Grow your own history

Why have the vegetables our ancestors used to grow faded away? Pic: courtesy of Garden Organic

Heritage seeds are horticulture’s heirlooms – and by investing and planting historic varieties we’re helping to safeguard their future, and ours

If you want a tasty slice of history with your next meal, sow and grow an heirloom seed. From the ‘Lazy Housewife’ bean, ‘Grandpa Admire’s Lettuce to ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomatoes, these golden oldies of the garden not only sound good, they taste good too.

But hurry, they may not be around for long.

Thanks to large-scale intensive farming, which has seen modern veg seeds bred specifically to produce high yielding, slow-ripening produce (free from those knobbly bits), thousands of traditional seeds have begun to fade away.  

Couple this with short-sighted seed trade restrictions that insist every seed must be registered with an official National List (an expense that’s only worthwhile for commercial growers and varieties), and the seeds our grandparents might have grown are declining so significantly that some are becoming extinct – an issue that threatens not only the future of our plots but the planet too.

Food chain

“If you want to grow veg on a 100-plus acre farm with commercial levels of pesticides and fertilizers there’s plenty of seeds to choose from, but most of us want seeds that grow well in our gardens, or grow organically, and for this we need heritage seeds,” says Neil Munro, manager of Garden Organic’s ‘Heritage Seed Library’ in Coventry, one of a handful of seed libraries around the world attempting to save our ancestors’ seeds.

Neil Munro, guardian of Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library Pic: courtesy of Garden Organic

Tomatoes are a great example. Mainstream varieties are bred with thick skins to ensure they survive the rigours of harvesting, transportation and display, but a century ago they would have been picked fresh from the garden, and therefore would have had thinner and more delicious skins. Tall peas were also grown a century ago but, with the advent of the combine harvester, dwarf peas became the only ones deemed fit for market.

“Old heirloom varieties represent centuries of careful selection and breeding for small-scale growers, and that’s because gardeners wants taste over looks, not uniform cauliflower heads that all come up at once. We’re not growing for the likes of Tesco. Whatever happened to qualities such as flavour, adaptability and tenderness?” says Kate McEvoy, from seed company Real Seeds, which offers the best open pollinated and heritage varieties for home growers. “You will be told that new, modern varieties produce more ‘uniform’ or ‘straighter’ veg – but it’s really because supermarkets have set incredibly rigid limits on size and shape. People seem to forget that we want to eat and enjoy these things – they’re not just a commodity.”

Kate believes the modern-day hybrid or ‘F1’ seed has been a “public relations victory over the small grower”. All Real Seeds are open pollinated, which means any collected seed will grow into plants with the same characteristics as their parents, and the company is passionate about allowing people to collect and grow again.

“F1 seed is the result of a cross between two different but heavily inbred parents so any seed saved from these plants will give a whole mix of shapes and types, usually producing a poor crop,” says Kate.

Getting to the root of heirloom varieties at Real Seeds Pic: courtesy of Real Seeds
Getting to the root of heirloom varieties at Real Seeds Pic: courtesy of Real Seeds

Eating history

F1 or not, behind almost all heritage seeds there’s not just a great vegetable or fruit, but a great story to tell.

The ‘Brighstone Bean’, for example, was thought to have washed up on the shores of the Isle of Wight thanks to an 18th century shipwreck, and the ‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ bean is so-called because it may have once been carried by the native North American tribes when they were driven out of their homeland in the 1830s.

The ‘Mortgage Lifter’ tomato – developed by an enthusiastic but poverty-stricken home gardener in the U.S – was give this name because he used the proceeds from sales of his tomato seed to help him and other families through the Depression.

Or how about growing seeds from Tutankhamen’s tomb?

“We have a set of peas called ‘mummy peas’ in our library that, the story goes, were found inside the tomb by archaeologist Howard Carter in the 1920s and passed to Lord Carnarvon and his gardener to germinate,” says Neil.

