The Heritage Seed Library has been established for over 20 years, and from humble beginnings has grown in to a living library of over 800 varieties and millions of seeds. Their mission is to conserve rare varieties and to encourage growers across the UK to contribute to their practise of seed saving and exchange. A group of us from the London Freedom Seed Bank visited their site at Ryton Gardens to see their facilities and find out how they had got to where they are today.
Neil Munro, HSL Manager, showed us around the rooms used for sorting, drying, storing and packaging the seeds. We saw delicate dried leek seed heads waiting to be sorted, Petri dishes in use for germination trials, and perhaps most memorably boxes upon boxes of carefully labelled brown envelopes stacked from floor to ceiling in the quiet cold of the store room. Horticulturalist, Clare Pritchard. showed us around the accompanying garden. Over a period of about five years, all of the seeds in the library’s collection will be grown in this space and the seeds will be saved allowing a new generation of open-pollinated seeds to go back in to the collection. Membership fees cover the cost of both of these staff positions meaning that the project is financially sustainable – no mean feat considering they are unable to sell any seeds (due to the necessity to register seeds that are destined for sale on the National List– a lengthy and expensive process, fraught with difficulties).
The library has benefited from generous support from various trusts and foundations over the years that has allowed it to build up an array of specialist equipment. Whist there are some luxury items such as a mechanical winnower and seed incubator, Neil was keen to emphasise that high-tech equipment was far from necessary. In the early years of the library, he said, he did everything by hand. In fact for a number of years the entire project was housed in a single room of an outhouse that is now used a storeroom.
Whilst the project has come a long way from this start, in some ways it is not far removed from this beginning. From the tomato seeds drying on tupperware lids, to the piles of seeds stored in Trug buckets, the library’s simple designs demonstrate the process of seed saving and storing, even numerous varieties, is within reach for any conscientious home grower. Expensive equipment is not necessary but rather care, diligence and passion for the task in hand. Neil and Clare are both enthusiastic about their work. Their belief in, and commitment to the goals of the HSL must get them through hours of pain-staking and potentially tedious work, such as hand-pollinating the tiny flowers of isolated brassica or bean plants.
The role of volunteers is clearly important. There are a core team of volunteers who help with tasks in the office and in the garden. In addition, HSL relies on Seed Guardians to grow and nurture its collection. Seed Guardians are volunteers who offer to produce and save seed at home and then return the harvested seed to the HSL’s collection. There are currently 180 active Seed Guardians working for HSL. Each year the HSL publishes a list of varieties that it deems to be at risk and home growers step up to the task.
This may seem like a risky strategy: the volunteer seed savers may be unreliable, the quality of the returned seeds may be poor. However the approach has been successful. Now of the 40,000 packets of seed distributed by HSL each year around 50% are produced by Seed Guardians.
It was inspirational to meet the people behind this pioneering work and to hear the importance they place in the role of individual seed savers. As Neil said, if HSL fulfilled its mission entirely, then the Seed Guardians would become such successful seed savers that the need for a centralised storage facility would cease to exist. I’m not sure that I agree with this utopian vision as I think there will always be benefit to a central body demonstrating best practise, connecting growers on a national level and representing our interests more widely. However it is undeniable that home growers have made a huge contribution to the HSL and that the efforts by individuals to save and exchange seed is one of the most powerful tools in the mission to protect our seed heritage.
Charlotte Dove, Burgess Park Grower & London Freedom Seed Saver