I am just returned from a manic but hugely enjoyable trip to Australia attempting to persuade some broadcasters that they should be commissioning a new series called The Seed Detective which would tell the amazing stories about how our fruit and vegetables found their way into our food culture.  These are stories about human colonisation, genetics, and the importance of conserving what is left of the genetic diversity of our food.  Saving, seeking out and enjoying traditional, ex-commercial, heirloom and native varieties is what makes me tick.

Simon & Adam med res

Victoria is a garden state and I met with cellist and heirloom gardener Simon Rickard who has written a wonderful book about heirloom vegetables.St Erth's pumpkin med res
Clive Blazey created a wonderful institution, the Diggers Club. He grows, tests and sells native and heirlooms from his garden centres near Melbourne. If you are in the area go and visit them. This magnificent golden pumpkin is nameless. Another case for the seed detective.

It has been an amazing winter for requests for seeds. I have been cleaned out by numerous enthusiasts who want to grow some examples from my library. As a result I am not sending out any more seeds until later this year. Do watch this space for further news.


The other day I met a lovely local horticulturist who is growing and selling vegetables just outside Abergavenny.  Claudia was keen to save some of her Italian heirloom tomatoes – her dad is Italian – and although I explain how to save tomato seed on the website I thought it might help to go through the process briefly with some ripening before extracting seed First harvest your ripe tomatoes and then let them ripen a little more somewhere warm and sunny.IMG_1970 I then blanche large fruit and skin them before cutting them in half and scooping out the pulp with the seed in it.IMG_1972 Using a spatula press as much of the pulp as you can through a fine sieve. This pulp and the skinned tomatoes can then be used for cooking or to make passata.IMG_1973 When your seeds looks a bit like this put them into a jar filled with cold water.IMG_1974 It is important to do this as the seeds are covered in a membrane which inhibits germination. Leaving the seeds in water for two or three days causes the membrane to ferment and break down so that when you empty the contents into a sieve and rinse thoroughly you have nice clean seeds to dry.IMG_1951 Now spread your seeds out thinly onto grease-proof paper – not tissue paper – and put somewhere warm and dry like a window sill but not in direct sunlight. IMG_1982The seeds must not need to be warmed up! They will dry perfectly well at room temperature.  After a day scrape the seeds around a bit to turn them over and leave to dry for at least a week.IMG_1983Scrape the seeds off the grease-proof paper, rub them between your fingers to separate them and when they feel completely dry put them in an airtight jar or container and keep somewhere cool – ideally a fridge – until you are ready to sow them.  To get your seeds really dry so they will keep for years it is worth putting them in a container with some silica gel which changes colour when it has taken up moisture.  You can also use dry rice as a means to further dry your seeds but, again, it helps to includes some silica gel as an indicator.


The war in Syria has been devastating for farmers and the country’s position as the bread basket of the middle east.  Fortunately the Syrian seed bank has been safely smuggled out of the country and the vast gene pool is now in deep-frozen security in neighbouring countries and the seed bank in Svalbard, Norway.  However, I believe it is important to conserve as much as we can of Syria’s food heritage by growing their vegetables and sharing the seed with others who appreciate their special eating qualities. This year I am growing fava beans, courgettes and cucumbers from my small collection of seed I hunted down during  a visit to the country at the start of the civil war in 2011.Syrian fava in basket wideThis basket of blackened pods, when shelled becomes a basket of delicious fava beans.Syrian Fava shelled 1
A total of 1.2 kilos from just 24 plants. This bean came from a farmer near Aleppo.  Fava beans are man’s first cultivated crop and have been grown in Syria since the dawn of civilisation in the Tigris Euphrates valley some 10,000 years ago. This bean is a direct descendant – not forgetting, it is delicious too.  This what the plant looks like as the pods swell and ripen.Syrian Fava bean 18712
As well as beans I am growing two wonderful Syrian courgettes. This dark green variety is from seed I found on a market stall in ancient Damascus.  Syrian dark courgette2I am growing on a fruit for seed having hand pollinated to ensure it is true.  It will get even larger and is not for eating!

