Why We Should All Save Seeds

Broad Bean seeds saved from the 2017 growing season.

There was a time when seed saving was just as much a part of growing vegetables as sowing, planting, and harvesting. You saved your seeds, kept them for next year and repeated the process. Seeds have now become commercialised and seed saving is no longer a part of what most people do. Is this convenience a good thing? Probably not.

Buying seeds from large commercial companies is now the rational thing to do, and this isn’t always in the interest of many gardeners or small-scale growers. Why is this?

For starters, large commercial companies need to make money, and growing seeds is an expensive exercise with economies of scale playing its part. Each variety of seeds can have a registration fee, and because of this, lots of heirloom varieties simply disappeared from seed catalogues over the last 40 years. It isn’t commercially viable to produce small batches of seeds that are only of use to gardeners and allotment holders.

All the money for breeding new varieties of seeds is going into farmed vegetables because this is where the significant returns are. However, your needs and the farmers’ needs are not the same. What Mr Farmer wants is all his cabbage, cauliflower, carrots etc, to all come ready at the same time. This way, he can go through his field and harvest everything together in one pass. It frees up the ground to be turned over and replanted as quickly and efficiently as possible. He doesn’t want his expensive labour to have to start searching through a crop picking out what’s ready to harvest and then coming back some days later to do the same.

If you ever see varieties of vegetables in seed catalogues that boast things like ‘great for freezing,’ now you know why. Those ten cabbages you sowed together are all going to come ready to harvest at the same time, and you are going to get a glut.

Older varieties of vegetables often mature at different rates and grow to different sizes. This means that harvest times spread over a more extended period. You can go through your carrots, pick out the biggest and then come back a week later for some more. This would be a disaster for a commercial grower.

The ‘Market Gardening’ style of growing I do at Greenslate Community Farm and Burscough Community Farm has more in common with allotment growing than commercial farming. I want to harvest comparatively small batches of produce to suit the needs of the shop, cafe and a veg share scheme. We did sow some F1 varieties this year, and they all came ripe together, all at the same time. That isn’t good if you are only selling a few a week.

Another problem with mass-produced seed varieties is that they all need standard conditions to grow. I have learned this season that things that grow well in one place don’t necessarily do well in another location.

We had some startlingly different results from different growing sites this season. One example is Kohlrabi. Back at my farm over in Burscough, I grew the same variety of seeds in the same compost at the same time using the same growing methods. In Burscough, I got the most perfect, round, plump Kohlrabi you ever saw. Over here at Greenslate, our kohlrabi was leggy and not very well formed. It was like they were two completely different varieties of vegetable.

Kohlrabi at Burscough Community Farm

Commercial seeds want uniform conditions in uniform soils. We have to amend our soils to accommodate, and you cannot always do that. On an industrial scale farm system, you are trying to get soil and conditions to match those of other parts of the country. We’ve proved you cannot get conditions that match only ten miles away. What we grow is often dictated by the seed companies, who are, in turn, dictated to by the supermarkets.

Just like weeds like different types of soils and conditions, then also different varieties of fruit and vegetables adjust to their local conditions. Over time, by saving what works, different varieties develop and adapt to the local climate. It’s a kind of speeded up natural selection process. If something doesn’t do well, you trade some seeds with your neighbour who’s variety has done better that season. Over a period, by saving the ‘survivors’ from your crops, natural strains will develop. Without even trying, you become a plant breeder.

This is one of the reasons why I believe that allotments and small growers are so important. They could even be saviours of humanity at some point in the future if you are keen on your doomsday scenarios. By working together, you can develop seed varieties that are perfect for the area in which you grow your food. Ideal for your soil and the climate where you live.

It isn’t all easy stuff to do though; nature has a way of making things complicated as some plants are particularly promiscuous. One of the reasons that brassicas have so many different variants and sub-species is because they cross-pollinate so readily. You can manage this by organising your seed growing group strategically.

