Full Seed Ahead

The net­work of heir­loom seed savers is on the rise


“Was e let the best go to seed and eat the rest,” says Philippa Mal­lac, we push our way through the abun­dance of her gar­den. “A food gar­den be­comes a flower gar­den as things go to seed. We tend to lose the paths – the plants grow so tall they fall over.”

Even though it’s just over a year since this soil was cov­ered in kikuyu grass, her liv­ing seed bank is crammed with a riot of broad beans, peas, spinach, Peru­vian ama­ranth, co­rian­der and Ger­man chamomile. Nas­tur­tiums wind their way be­tween the veg, and bees buzz around blue bor­age. Yel­low dill and last year’s most vig­or­ous car­rots are shoul­der high, wav­ing their big, white um­bels against a blue sky, among bright pop­pies that bear ed­i­ble seeds.

“Car­rots only flower in their sec­ond year,” says Philippa, an avid seed saver whose Sa­cred Earth Seeds sup­plies un­usual open-pol­li­nated herbs and veg coun­try­wide via mail or­der.

She’s one of a grow­ing net­work of seed savers around the world who are pas­sion­ate about re­tain­ing the won­der­ful di­ver­sity of plants in our gar­dens and on our tables, from pur­ple car­rots and or­ange brandy­wine toma­toes to un­usual herbs such as ash­wa­gandha and hardy old roses.

Of­ten called heir­loom or her­itage plants, the seed-saver move­ment came to the fore when pat­terns of farm­ing changed and hu­mankind be­came de­pen­dent on a hand­ful of crops, leav­ing us vul­ner­a­ble to dis­ease and plague.

“Com­mer­cial seeds are lim­ited in the va­ri­ety avail­able, and are adapted to suit farm­ers – they ripen at the same time, have thick skins to han­dle be­ing trans­ported, and a long shelf life,” ex­plains Philippa. “But home grow­ers want flavour, vigour, di­ver­sity and nat­u­ral pest re­sis­tance, not ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied va­ri­eties.”

Heir­loom or her­itage seeds are open pol­li­nated by birds, bees and in­sects, and breed true, re­tain­ing their char­ac­ter­is­tics through suc­ces­sive plant­ings, whether they’re a par­tic­u­lar flavour, form or colour. Nar­rowly de­fined, they are plants that have been handed down from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion; or more broadly, as any open-pol­li­nated plant that has a his­tory of pri­vate ex­change and is not sub­ject to plant breed­ers’ rights.

Hy­brids, on the other hand, are cre­ated by breed­ers cross­ing plants of dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties, and they gen­er­ally do not pro­duce off­spring with the same traits as the par­ent plant, so you must keep buy­ing their seeds.

“I select the health­i­est, hardi­est plants with the best vigour and flavour. They must have steady growth from the start and a long sea­son of pro­duc­tion,” says Philippa, who tri­als any open-pol­li­nated seed that comes her way via friends and trav­ellers. “So this is also a gar­den of mem­o­ries.”

Green cos let­tuce takes about nine months from seed to seed, while beet­root is bi­en­nial and has to be watched for its promis­cu­ity. “Beet­root is wind pol­li­nated and will cross even with Swiss chard,” warns Philippa.

“Bor­age is a labour of love. Seeds drop out eas­ily and quickly, and I have to check the plants ev­ery day.”

Philippa is a per­ma­cul­ture de­sign con­sul­tant and, when she moved from one side of Plet­ten­berg Bay to a rus­tic cot­tage on a pri­vate game farm in the Bitou River val­ley east of this Gar­den Route coastal town, she took a no-dig ap­proach, putting down sheets of card­board and news­pa­per to smother the grass, then lay­er­ing it with com­post and soil be­fore plant­ing up her new beds.

The nearby Bitou River ir­ri­gates her food gar­den and there’s no short­age of ma­nure ze­bra, wa­ter­buck and gi­raffe are among the as­sort­ment of an­i­mals ca­su­ally leav­ing their drop­pings just the other side of the gar­den fence. It all goes onto the com­post heap, to­gether with gar­den clip­pings en­riched by com­frey and yarrow.

Philippa’s part­ner, land­scaper and tree sur­geon Ver­non Pendle­bury, of­fers glasses of green juice, made with “ev­ery­thing from the gar­den ex­cept the ap­ples”. It’s de­li­cious, a pow­er­ful pick-me-up that I can feel en­er­gis­ing me after a long drive.

On the ve­randa of their rus­tic cot­tage, there are con­tain­ers of seeds in var­i­ous stages of de­husk­ing, clean­ing and stor­age – bor­age, ama­ranth, car­rots, you name it. “I feel a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity to keep this knowl­edge alive and to pass it on,” says Philippa, who is writ­ing a sim­ple grass­roots book on seed sav­ing, and plans to form a seed-savers guild.

Not too far away, over the Outeni­qua Moun­tains on the far side of the Lit­tle Ka­roo out­side De Rust, is an­other seed saver spe­cial­is­ing in veg se­lected for its per­for­mance in ex­treme con­di­tions. Kath Ey­bers and hubby Ross bought a de­graded os­trich farm and have trans­formed the sun-baked land into an oa­sis of abun­dance that they re­named Numbi Val­ley Per­ma­cul­ture Farm. “Numbi is Zulu slang for breasts, and the hills sur­round­ing us look like breasts,” ex­plains Ross.