Syrian green courgette ripening

I hand-pollinated the female flower on the right with the male flower on the left to grow on my second Syrian courgette which is a truly delicious pale green variety that was grown commercially in Syria.  The seed company Al Shibli based in Aleppo and now I fear no longer functioning.

male and female courgette flower cu

This is the result.  I am hopeful that the variety is open pollinated and not a hybrid as it has both sexes of flower.  Next year I shall grow again to check and if so will include them in my library to share.Syrian pale courgette ripening
I also bought some commercial cucumber seed from Syria Future Seed, again a company no longer in existence.  This variety is open pollinated and the crop this year from seed I saved in 2014 is prolific and utterly delicious. Sweet and tender small tear-drop shaped cucumbers that I hope to have more seed of in 2016.




This year I am conducting an experiment in how to conserve genetic purity when growing a highly promiscuous runner bean for the Heritage Seed Library.
Stenner 2 wide

Stenner is a wonderful old English variety which produces an abundant crop of very long – often prize-winning – delicious beans. However, runner beans cross-pollinate for a pastime so growing them for seed means they need to be isolated from other runner beans; not an easy thing to do if you have neighbours who also grow beans… unless of course you persuade them to grow the same one, which is exactly what is happening on my lane. Yesterday I delivered every household around me a packet of my own Stenner seed that my son had grown in isolation in Switzerland. No one on his allotment in Zurich grew any runner beans so I knew they were pure. I had also grown a few last year to see how they performed, (see photo). Now, knowing there will be only Stenner being grown within a kilometre of my garden I am confident the fresh seed I have been given by the HSL can be grown outside without fear of being impregnated by a bee carrying alien pollen! I plan to document the experiment. It will be interesting to see who can grow the longest bean for the flower show, who gets the best crop and what variations in cultivation techniques are employed by my neighbours. Watch this space!
Stenner young beans CU


a fridge full of seeds

It’s that time of year, when I start to fantasise about my vegetable successes in 2015. Of course everything will grow perfectly but the reality is always different. Successes are tempered by failures and lessons always learned. Already I have the HSL onion Up to Date growing in the greenhouse so I can be sure of a good crop which i can then store through next winter to grow on for seed in 2016. In the first polytunnel that I have erected in my new vegetable garden Omani garlic is growing strongly despite the cold weather – or maybe because of it and I have a small crop of Bowland Beauty broad bean coming on hopefully to yield a nice crop for the table in May.

Every day the postman delivers requests for seeds from HSL members and visitors to the website. It is an exciting time and great to share what seed I have packaged up just for that purpose.

I have a number of new additions to my library including several Canadian heirloom beans and most exciting for me an heirloom pea from my new friend and fellow vegaholic Jesus Vargas from Girona in Catalonia, Spain. two seed savers comapre notesJesus comes from a long line of Catalan farmers and vegetable growers and a treasured part of his collection of some 150 local varieties is a pea grown by his grandfather and named after his grandmother Avi Juan.
The pea grows to about 1.5 metres Avi Joan cropAvi Joan pea and yields heavy crops of large, tender and delicious peas avi joan peas in pod Imagine my delight when a large envelope full of Avi Juan arrived in the post – enough for me to grow plenty for the kitchen and freezer and to share next year. watch this space for a full report later in the summer!

This weekend I will fire up the propagator to around 22 degrees and sow the first of my 2015 crop of tomatoes, chillies, early brassicas and salad crops – varieties yet to be decided. Time to get into that other fridge!A fridge full of seeds


