Sewing seeds of satisfaction

SOME people have snowdrops and crocuses to signal the resurgence of the garden. My own early omens are more prosaic

SOME people have snowdrops and crocuses to signal the resurgence of the garden. My own early omens are more prosaic. Growth's "green fuse" drives not Dylan Thomas's flower, but shoots of perennial Welsh onions and unfolding fists of rhubarb leaves.

Growth can command an act of faith. Last autumn, faced with an early extinction of seakale - our favourite perennial vegetable of early spring - I dug up the two surviving plants and chopped their roots to bits (substantial lengths, like pieces of dock-root or dandelion), thus cloning two plants into 30 or more.

These "thongs", as they're called, were stored in a box of damp sand through the winter and then, last week, I buried each piece in a hole to start the miracle again. Which cell in the uniform white tissue will decide to switch on its gene for growth, doubling and redoubling, and redoubling again, to make a meristem, a bud and then a leaf? Growing in the wild, on a storm-swept shingle bank above the sea, seakale pushes up each spring through the winter's fresh heaping of stones.

Everyone should grow something edible now, if only lettuce in a window-box. We need reminding that all we eat, from any shelf in the supermarket, starts with the exponential eruption of plant cells, even the plastic that wraps it began with the unfurling of ferns and their journey through decay into hydrocarbons.


Besides, growth is beautiful. I admired a little box of two-leaved seedlings starting life on a friend's windowsill, so vividly green among the family photographs, and knick-knacks. "Cabbages," she confessed.

When it comes to genes, cabbages can be heirlooms, too.

Seed of Irish "heirloom" cabbages are being shared out this spring between members of the Irish Seed Savers' Association, a network of gardeners and botanists that locates and preserves varieties of fruit and vegetables.

Its members have found, for example, the Delaway Cabbage, hardy and early as kale but very tender, and picked by the leaf: a Mayo farmer has saved its seed from year to year for half a century. And there's the Old Common Cabbage, a hardy cannonball that has been in the family of a farmer in Co Clare for 150 years.

There are a lot more attractions `in the Seed Savers' list - a Romanian sweet yellow pepper catches my eye, and a Swiss giant mangetout pea that needs tying up on a trellis - but one has to be disciplined about this, and quite committed. The point is to grow the plants well and save the seed properly, without cross-pollination, and return a good portion to the Seed Savers for circulation again.

The network's members are mostly "alternative" gardeners, deeply sceptical of today's commercial annexations of growth. Scorning the high-yield hybrids marketed annually as novelties by the big seed firms, they seek out old-fashioned, open-pollinated strains of seed.

When gardeners saved their own seed, year after year, they automatically collected from plants that did well in their particular conditions. Gradually, these selected strains evolved into a range of local varieties, or "land-races" with a healthy genetic diversity. They were prized for, flavour, for cropping over a period, for coping with difficult weather without disease, for storing well - all the age-old back-garden virtues.

The takeover of seed production by agri-chemical companies has produced, on the other hand, more and more patented seeds, bred to the quite different needs of big commercial growers. The EU, ever keen to standardise, conspired in a process by which hundreds of old seed varieties were dropped from approved lists and thus from the catalogues. Most of those nurtured by Irish Seed Savers are now "unregistered" and technically illegal to sell.

By keeping such seeds alive, gardeners' networks on both sides of the Atlantic are conserving genetic diversity and resources, and cocking a snook at the Suits in the process. How much more satisfying to grow Carol's Italian French bean - seed received from an old Italian gardener who had brought it with him when he immigrated to the US or the Hutterite Soup Bean, taken out by German immigrants, or the Brandywine tomato "grown by the Amish in the mid-1800s".

It can sound a bit fanciful. But behind the narrative colour is a sound attention to plant characteristics, genetic value and real gardening needs. And if the Seed Savers' current spring list seems a little short on authentic Irish bean-genes, the network has already done outstanding work in rescuing "lost" Irish apple varieties, still fruiting on unnamed trees in forgotten orchards.

Its starting-point was the survey of native apples made half a century ago, when Dr J. G. D. Lamb found no fewer than 75 native varieties. A good many of these, the Seed Savers discovered, were still held at the Brogdale Fruit Collection in Britain, and can be reintroduced here. But diligent fieldwork has also relocated many more lost favourites, such as Red Brandy, Honeyball, Irish Russet and Ballinora Pippin.

The exciting Ballyvaughan Seedling, discovered in an abandoned orchard in Co Clare, is selfrooting from cuttings, which keeps it free from canker, and the yellow fruit has "a long, lingering after-taste, just like a fine brandy". It is one of more than a score of trees that Seed Savers plan to sell to members from their new "heritage" garden at Scariff, Co Clare. The group has now turned to a Heritage Cereal Project, reintroducing grains such as the Irish Victor Oat, Glasnevin Sonas Oat and Galway Land Wheat, last grown extensively in the 1920s and 1930s. As local strains of cereals vanish all over the world in the tide of uniform commercial seed, their genes are lost to the wheat-breeders.

The last plots of traditional cereals, grown perhaps for fodder or thatching, are vanishing fast in small-farm Ireland, and the Seed Savers' founder, Anita Hayes, would be glad of any information on where to find them. In a nice touch, the cereal samples named above were obtained from the US Small Grain Collection by a Seed Savers member who sowed her request upon the Internet.

Michael Viney

Michael Viney

The late Michael Viney was an Times contributor, broadcaster, film-maker and natural-history author