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Starting the year with heritage seeds

January for the gardener is the month of indulgence. After the whirl of Christmas and New Year, this is the one time in the growing year when you can curl up, guilt free, with a mug of something hot and a seed catalogue. Not just any hot drink (think thick creamy organic, hot chocolate), and not just any seed catalogue – you need the Heritage Seed Library catalogue.

Heritage seeds come from heirloom varieties that our parents, grandparents and great grandparents used to grow. Veg that tasted as good as it looked, from seeds that we can no longer buy. Lazy Housewife bean, Victorian Purple Podded peas, Auntie Madge’s tomatoes and Sheepnose red pepper, to mention a few. 

You can’t buy them, because these seeds are no longer on the government’s National List: a document that was drawn up when the UK entered the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1970s. The bureaucrats wanted conformity, and growers wanted consistency of germination. The result? Seed merchants could only sell what was on ‘The List’, and any variety that didn’t perform consistently, or was only available in small quantities, never made it.

Pea Llanover Garden Organic Grow Your Own
Heritage seeds such as the Llanover Pea are often uniquely suited to local conditions.

Sadly, over the past 40 years ‘The List’ has dwindled to the paltry few varieties of seeds now available in garden centres. That may suit the seed sellers, but it means a huge loss of genetic resource in a time when we are conscious of food security and the need for biodiversity.

Over the last century, we have lost many hundreds of vegetable varieties, grown for generations by families and communities. As each variety disappears, we lose the rich local history that surrounds it, and the important seed saving skills that accompany it.

But Garden Organic, a national charity dedicated to organic growing, is working hard to save these old heritage varieties. We set up the Heritage Seed Library in 1975, and every year since then we have saved seed, grown veg, saved more seed, to keep over 800 varieties still viable. What’s more, these are important heritage and genetic resources for future generations: as Garden Organic founder, Lawrence Hills, describes them, the horticultural equivalents to Goyas and Rembrandts”.

Take the Gladstone pea, for example, a late, maincrop variety bred and introduced in 1895. Known to be reliable and hardy, it also shows real drought resistance, with no signs of mildew. Similarly, Bronze Arrow lettuce, a beautiful, productive heirloom with bronze-tinged leaves and a mild flavour. Drought and cold hardy, it has survived frost and snowfall and is also reportedly less popular with slugs.

A lot of the varieties are locally-bred. Gloster (yes, the old spelling) broad bean, Shetland cabbage, Altringham (another old spelling) carrot and the Stoke lettuce.  This means they grow exceptionally well in their locality, benefiting from the soil and the microclimate.

The Heritage Seed Library is not a gene bank, so the whole collection, once we have enough seed, becomes available to grow and enjoy. Because these seeds are not commercially listed, they cannot be sold. It’s supported by members of the Garden Organic charity, whose annual subscription entitling them to select six free packets of seeds from our list distributed every year between December and February.

We believe that the best way to conserve varieties is to get people growing them again. It places seed sovereignty back into the hands of gardeners and ensures a sustainable future for these important heritage varieties.

The Grow Your Own Wicked Leeks series is written by Garden Organic, the national charity for organic growing. Each month we bring you timely advice on what to do in your organic patch. We hope they inspire you on your organic growing journey, whether you’re an experienced grower or just starting out. Share your own tips and gardening photos on social media under #GYOWickedLeeks.


    Sarah Brown

    Sarah Brown writes and edits the growing advice pages for Garden Organic, the national charity for organic growing, which aims to get everyone growing ‘the organic way’ through campaigning, advice, community work and research. She also writes a monthly organic growing advice column for Wicked Leeks. A committed and long-term organic gardener, Sarah also produces The Organic Gardening Podcast each month with grower Chris Collins, which won the Gardening Media Guild’s Podcast of the Year 2020. Follow the series and share your own gardening tips on social media at #GYOWickedLeeks.  

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