It’s that time of year when the veggie plot is operating at full capacity and daily harvesting yields lots of yummy goodies. This year I have a number of heirlooms and unusual vegetables in my collection I am growing both for the table and for seed. A lot of these will be available later in the year to share and swap, although much is for the benefit of Garden Organic and the HSL. So, here’s a start.
TOMATOES I was given some seed by a lovely Swiss collector of a green variety which when fully ripe has a yellow blush called Smaragd Apple. It is sensationally sweet when picked really ripe and a wonderful salad tomato.Smaragd Apple early August1
Another lovely eater is the American heirloom Purple Cherokee.Purple Cherokee 2
I am having success, probably due to a very warm July, with a very tasty outdoor variety Jaune Flamée. This photo was taken in July.Jaune Flamee CU
My absolutely favourite French bean is the HSL variety Emperor of Russia, which I have been growing for many year. The stiletto thin pods grow to 15cms or more but must be harvested before the seeds begin to swell otherwise they go stringy. I can harvest enough every other day right now to feed four hungry folk from just a dozen plants. they are unruly plants and require a web of string on short canes to keep them in order.Emperor of Russia harvestEmperor of Russia 3
I am also growing an off-list dwarf French bean for the HSL called Fowler. It is a remarkable bean. It can be harvested over a long period, remaining stringless for several weeks. very heavy crops as you can see.Fowler ripening mid-August 2
I am also growing a lovely climbing French bean for the HSL called Bonne Bouche. A very nice green bean which holds up well, it will be another month or so before they pods will be ripe enough to harvest.Bonne Bouche 2
A lover of kale, I grow a number of different varieties but this year I am trying an orphan variety for the HSL, not strictly a kale but an open-hearted brassica from the USA which is home to the southern dish Collard Greens called Georgian Southern Collard. I will allow the plants to go to seed next year when the flower in the spring. Meanwhile, a few tasty leaves will be harvested through the winter.Georgian Southern Collard 4


Madly floweringThis lovely Lima bean is from seed that was given to me by fellow vegaholic Anne Wafer who lives in the Slovak Republic. Anne believes it is the same as the Angry Bean I discovered in Burma last year and I think I agree with her. If this is the case then this bean is also known in the US as the Christmas Bean, a very rare heirloom. The flowers look identical but Annne’s seed is more prolific with a fabulous set. I am pinching out the plants at two metres, although, like my crop last year, they will grow to three metres or more if left alone! I shake the wigwam a few times each day and a shower of old yellow petals fall to reveal yet more embryo beans.A tub full of beansIf anyone can tell me any more about this wonderful bean, which I hope to start eating towards the end of August as the beans swell and ripen, then please get in touch.a mass of flowers


A week in the Garrotxa region of Catalonia has proved most productive for this humble seed collector and saver.  It all started with a chance conversation and an introduction to Jesus Vegas, (pronounced Begas), who lives near Montagut close to the border with France.  A passionate protector of both Catalan and Spanish native and heirloom vegetables, I was able to spend several happy hours checking out his library of some 150 varieties and admire his wonderful garden where he grows heirloom and local varieties for food, to sell and to share the seed with a group of about 50 like-minded souls throughout Spain.two seed savers compare notes
I stayed near the medieval town of Santa Pau, which is now famous for its small white bean which is about to get special denomination status. It has a firm texture and nutty flavour and is usually eaten with the famous local sausage called Butifarra. or as I had it, pearled barley and crispy onion. Needless to say, I have brought some home to grow myself as well as two other beans I found in a little shop in another medieval town in the mountains called Rupit. Mongeta del Ganxet D’en Pere de Slica D’Amunt is a small white flagelot type from the Valies region and from near the town of Olot and very similar to Santa Pau, Mongeta La Val d’en Bas.Three local varieties, Fasol Santa Pau, Val D'en Bas and Del Ganxet
Catalans like to squeeze tomato onto their bread. It is a delicious alternative to butter or oil. They grow a special type of tomato for the purpose which they call Tomate de Penjar which are often sold on strings like onions for storing through the winter, but are grown and eaten from late spring onwards. Jesus had several varieties and gave me two of his favourites, Llagostera, which is the name of the place it comes from and Piel de Melocoton, or Peach Skin. I shall be growing both next year and will hopefully have seed to share.Jesus Vegas seed bank Jesus’ library was a rich trove of goodies. He gave me a purple broad bean called Reina Mauva, (Purple Queen), which is very rare but was widely grown in the region at one time and a purple seeded pea called Negra del Bergada. He has promised me some seed from another pea called Avi Joan, (Abi Juan) which was named after his wife’s grandfather who grew the variety for decades. It is a genuine heirloom with large, sweet peas on plants about 1.5 metres tall. I cannot waitpea Avi Joan


Finally I believe I have found a new home for my veggies, and even though we have yet to complete on the purchase, I have started work on a plot that has been sadly neglected for many year, but promises much.

