I have been a member of Garden Organic’s heritage seed library (HSL) since 2002, and the first seeds they ever sent me were for asparagus kale, a vegetable with which I was not familiar. It’s also the source of my slight obsession with achocha. The HSL and I are much the same age, both dating back to the 1970s.

HSL catalogues

I recently received a letter from Garden Organic, explaining their new appeal, which is raising funds for an essential upgrade to the HSL database. It quotes a 2019 report from the UN FAO, which says that 66% of total crop production relies on just nine plant species. Such low diversity leaves our food supply vulnerable to any kind of stress or shock – such as the climate emergency.

The skills and techniques honed over the last 50 years have made the HSL an international leader. With just a small team and basic equipment, the HSL manages a collection of around 800 varieties and distribute nearly 30,000 seed packets every year. 

HSL Seeds: Lettuce "Asparagus", French beans "Vermont Cranberry" and "Fat Baby" achocha

The varieties they have painstakingly collected and preserved – which would otherwise have been lost forever – sometimes find their way back to the commercial market, increasing the diversity of our gardens and the range available to gardeners.

The HSL database is now groaning under the strain of keeping track of all those varieties, and to maintain this vital work Garden Organic needs to invest in new technology. Moving to the new system will cost in excess of £30,000, and Garden Organic are appealing for donations.

HSL seed cleaning room
The seed cleaning room in 2005

The new database will make the HSL more efficient, with better stock control and forward planning. It would also enable the team to track the parental lines for each variety, which they are not currently able to do. This information on provenance is essential for managing quality and understanding the performance of varieties grown in different locations.

The new database will offer benefits to HSL members, too. It will hold more information on varieties, including:

  • Resistance to pests and diseases
  • Resilience to environmental conditions
  • Historical origin
  • Geographical information
  • Culinary uses
HSL seed drying room
The seed drying room in 2005

While capturing and storing all of this information will be valuable to growers, it is also of use to researchers and academic institutions. Having it at their fingertips will save HSL staff from having to dig through paper archives to respond to information requests.

“Our database is key to what we do and how we do it, efficiently and effectively. We really hope you can help us to upgrade to a new database, to make sure we have the foundations in place to conserve these precious varieties for decades to come. Every donation, big or small, will contribute to this vital investment. You can donate online at www.gardenorganic.org.uk/donate.”

If you prefer to send a cheque, the address is:
Garden Organic
Henry Doubleday Research Association
Ryton Organic Gardens
Wolston Lane
Ryton on Dunsmore

HSL seed packing and dispatch
The seed packing and dispatch room in 2005