Indeed, many heritage seeds hail from the Victorian era – a crucial time in plant breeding – and they give us a tantalising taste of the kitchen gardens, and of course the grand dining rooms, of that era.

At the Victorian Walled Garden at Normanby Hall in North Lincolnshire, head gardener Paul Beetham and his team specialize in growing Victorian vegetable cultivars, with the garden restored to reflect its 19th century heyday.

“It’s truly like stepping back in time,” says Paul. “The garden provides a fascinating insight into the world before supermarkets and imports, and by supporting the conservation of these plants we are keeping them available for future generations.”

Growing for the planet

In truth, our love of heritage seeds is much more than misplaced nostalgia.

In her book, Seeds – Safeguarding Our Future (The Ivy Press, £19.99), Carolyn Fry outlines how much we have to thank seeds for.

“Seeds helped humans to evolve and civilization to develop…and played a vital part in creating bio diverse ecosystems…” she writes. “Having helped us to become the most successful species on Earth, they may also be our best hope for saving us from ourselves.”

Indeed, with more than 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of our food supply chain lost in the last century, heirloom seeds could be the key to preserving that variety.

“In Europe we’ve lost around 2,000 vegetable cultivars since the 1970s, and in America around 96 per cent of the commercial vegetable cultivars available in 1903 are now extinct,” says garden historian Dr Toby Musgrave, author of Heritage Fruits and Vegetables (Thames & Hudson, £38). “Right now, for example, all commercially grown bananas that descend from the Cavendish banana are getting attacked by a fungus and, thanks to this global monoculture, the entire crop could get wiped out. If there were heritage bananas they could be used to breed new cultivars – we must conserve the seeds that have survived so we can draw upon them in the future.”

With Britain on the brink of leaving the EU, however, only time will tell whether it will be easier or harder to get heritage seeds in the future. And we don’t just need to grow heritage seeds, or eat the tasty results, we need to demand them – and, more importantly, share them.

With veg seeds so widely (and cheaply) available – hanging like colourful bags of sweets from the stands in garden centres – less of us are saving our own seed these days.

“Hand collect your seed and you can create ‘bespoke’ plants for your plot, adapted to your specific climate, soil and conditions – and selected for factors that you enjoy such as the size of leaves, or fruit or colour,” says Neil, who, via the Heritage Seed Library offers six free packs of heritage seeds per year as part of the membership fee. “With your own seeds you can control the entire cycle so you know where that seed has come from – and it’s the ultimate in reuse and recycling.”

Indeed, thanks to seed guardians like Neil and Kate – and hundreds of amateur growers – many heritage seeds have made a comeback.

“We’ve managed to get the crimson flowered broad bean back onto the National List and that’s a real triumph,” says Neil. “Our library relies on the hard work and donations of hundreds of gardeners who have saved seeds or held on to seed from their grandparents.

“And, who knows, there could be gardeners all over Britain who could play a part in saving our growing heritage in the future.”

Five historic veg to try

Wizard Field Bean A more robust relative of the broad bean – and formerly only grown here as green manure – producing many more pods from a smaller plant over a longer period and without those tough old skins.

Sutherland Kale A resilient and vigorous kale, once grown by the Scottish crofters, which was thought to be extinct until it was donated to Real Seeds by an 80-year-old Sunderland woman.

Sibley Squash A great old variety from the ‘Hiram Sibley & Co’ seed catalogue of 1850, which ripens early and produces lots of grey pear-shaped squash with dry, dense yellow flesh that grow sweeter as they’re stored.

Lazy Housewife Pole Bean Unique, fat and buttery, stringless beans introduced in 1885. In 1907, this was judged to be ‘one of the very best flavoured beans on the market’ – though sadly the variety that beat it to number one is now extinct.

Little Finger Carrot Originating in France in the 1900s, this extra-sweet baby variety only grows to four inches long! A fun crop for children.

Where to buy

Real Seeds

Thomas Etty

Pennard Plants 

Garden Organic

First published in Vegetarian Living magazine, 2017

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