Berlin’s pedal-powered seed bank

Reflections on the affinities between the SeedBike and the London Freedom Seed Bank

As urban seed savers, we are confronted with a very particular host of challenges. Our London gardens, balconies and allotments are not known for their abundance of space. The unique London microclimate and awkward clay soils, suffering under hundreds of years of construction and pollution has not led to a wealth of London veg varieties. Packed so tight with other growers, avoiding cross-pollination is tricky to say the least. Cross-pollination occurs when a plant pollinates a plant of another variety. This combines the genetic material of both plants and produces seeds with characteristics from both parent plants. These seeds are not true-to-type and so cannot be saved as such. Preventing this our little gardens is difficult stuff!

This has not stopped us though. The more you look for greenery, the more you realise that our city is bursting with potential in concrete nooks and crannies. Whether pots of herbs piled high on balconies or meticulously tended Estate communal veg patches, Londoners want to grow their own food. Increasingly, I am convinced, they want to close that loop completely and save their own seed too.

A few weeks back I met Hanna Burckhardt and Svenja Nette from the SaatgutRad, or SeedBike, in Berlin. Sat over packets of fresh seed in the office of the Prinzessinnengarten, the community garden where they are based, we realised that their SeedBike and our London Freedom Seed Bank (LFSB) were confronted with quite similar issues.

The SeedBike is a new project launched this spring. Observing and adapting the folding mechanism of sowing or tool boxes, the team built their own XL version which was mounted on a bike. The structure folds into a handy wooden box as it is cycled around the city.

Vik_SeedBike

(Illustration by Viktoria Spittler)

Travelling to allotments across the city, the SeedBike wants to facilitate both seed and knowledge sharing. Packed up in many small jars, they provide an expansive range of seeds as well as much information material on the importance of crop biodiversity and the practicalities of seed saving. One of their key struggles, the pair tell me, is the bulk of information they feel they need to provide.

Seed saving is not necessarily easy business, they argue, and it is not to be taken lightheartedly. When you choose to grow and save seed from a rare variety, you become a custodian of that genetic heritage. That is serious stuff. Particular varieties often require quite specialist care in order to ensure seeds are true-to-type. I enjoy this attention to detail and the seriousness with which the pair approach this work.

It has me thinking. Much of my own work in the food and seed movement over the passed few years has been around accessibility: how can we get more people with their hands in the soil? How can we make sure that everyone who eats food feels themselves to be part of a food movement for tastier, healthier, more socially and ecologically just food? How do we make these issues easier to engage with? I thought the more people involved, the better our chances.

For the most part, I still stand by these concerns. But I also think it is worth stressing that saving seed, particularly of rare varieties, is important and sometimes tricky work. It requires care. The question is: how do you balance valuing seed saving as specific, challenging work whilst also being accessible and encouraging more people to save seed?

The challenge is to not put people off. Novices, such as myself, should feel themselves motivated to really learn about these plants and learn how best to nurture them.

In terms of access to information, the SeedBike is working on creating an online database of advice and guidelines. With seed packets, growers are given a questionnaire to complete what went well, what was tricky and what tips they could pass on. This will at some stage be gathered into an interactive section of their website. Our own seed bank is increasingly collecting this kind of information also and some kind of easily-accessible online or physical collection of this information is certainly something we should think about.

For now the bike travels around the city to hold seed saving seminars in allotments but the team hope to expand their reach to schools and other food-growing spaces in future. Interestingly, and different to the LFSB, they are not targeting community gardens. Our logic is that we need only one community gardener to join our workshops, to get a whole garden saving seed. Knowledge is passed on. Their logic in focussing on allotments is that they are frequently ignored in much of the attention given to urban agriculture. Many allotment gardeners are of older generations with many years of food growing experience under their belts. These make ideal, knowledgeable candidates for saving seed.

The SeedBike has only its maiden journeys behind it so they cannot yet speak of that many experiences. With a busy summer ahead of them and big plans for the future though, I am excited for what stories they will tell the next time we meet. We are both necessarily small projects, our reach extends just to London and Berlin city boundaries, respectively. Because of our similar urban contexts and differences in experiences, I think there is real potential for fruitful skill-sharing between our networks and perhaps some future collaborations. At the very least, I will make sure to bring some LFSB seeds to our next meetup for an exchange.

By Helene Schulze, Co-director of the London Freedom Seed Bank

(Main image credit: saatgutrad.org)

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