Grow: Organic seeds in brown envelopes from Cork
For gardeners interested in growing heritage Irish vegetables that will withstand the weather, Brown Envelope Seeds is a good place to start
One of the Brown Envelope Seeds polytunnels filled with the ripening seedheads of salad and vegetable crops. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Preparing seeds for sale at Brown Envelope Seed. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Madeleine McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds preparing seeds grown and harvested on her organically certified farm in West Cork. Photograph: Richard Johnston
Ask Meath-born Madeline McKeever, botanist and founder of the award-winning organic seed business Brown Envelope Seeds, what she loves most about living in West Cork and her answer is “the diversity of the landscape, the culture, and the people. There’s this great, potent mix of individuals living in the area, from traditional farmers, to people working in the arts, to self-sufficient ‘hippies’ interested in an independent, more experimental way of life. Including lots of ‘blow-ins’ like myself, many of them with partners who are non-nationals. It’s what, in botanical terms, you might call a ‘grex’; a closely-knit but hybrid flock or herd that’s the result of cross-pollination. The result is that strange and interesting things often happen”.
The Brown Envelope Seeds Catalogue, with its mix of the weird and the wonderful, the exotic and the traditional, is a reflection of that great diversity. It’s also a reflection of McKeever’s ongoing interest in discovering tasty, kitchen garden-worthy plants that are especially suitable for Irish growing conditions.
“They must be useful, productive varieties that can cope well with the vagaries of an Irish summer, and with our short, cool growing season,” she says.
Given McKeever’s deep-rooted commitment to preserving seed sovereignty and plant biodiversity, they also have to be open-pollinated varieties, suitable for seed-saving by gardeners, growers and farmers.
While McKeever sources these different seed varieties from all over the world, Brown Envelope Seeds’ carefully selected catalogue is especially influenced by the work of fellow organic seed suppliers and independent plant breeders based in the Pacific Northwest of America, a part of the world with surprisingly similar growing conditions to ours.
“I’m very interested in the work of people like Carol Deppe, the Oregon-based scientist and plant breeder, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds, Micaela Colley of the Organic Seed Alliance, and John Navazio, author of The Organic Seed Grower, which many would describe as the definitive book on organic seed production. Quite a few of the seed varieties that I sell are a result of their plant breeding work. I also source seed from heritage seed libraries and from individual gardeners.”
The result of such eclecticism is that the Brown Envelope Seeds Catalogue is a rich treasure trove of varieties, where you’re as likely to track down seed of a heritage variety of lettuce such as Merveille de Quatre Saisons as you are that of a new variety of dessert squash, or a rare Bolivian chilli.
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THIS WEEK IN THE GARDEN
Before it starts into spring growth, use a sharp garden shears to cut back the sprawling foliage of the tall, ornamental grass, Stipa gigantea (pictured above), so that you leave just a neatly clipped spiky mound behind. This will result in a neater and more vigorous plant.
Autumn-fruiting raspberries such as Autumn Bliss, All Gold or Joan J, are known as primocanes, which means that the canes of these varieties grow and fruit within one growing season. By cutting last year’s old, spent canes back down to ground level this month, you’ll encourage the generous production of new canes, and thus lots more fruit. Continuing the pruning theme, late February is a good time to hard prune late-flowering clematis (pictured below), all of which bloom on new season’s growth. This pruning group (known as Group 3) includes the late large-flowered hybrids such as C. Jackmanii ,Comtesse de Bouchaud and Perle d’Azur as well as the Clematis viticella, C. orientalis, C. texensis, C. flammula, C. tangutica and C. florida groups. Use a sharp secateurs to prune back each stem to just above its first pair of strong, healthy buds.
Place seed orders now while stocks are high.
Amongst McKeever’s own current favourites is Tomato Holly Rose, the seed of which was given to her by Vincent Cronin, a local grower who sells his produce at the Skibbereen Farmer’s market.
“He’s grown this particular tomato for years and offered me some seed a couple of years ago, after discovering that it had gradually stopped appearing in other seed catalogues. It’s now one of my desert island tomatoes.”
Seed of many other unusual delicious varieties of tomato has come her way through her friendship with Jean Perry, the organic gardener and proprietor of the Glebe Gardens and Café in nearby Baltimore.
“Jean has been a huge influence, introducing me to many interesting and unusual varieties over the years.”
McKeever is also excited by the recent introduction of Candystick Dessert Delicata, a productive, smartly-striped winter squash with thick, sweet, very flavoursome flesh, bred by Carol Deppe and her colleague Nate French. Suitable for growing both outdoors and under cover, it also stores well. Yet another exciting discovery is Ducks, a crookneck summer squash with egg-yolk yellow flesh, seed of which came to her from a gardener in Slovakia.
High-protein South American seed crops such as quinoa and amaranth also find a place amongst the pages of the Brown Envelope Seeds Catalogue. Many of these are not just productive, but also highly decorative. Food aside, I’d grow the variety Golden Amaranth for the ornamental quality of its 1.8-metre tall plumes of golden foliage and burnished seed heads alone, which would look stunning inter-planted amongst tall sunflowers.
Anyone with even a passing interest in old Irish vegetable cultivars will also find much to interest them in the catalogue of this West Cork seed business.
One example is Irish Green Pea, a cultivar that’s the result of careful selection by generations of Irish gardeners, and has thus evolved to suit Irish growing conditions.
Its seed first came to McKeever from Irish Seed Savers Association, as did that of many other Irish heritage vegetable varieties including the giant Gortahork cabbage that hails from Donegal, and the Winter Roscoff cauliflower, seed of which was collected from an elderly Dublin farmer in the early 1980s.
Irish cultivars aside, the catalogue is an enticing and persuasive call-to arms to gardeners to treasure and preserve the rich biodiversity of the vegetable kingdom.
Inside its pages you’ll find listed a variety of bean that hails from Andalucia, tomato varieties in all shapes, sizes and colours which originated in America, Mexico, Italy, Siberia, Eastern Europe and Australia, an African horned cucumber native to the Kalahari, even the very same plant – New Zealand spinach – which Captain Cook used to fight off scurvy. Grow any one of them, and you become another link in the long and precious chain that joins together the gardeners of the world. See brownenvelopeseeds.com for details
Dates for your diary
Saturday, February 14th, 10.30am, at National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin, the gardens’ glasshouse foreman, well-known author and orchid specialist Brendan Sayers will give a practical demonstration on growing orchids (€15, contact the Irish Orchid Society at firstname.lastname@example.org for details);