A gently sloping south-facing blank canvas

A gently sloping south-facing blank canvas

The plan is to initially create 14 raised beds in an area of approximately 12metres by 10 metres which will be fenced against all four-legged intruders. To the north of the plot in full sun will be two 10 metre x 5 meter polytunnels and one 10 x 5 fruit cage. To the east of the vegetable plot will be one 12ft x 8ft greenhouse and an assortment of cold-frames and propagating beds.

The first raised bed under construction

The first raised bed under construction

As of today I have beans, potatoes, onions, shallots, beetroot, carrots, parsnips and peas growing with about 50% of the garden covered to supress weeds.

The first raised bed awaiting black mulch and planting with beans and a few heirloom potatoes

The first raised bed awaiting black mulch and planting with beans and a few heirloom potatoes

My approach is to use as much of the plot as I can with the minimum of weeding. Some of the land had been covered so that is now growing roots and onions. I plan to work bit by bit on creating new raised beds and plant through black mulch as much as I can through this year.

Already starting to look more like a vegetable garden

Already starting to look more like a vegetable garden


I am often asked, “What should I sow now?  What can I do when it is so wet? What can I do to be able to garden now?”  Well, it may be raining and pouring, the ground may be sodden, but all is not lost.

I am a passionate believer in working with raised beds.  Anyone who has them will be able to start work sooner because with a raised bed you avoid compacting the soil by walking all over it.  I am currently living in a little cottage with a tiny garden whilst I search for a new home.  Fortunately I have been able to prepare some ground for growing vegetables.  Three weeks ago during a lull in the rain I double-dug a strip of ground some 1 metre wide by 7 metres long.  Double digging is hard work but you only ever have to do it once, and if you create a raised bed as I have done you will never need to dig the ground again.  I covered the new bed with black polythene to keep any more rain off, having first put a good 5cms layer of well-rotted manure on the ground.  Yesterday the sun shone and I put two polythene cloches over the bed.

new raised bed with cloches

new raised bed with cloches

I have early seed potatoes chitting on a windowsill and next week I shall plant them through the black poly under the cloches where, hopefully they will grow on through wind and rain snug and warm. Don’t be put off by this ghastly weather. So long as you do not need to walk all over your vegetable patch and if you can either make cloches as I describe on the website, or, like me, renovate and resurrect old and forgotten frames, you can get lots of things started now. I dug over an old fruit bed during Christmas and created two raised beds which I duly covered with polythene. I had started some garlic off in pots in the greenhouse the month before and now I have planted them out, again through black mulch as I fear the beds are infested with weeds and I need to keep the ground clean. I have reduced the shock of transplanting by covering the young bulbs with frames and after a week or so, removed them. the large frame in this picture contains some of my Omani garlic that likes it hot, so I will leave the frame on until mid-summer.

Large cloche contains Omani garlic.  In the foreground is Chesnock Wight and Carcassone Wight

Large cloche contains Omani garlic. In the foreground is Chesnock Wight and Carcassone Wight

Herbs in pots like chives, mint, and parsley should be given a good high nitrogen feed and put under a frame if possible to bring them on

Parsley, thyme and garlic keeping warm and growing on

Parsley, thyme and garlic keeping warm and growing on

I have a green house so am growing early crops and finishing off over-wintering salad crops, all grown in troughs and pots. If you don’t have a greenhouse then do try and sow seeds of lettuce, spinach, radish, rocket, carrots even in deep pots or long troughs and place under a frame or cloche.spinach seedlings in foreground, radish and salad crops background S Continue reading