They started with an olive grove, grav­i­tyfed with wa­ter from an arte­sian bore­hole. The food gar­den be­side the funky cob house they built them­selves, us­ing ma­te­ri­als sourced al­most en­tirely from their land, has been go­ing for 13 years. It’s planned so they have fruit ev­ery month of the year, from sum­mer figs and stone fruits to au­tumn cit­rus that car­ries them through the win­ter.

The gar­den has grown to 27 large cir­cles, each with its own spi­ral of drip ir­ri­gation.

Each is planted with a cor­nu­copia of veg­gies – va­ri­eties of let­tuce, rocket, pars­ley, cel­ery, broc­coli, kale, spinach and leeks jos­tle for space with root crops such as turnip, beet­root, radish and car­rots. In be­tween lurk herbs like co­rian­der, chilli and gar­lic chives, and Black Rus­sians in the form of juicy toma­toes. In win­ter, Aquadulce broad beans and Blue Peter pole beans run riot in the soft, fer­tile soil cre­ated from loads of home-made com­post.

“We use a chicken trac­tor that we move ev­ery two weeks to help fer­tilise the soil,” says Kath, “so the chick­ens ma­nure each bed once a year while they scratch out all the gog­gas, es­pe­cially grubs of fruit chafer bee­tles, and cut­worms.”

Bees for­age among the veg­gies that they sell at De Rust’s monthly mar­ket, to­gether with plants, olive oil from their one-hectare grove

and some 55 seed va­ri­eties, from heir­looms to those that have proved them­selves suited to lo­cal con­di­tions over the 13 years that Kath has been se­lect­ing and sav­ing seed from across the world.

“For in­stance, I now have a range of let­tuces that don’t go bit­ter and are re­sis­tant to cold and heat, so can be grown all year round,” she says of her cos, oak leaf, Lollo Rosso, pink frilly and but­ter let­tuce va­ri­eties.

Kath also se­lects for taste and easy eat­ing and only saves seeds that do re­ally well. “I ger­mi­nate all my seeds ex­cept beans and car­rots in trays so I can watch ger­mi­na­tion closely. If seedlings lose vi­tal­ity, then they’re no longer good and they go to the com­post heap.”

Kath’s cat­a­logue varies with the sea­sons. Many heir­loom va­ri­eties come with a story. Some­times they start with seeds brought by im­mi­grant an­ces­tors, other times they em­body a trea­sured mem­ory of a dear friend who passed it on, or trig­ger a mem­ory of a spe­cial dish served at an­nual fam­ily cel­e­bra­tions.

“My Blue Peter beans come from my dad and we ate them as kids. When my sis­ters, who don’t gar­den at all, came to visit, they recog­nised them im­me­di­ately even though they only had two leaves,” Kath says of the pretty, pur­ple beans that look great in a salad, but turn green when cooked.

Di­ver­sity is not only a way of safe­guard­ing our food chain, it frees us from hav­ing to pay what­ever the big seed com­pa­nies want to charge for their lim­ited range. “Open-pol­li­nated seeds give power to the grower,” says Kath. “And there’s re­silience in di­ver­sity.”

Pass­ing through Ge­orge, I pop in to visit a friend. She shows me an un­usual Mada­gas­car lima bean grow­ing up the side of her house.

It’s so tall it re­minds me of Jack’s beanstalk. And, in the gen­er­ous way of gar­den­ers the world over who love to share their abun­dance, she gives me a few of the speck­led her­itage seeds to plant at home – forg­ing an­other link in pre­serv­ing our vi­tal food chain.

Plant­ing them at home, I’m re­minded of Philippa’s part­ing shot, “The safest place to pre­serve our rich and di­verse va­ri­ety of seeds is in the hands of gar­den­ers.”

CLOCK­WISE FROM OP­PO­SITE TOP LEFT: A seed gar­den quickly be­comes a flower gar­den, says Philippa. Blue bor­age at­tracts bee pol­li­na­tors into the gar­den.The best plants are al­lowed to go to seed and the rest are eaten or go to the com­post heap in Philippa’s gar­den. Seeds must be prop­erly dried and win­nowed be­fore be­ing stored. It’s hard to be­lieve that Philippa’s gar­den out­side Plett is lit­tle more than a year old.

LEFT: Each cir­cu­lar bed of 13m² at Numbi Val­ley is wa­tered via a spi­ral of drip ir­ri­gation. BELOW LEFT: Kath Ey­bers ger­mi­nates most of her seeds in her pot­ting shed and se­lects plants for vig­or­ous growth. BELOW: The olive grove was the first project started at Numbi Val­ley Per­ma­cul­ture Farm.

ABOVE: Kath and Ross Ey­bers in their off-the-grid cob house, built al­most en­tirely from ma­te­ri­als sourced on their farm. ABOVE RIGHT: The chicken trac­tor hard at work, gob­bling up pests and re­main­ing greens after a bed is har­vested. RIGHT: A rich va­ri­ety of pro­duce is har­vested at Numbi Val­ley each week to fill boxes for de­liv­ery to homes in De Rust. (Photo Kath Ey­bers)

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