We have invented a new tradition: Orange Day. It was inspired by our discovery that oranges were grown in Hackney in the 17th century in one of the grand houses that used to stand not far away from Cordwainers – Brooke House, in Clapton (who’d have thought?). Samuel Pepys (no less) was impressed: “Mrs Pen carried us to two gardens at Hackny (sic) (which I every day grow more and more in love with). Mr Drake’s one, where the garden is good and house and the prospect admirable. The other, my Lord Brooke’s, where the gardens are much better but the house not so good, nor the prospect good at all. But the gardens are excellent; and here I first saw oranges grow.”
As winter is marmalade and orange season and as February is a pretty dreary month, we thought we could combine all these orange things to cheer us up with an event (and colour) that anticipates spring: a seed swap. So we made orange cakes, punch, tea and marmalade and gathered in the biting wind to swap interesting (or otherwise) seeds and, perhaps more importantly, those we’d collected ourselves – and so were well adapted to local conditions.
The day was part of Our Grow a Gardener project (funded by Hackney Council), which supports people who want to set up or maintain community gardening projects. A few alumni from our 2015 course came along, including Raul who had an amazing collection of seeds he’d gathered from a wide variety of chillies, tree cabbage, dwarf tomatoes, giant Greek butter beans, achocha, amaranth and much more. Our plan is to start a local seed bank, gathering seeds from those plants that have adapted well to the unique east London conditions. In the meantime it was a chance for gardeners with a common interest to meet each other and talk about growing veg in general (Raul has a huge well of knowledge – some of which he was passing on to Derek), or growing in small spaces – yes, you can grow chillies on a windowsill; growing activities for children; how to get a TRA to get going and start a community garden on an estate; where to get wood to make raised beds and how to make orange punch.
A handful of local kids have discovered the garden. I’d heard their screeches and yelps before as they are unseen neighbours of mine. They come to the garden, balancing on the on the boundary wall, or accompanied by a couple of sawn off dogs – you know the ones; nondescript mongrels with legs too short for their bodies. Or they come on silver scooters. However they arrive, they are full of energy and excitement, wanting to taste, touch and see every corner of the garden – especially the pond where they are delighted by the frogs and spawn. Today two kids turned up with scooters and one dog and inaugurated the self-proclaimed Garden Froggies Club and sowed sweet peas, stock, nigella, Californian poppies and other summer lovelies. Fingers crossed the Froggies have green fingers.
Nat from the garden and I went on a brilliant seed workshop run by Garden Organic a few weeks ago. With the debate about GM swirling around us (why shouldn’t we breed plants which are disease-resistant or can produce more crops?) it was good to go back to basics and trust our own gardening instincts, expertise and experience – and help increase seed diversity.
Seed saving is pretty easy. Farmers and gardeners have been doing it for thousands of years – and by saving seeds from the best plants and the ones which are best adapted to our local environment, we are doing our own bit of genetic modifying; though doing it our way means we’re not subject to patents, unwanted cross-pollination or plants not turning out true. We can also make sure we are diversifying our seed pool. In Europe the seeds we buy have to be certified, which means that older varieties, less popular ones or, perhaps less productive ones stop being produced. By saving our own seed and sowing or swapping them, we keep varieties alive – and can even develop new ones ourselves suited to our local conditions.
Vegetable seeds are highly bred because we want reliable crops. Commercial seeds are often hybrid F1s bred from two plants with particular qualities. One parent might be heavy cropping while the other might be resistant to a particular pest. If you sow seeds from an F1 plant it will revert to one of its forebears and won’t be what you expect at all. At this point I wish I’d paid more attention to the Gregor Mendel pea lesson at school. So rather than go into the science (which I can’t anyway), I thought I would put down some starting points about seed-saving. I learnt a lot more but don’t want to overwhelm with information.
1. Understand how your veg are pollinated as you want to avoid cross-pollination (where pollen from a flower has fertilised a seed from a different plant). this can result in a monster – or, at least, something you weren’t expecting or wanting. Some, like tomatoes, are self-pollinating so you don’t need to worry. Others are insect or wind-pollinated and more likely to cross-pollinate so you might need to isolate those plants or plant only one variety.
2. Avoid inbreeding. Plants will revert to their original version if they inbreed. Everything that cross-pollinates will do this so save seeds from lots of different plants – choosing the best, of course. Twenty plants are recommended, though, of course, this is not always possible because of the lack of space.
3. Plants which won’t cross-pollinate or which doesn’t matter if they do: tomatoes, French beans, peas, peppers, aubergines, lettuce. These are, therefore, the easiest to save seed from.
4. Plants which easily cross-pollinate are spinach, chard, beetroot, sorrel and sweet corn, which are wind pollinated (which is why the GM debate about corn rages)
5. Know whether your crops are annual or biennial (flowers and sets seed in the second year). As veg growers the are many plants we don’t let flower because we eat ’em before they have a chance to reproduce themselves, but some are well worth letting go for the spectacle – as well as the seed. Carrots (see picture) are especially beautiful and alliums such as leeks and onions.
6. Don’t choose plants to take seed from with bad qualities, so if your lettuce has bolted, don’t take the decision to leave it to seed – because it’s a bolter! Choose a plant which has characteristics you want to reproduce.
7. You need to dry and store your seeds in conditions that are opposite to growing, so dark, cold and dry.
8. Test your seeds on a damp paper towel to check germination. Some seeds, like parsnips, are only viable for a year. Others will last for a decade.