Heritage Seed Library (HSL) 2016 choices

Remember those heady days at school, when you were faced with choosing your subject options, or which courses – at which higher education establishments – to apply for? There were a lot of things to consider, lots of differing advice on hand, and the prospect of making decisions that would affect (you were told) the rest of your life.

If you’d like to recreate that excitement, year on year, then I can thoroughly recommend joining the Heritage Seed Library (HSL). Unlike regular seed catalogues, the HSL is a member’s club, serving up a smörgåsbord of unusual, old-fashioned seed varieties – the kind you can’t easily find elsewhere. They don’t offer their full range every year, adding a delightful touch of “when would I get the chance again?” to the whole process. You can’t even choose as many packets as you want – your membership entitles you to half a dozen, and you can choose several more as back-up options in case your chosen few have ‘sold’ out.

Here you will find an array of varieties for all of the popular vegetables, from peas and carrots through to turnips and tomatoes. You’ll be spoiled for choice, especially since these are all open-pollinated varieties, and they encourage you to save your own seed. You don’t need to select your favourites every year, you can dare to try something a little different.

And there are plenty of things here that are a little different. It was through the HSL that, years ago, I discovered achocha – one of the ‘Lost Crops of the Incas’, although the catalogue does note that such a vigorous climbing plant may have been lost on purpose! In fact, achocha has become a firm favourite for me, and I am looking forward to growing it again next year. If you’d like to join in the fun then have a look at my guide on how to grow achocha.

Heritage Seed Library 2016 choices

Since then, the HSL has added other exotic vegetables, collected via Garden Organic’s Sowing New Seeds programme, which looked at the exciting things that allotment gardeners in the Midlands grow – seeds that have been brought here from other cultures over the last 40 years, and that are thriving. So you can now choose things like calalloo (leaf amaranth), Shark’s fin melon and yard long beans.

The aim of the HSL is to preserve vegetable varieties that are not being maintained by the commercial seed companies. The legality of selling these seeds is murky, which is why the HSL is a membership organisation – your 6 packets of seeds are a member’s benefit, not something you buy directly. Maintaining the genetic biodiversity of our crop plants is likely to be of benefit in the future, when we need to breed new varieties to cope with our ever-changing conditions.

The 2017 catalogue, published earlier this month, features 7 new varieties – ranging from a pink-stemmed celery variety that was first introduced in 1894 to a Slovakian tomato variety that has been growing in the UK since 2006. The stories of the varieties are part of the attraction. For example, the ‘Catskill’ Brussels sprout is “a robust, ex-commercial variety developed by Arthur White of Arkport, USA in 1941. Thought to have been named after Catskill Park, a forested and mountainous region of New York State”.

Shark's fin melon, Cucurbita ficifolia
A baby Shark’s fin melon. When mature it was larger than a soccer ball…

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Garden Organic members can join the HSL for £18 a year, or just £1.50 a month. The new catalogue is produced annually in December, and it pays to get your choices in early, although requests are taken into the spring – so there’s still time to join and place an order.

If you’re looking for a present for an adventurous gardener, then some of the HSL varieties are available to ‘adopt’ – for £20 you can give the gift of seeds of a heritage variety. For those less green-fingered, the £15 option helps to save a seed for future generations, without the planting requirement! It’s a little bit different from a third world goat, or a cuddly panda, so have a look at the Adopt a Veg website if you have an eco-minded citizen to buy for. Vegetables are available for adoption year-round 🙂