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)