Another Life: Lockdown and seed supply for Irish gardens
Michael Viney: ‘Look in ye drawer before money ye spend’ – good advice when it comes to seeds
The French Pantano Romanesco tomato. Illustration: Michael Viney
At least it’s a nice round figure.
Indeed, in Chinese culture, so Wikipedia assures me, 88 is also the luckiest figure around, so that their supermarkets scatter it temptingly through their prices. Even the shape of the Chinese character promises “a great wide future”. On the other hand, spoken in Mandarin, 88 sounds a lot like “bye-bye” and can be used to bring a text to an end.
On balance, I marked my 88th birthday this month as usual by sowing seeds for the summer’s tomatoes. I had saved them myself, from a big black Russian fruit picked in the polytunnel last autumn.
Left to deliquesce at leisure, it yielded twice as many seeds as I needed for a precociously early start on a warm windowsill. They’re a token of all the vegetables I’ve grown in the past when kneeling, stooping and straightening were an easier form of Tai chi, and of the streamlined selection I hope to grow this year. Sowing a few saved seeds seemed an appropriate safeguard as a whole new army of lockdown gardeners besiege Irish seed suppliers with their orders.
It’s quite the wrong end of the season to raise it, but saving seed may well come to mind when you’re growing your own. My father’s allotment helped feed the family through a war and I picture him rubbing out the seeds from sun-dried pods, rattling on to a newspaper spread across the kitchen table.
He would choose a handsome carrot from the winter’s store and grow it as the biennial parent for seed. Planted out in spring, it grew a stem 4ft high and made enough seed for the whole of the following year’s crop.
It was, of course, an unimproved, open-pollinated kind of carrot, its flowers attended naturally by insects. Today, most vegetable varieties are hybrids, bred under close control for some commercial benefit. Where flavour matters, sweetness is the overriding goal.
The hybrids are patented, their value in a single year’s crop. Open-pollinated, self-perpetuating strains are now “heirloom” or “heritage” varieties, sold by many small suppliers to a growing legion of organic gardeners.
My big black Russian tomato (actually a darker red) is an open-pollinated kind, grown on wildly undisciplined plants. It crops erratically, fruit too bulging for supermarket packaging. Like many “heritage” tomatoes, its flavour is complex and rewarding. My drawing is of the fruit of another heritage variety – the French Pantano Romanesco, its habits quite as unruly.
Many of this year’s problems with seed supply have come as much from the lockdown rediscovery of back garden food-growing as from new complications of Brexit. These have already lost Scotland as the source of most of Ireland’s seed potatoes. Ireland’s commercial vegetable growers buy their F1 hybrid seeds from companies supplied from the Netherlands by way of the UK.
Production in Ireland of open-pollinated seeds for gardeners has been the notable success of the Irish Seed Savers Association. With apple orchards and seed gardens at Scariff in Co Clare, it has been almost overwhelmed by the “massive upsurge” in orders.
Over almost 30 years the association has saved seeds from 600 heritage vegetables and 48 heritage grains. Brown Envelope Seeds, a small family business on a west Cork peninsula, puts 50 kinds of open-pollinated tomatoes through the paces of Irish conditions.
The pressures of supermarket choice and the EU’s own seed licensing laws are steadily diminishing access to heritage vegetables. But as the hotter summers of climate change improve the scope of seed production, Ireland’s gardens could come to offer a range of flavours quite remarkable in Europe.
Saving seed can come to mind in a different way as vegetable gardeners sort through last year’s packets and wonder which left-over seeds could safely be sown again. I have benefited for years from a stretch of advisory doggerel composed in 1963 by Lawrence Hills, a notable English champion of organic gardening.
“Look in ye drawer before money ye spend,” urged Hills, whose verses cover most family viabilities. “Broccoli, cauliflower, sprouts, cabbage and kale/ Live long like a farmer who knoweth good ale:/ Three years for certain, maybe five or four . . .” I once saved half a a jar of seed from asparagus kale that kept growing for the best part of a decade.
Lettuce and beetroot have three or four years, but “Leeks sow three Aprils and one has gone past/ And this is as long as ye carrot will last.” Then: “Store marrows and cucumbers, best when they’re old,/ Full seven summers’ sowing a packet can hold.”
And so on, for everything you’re likely to grow. Find the whole thing by Googling “Lawrence Hills poem” and be ungrudgingly surprised to find it offered by Thompson & Morgan, the UK giant. It is happily packing online seeds from its Irish garden centre, having stocked them up prudently ahead of the Brexit dislocation.