The story of Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library

4577618734_5e093c6cdc_mLong before seed catalogs were available, farmers and gardeners saved seed from one year to the next.

The commercialization of the seed trade in the 19th century unfortunately brought with it corruption amongst unscrupulous seed companies.

To prevent such abuses the European legislation was eventually introduced, making it illegal to commercially market seeds of varieties not included on either the UK National List, or in the European Common Catalog. Listed varieties had to go through rigorous two-year trials in order to establish their distinctiveness, uniformity and stability (DUS testing) and many smaller seed companies found the costs involved prohibitive amongst other pressures. In addition, synonymy tests effectively reduced the number of varieties available to both commercial and amateur growers. Hence, many were lost.

The late Lawrence Hills, founder of the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA, now Garden Organic), realized that the new laws would limit the gardeners' choice. He wanted to do something to

conserve genetic diversity in vegetable varieties associated with the UK and Europe, to counteract this loss.

Initially, he helped to establish the national gene bank at Horticulture Research International, Wellesborne, Warwickshire; now part of Warwick University. Creation of the Heritage Seed Library (HSL) followed; born out of Lawrence's foresight and enthusiasm. It started life as the Genetic Resources Unit, a tiny collection of

varieties grown to raise public awareness and to provide seed for re-sowing. In 1992 Garden Organic formally recognized the importance of the collection and HSL was conceived.

The HSL collection holds 19th and 20th century commercial varieties that have fallen from favor and are no longer maintained by seed companies; historic cultivators that pre-date seed catalogers and cultivars; local varieties which have been grown in a specific location for many years and heirloom varieties that have been

handed down through families for generations and never been available commercially.

There are currently around 800 accessions in the HSL collection, with around 200 awaiting trial and assessment. All are open pollinated varieties, which potentially contain a wealth of genetic material, and because of this are often used in the breeding of modern hybrids. Once this has disappeared we will lose a

valuable genetic resource that may be useful for the future. Unlike F1 hybrids, seeds collected from open pollinated varieties will also produce plants that are 'true to type', providing that they have not cross-pollinated. This means that there is no need to purchase new seeds each year.

More than 100 varieties are grown at Garden Organic headquarters, near Coventry, each year. This annual harvest helps to conserve the collection, but could never meet HSL members' requirements. In excess of 40,000 packets of seeds are filled, sealed and mailed by hand, by just two full time, two part time and one temporary staff member each year, plus a team of fantastic volunteers. We are also sent a number of varieties that are new to HSL. These are trialled to assess their suitability for the collection, and characterized using a system derived from IPGRI (International Plant Genetic Resources Institute) standards.

These trials occupy a certain amount of our growing area, reducing the space that we can dedicate to bulking up stock for supplying HSL members each year. This is where the volunteer Seed Guardians, HSL members who have decided to go that extra inch, really come into their own. Each Seed Guardian is responsible for growing allocated varieties specifically to return seed to HSL.

Each consignment we receive is cleaned, weighed and assigned a traceable batch number, before being stored. Guardians are expected to ensure that their allocated HSL varieties remain pure, and report on the varieties they grow, providing us with information regarding the performance of the crop during that season. New Guardians select their varieties from our 'orphans list' distributed each March. Our Seed Guardians are the stalwarts of HSL, without their dedication the diverse range of cultivars offered in the catalog would significantly diminish.

Our work is supported and funded by generous donors and HSL members who, for an annual subscription, (currently £20, £ 15 for existing Garden Organic members) receive two editions of the Garden Organic magazine, The Organic Way, and are entitled to select six packets of seed from around 150 listed in the most recent HSL catalog. Our members have access to our Seed Saving Guidelines and other resources via the Garden Organic website, and are free to contact us directly at any time with their questions and queries regarding their HSL varieties.

We believe that keeping vegetable varieties growing and saving seed each year is the best way to ensure that it is preserved.

If you would like more information regarding the work of HSL, or Seed Guardianship, we can be contacted at or by telephone on 024 7630 8232. HSL membership information can be found on the Garden Organic website at, or by contacting our membership department directly on 024 7630 8210.

Full Disclosure Statement: The GREEN (LIVING) REVIEW received no compensation for any component of this article.