I found out about Seedy Sunday a while ago. At first, I was simply intrigued by the playful name but, with more research, I was won over completely by the idea of people coming together to swap seeds, in a bid both to promote community growing and to protect plant biodiversity. 2009 was to be the year I grew my very own set of green fingers, but this aim seemed fairly abstract in the frozen early months after the initial heat of ambitious New Year resolutions. Taking a day trip to the south coast to be amongst my new fellow growers seemed the perfect bleak mid winter antidote.
The air was ice cold and the wind fierce, but the light was lovely – a kind of fuzzy pink haze over a dark grey winter sea. Hove was full of bobble hats and cheeks bitten rosy by the wind and kissed with snow. Lots of people were out, taking the Sunday sea air and walking the beach hut lined stretch towards Brighton. But I wasn’t there to indulge in windswept beachside strolls, I was there to do some serious seed shopping.
Seedy Sunday was born eight years ago by the Brighton and Hove Organic Gardening Group after members stumbled upon a seed swapping event in Canada. The minute they got back to the UK they started planning their first swap here. The annual seed extravaganza has grown and grown, best illustrated by the fact they’ve moved from the small St George’s Hall in Kemptown, Brighton to the imposing Hove Town Hall. At the 2009 event 1200 people explored 39 stalls. There were films, workshops and a cafe as well as seeds and plants to pick up.
All kinds of people were there, young and old, and the atmosphere in the bustling hall was noisy and full of joy. I confess, as a brand new grower, I found it slightly overwhelming. So much expertise and enthusiasm for gardening in one place, and just so many seeds and possibilities, made me feel my lack of growing knowledge keenly. But I got over that, admitted to knowing nothing and took all the advice I could from those that were happy to offer it.
The United Nations estimates that 75% of global plant diversity has been lost in the past 100 years. The Seedy Sunday campaign is about protecting biodiversity in the UK and protesting against a focus on large scale growing and retailing. The people behind the event and the campaign believe that, by growing open pollinated or ‘heritage’ plant varieties, then saving and swapping the seeds, growers can keep so called ‘outlawed’ seed varieties alive and boost biodiversity.
Seedy Sunday campaigners explain that flowering plants that grow from the F1 seeds sold by big seed companies aren’t capable of producing usable seeds for the next season, so growers have to buy new seed every year. At the same time, in the name of protecting growers from the risk of buying unsound seeds, governments produce National Lists that outline the varieties that can be legally bought and sold.
Seedy Sunday argues that EU legislation strengthens the position of the big seed companies, and so encourages the use of F1 seeds, by making it illegal to trade seeds from varieties that aren’t officially ‘Listed’. If a variety isn’t ‘Listed’ it’s actually illegal to buy or sell it. This is why seed swaps don’t charge for unlisted seeds but ask for a donation to cover costs instead.
Seedy Sunday warns that thousands of unlisted garden varieties are disappearing. And with them goes some of the genetic raw material that will allow plants to adapt and survive in the future. “The campaign to protect our seeds stretches around the world, but it has its roots in your garden. By growing open-pollinated varieties, then saving and swapping the seeds, growers can keep alive unlisted varieties, conserve biodiversity and limit corporate control of the basis of life” say campaigners.
You can go to Seedy Sunday without any seeds to swap, which was a relief as I didn’t have any! The seeds aren’t for sale in the same way they would be in a shop because they’re all unlisted, but you are expected to make a donation for everything you choose to take home. On average a packet of seeds was about £1, which was an absolute bargain and a god send for a gardener on a budget. There were also lots of money saving deals if you bought in bulk.
On entering the hall, what struck me first and made me fall completely in love with the place was the beautiful way some people had packaged their seeds. Homemade packets decorated with scraps of colourful paper and gorgeous swirling writing were all very appealing. I admit my first purchase, of some red rum runner bean seeds, was made purely because the packaging was so nice!
Another thing that was absolutely brilliant were the names of the seeds, things like ‘drunken woman’ and ‘fat lazy blonde’ lettuce, ‘flamingo beet’ chard, ‘hungry gap’ cabbage, ‘Hungarian hot wax’ peppers and ‘nun’s belly button’ beans. So my seed choices were dictated more by the romance of the words and the prettiness of the packets rather than anything more sensible.
It’s now almost a year since my snowy Seedy Sunday adventure and I’m pleased to report that my year of growing green fingers has been a success. My seeds were loved and nurtured and grew into handsome plants, providing me with endless pleasure and some delicious meals. Hot pink French breakfast radishes and flamingo beet chard were particularly pretty. I’ll definitely go again, perhaps with some seeds of my own to swap this time.
The event inspired me to do some small scale seed swapping of my own too. I had a surplus after my Hove shopping spree, plus a collection of freebies from magazines and seeds people had donated to me. When a friend revealed plans to do a little guerrilla gardening on a patch of land in east London, I happily made tiny seed packets from old envelopes, decorated them with coloured pens, filled them with seeds and donated them to the cause. Funnily the swap itself ended up happening in the pub.
I’d like to try and do something a little more organised this year and will be turning to the Seedy Sunday website for advice. There’s a comprehensive online guide how to set up your own seed swap – visit www.seedysunday.org. The movement is spreading and Seedy Sundays are now taking place across the country. The next Seedy Sunday at Hove Town Hall takes place on the 7th February 2010.
This article appears in the February issue of Kitchen Garden magazine