This is already in place to some extent with the WWOOF and Helpx systems; the only way in which it could become even more mutually beneficial is to extend the idea of land use to include those who travel around as a key part of working on the land.

Nomadic landworkers

These ideas represent only a fraction of the possibilities available to us as long as we can broaden our definitions of what it means to own or work on the land to include not just paying someone some money but all of the other activities which make up human experience. It is in this spirit that I shall be spending the next six weeks travelling around Southern Spain, helping out on different projects and learning more techniques to enable me better to garden abundantly myself. After all, even those who own land outright in the ‘official’ sense are nothing but tenants anyway; we are all only alive on the Earth for a brief period of time, and we may as well make our tenancy worthwhile.

References

  1. Halcyon, 2014. ‘Chief Seattle’s reply to a Government offer to purchase the remaining Salish lands: 1854’. http://www.halcyon.com/arborhts/chiefsea.html – retrieved 31/01/15
  2. UK Parliament, 2015. ‘Enclosing the Land’. http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/towncountry/landscape/overview/enclosingland/
  3. Google Maps, 2014. ‘Résistance! Carte des utopies et luttes écologistes et sociales concrètes [ ‘Resistance! Map of utopias and fixed ecological and social struggles” (my translation)]. https://www.google.com/maps/d/edit?mid=zB1OZmeGJ7OA.kepycQ8XsohU&mid=1385494633&msa=0
  4. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Grow Heathrow: Response to Comments’. Permaculture News, 10/4/2014. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/04/10/grow-heathrow-response-comments/
  5. Reynolds, R, 2009. On Guerilla Gardening: A Handbook for Gardening without Borders. Bloomsbury: London
  6. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘The Need for Sustainable Building’. Permaculture Magazine, 2014. http://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/need-sustainable-building
  7. Reclaim the Fields, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.reclaimthefields.org.uk/about/
  8. Soil Association, 2015. ‘Future Growers’. http://www.soilassociation.org/futuregrowers
  9. Biodynamic Association, 2015. ‘Diploma in Biodynamic Association (formerly BD Apprenticeship)’. http://www.biodynamic.org.uk/training/
  10. Permaculture Magazine, 2015. ‘Courses’. http://www.permaculture.co.uk/courses
  11. Permaculture Research Institute, 2015. ‘Permaculture Courses’. http://www.permaculturenews.org/courses.php
  12. Permaculture Association, 2015. ‘Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design’. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/diploma
  13. Centre for Agro-Ecology, water and Resilience, 2015. ‘About the CAWR’. http://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/agroecology-water-resilience/
  14. Schumacher College, 2015. ‘About’ .https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/about
  15. Helpx, 2015. ‘About’.http://helpx.net/about.asp
  16. Wwoof, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.wwoof.net/about/
  17. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘About’. http://orfc.org.uk/about/