Obviously, you don’t want your cabbages and broccoli going to seed. That is not what you are trying to achieve. You want to eat them well before this stage. So, if an allotment site, or perhaps even several allotment sites, within a defined area can organise themselves, it is possible to curb some of the problems with cross-pollination and cross-breeding. You could appoint people to grow limited crops specifically to collect seeds.

Great advocates of saving seeds as well as keeping old varieties alive, the Real Seed Catalogue: http://www.realseeds.co.uk/

One of the more scary parts of all this seed breeding is what commercial seed companies and agribusinesses are doing. Over the last few years, the control of seed breeding and distribution has become ever more stringent. Seed companies have become licensed to produce individual seeds. Of course, there are some arguments for oversight and regulation.

There is the issue of disease and viruses spread through breeding. By breeding seeds on an ever more industrial scale, this kind of problem is magnified. With monocultures and intensive systems, problems can breed rapidly. Also, substantial business interests that have a lot at stake are very keen to have governments keep control of things.

It was only a few years ago that the EU was on the brink of bringing in laws that prohibited small seed breeding companies from keeping older, smaller seed varieties in their catalogues. If it is £1000 to register each seed variety, then some of the weaker sellers will drop off the list.

Perhaps there is an argument that poorer seeds should be taken out, but you then start to reduce the gene pool. As we know, with species of animals, the less the gene pool, and the more interbreeding, the more prone to disaster and extinction you become.

Even large food producers become threatened by a declining seed gene pool. Coleman’s Mustard supply their growers with the seeds needed to grow their basic ingredient. Over a period their yields had been reducing, so much so, that some farmers had given up growing the crop. Even the flavour was changing. English Mustard was in danger.

Scientists did some DNA research and found that the mustard being grown consisted of 5 various types of sub-species. Over the years some of the different strains were being literally sieved out of the mix, so the overall profile of the crop had changed.

Luckily, Colemans had been saving batches of their seeds over many years. Scientists looked back and went through the old samples, identified what was missing and bred up a new variety to be brought back into the mix. English Mustard was saved!

For more on this story click here.

In a more disturbing development, companies like Monsanto have been buying up smaller seed companies to plunder their stocks for commercial gain. This puts more and more control of our food supply into the hands of larger seed companies. Again, diversity is getting lost. Furthermore, Monsanto has often resorted to taking legal action against anyone who they see as using their seeds without their permission or paying their licensing fees.

There is a very interesting documentary about Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser (David versus Monsanto) who used to save his own canola seed. His neighbour had signed up with Monsanto to grow their GM canola. The inevitable happened, and the farmer ended up with crossbred GM canola. If that wasn’t bad enough, Monsanto took the view that this farmer had ‘stolen’ their GM bred seed and started to pursue him through the courts trying to drive him out of business.

In countries such as India where farmers have signed up with large seed companies such as Monsanto, there have been disastrous consequences. Farmers have become trapped into licensing deals where they are contractually obliged to use particular varieties.

No matter what your opinions of GM or Monsanto, I don’t think that putting the very essence of life, the humble seed, under the control of large corporations is a good thing.

I firmly believe that allotment group perfectly illustrates what the Transition Movement is all about. The allotments are here at Greenslate Farm because the Billinge and Orrell Transition Group made the effort to get hold of this land. The Transition Movement is all about making local communities more resilient against the dangers of globalisation and our declining oil-based economy.

If groups like allotment societies develop seed saving systems for themselves, they will be making their locality more resilient in an increasingly dangerous world.

If you want to learn more about saving your own seed, I highly recommend this book by Sue Stickland.

[This post was based on a talk I did for Greenslate Community Farm’s allotment society in November 2017 – Neil Hickson]


Does Anyone Know How Much To Grow?

Martin Andrews of The Allotment Cafe in Wigan

Growing crops for an unknown market has been one of the bigger challenges for us this year. When I started back in January my mission was unclear.

We already had a small shop that didn’t do a great deal of business and I knew that we would be opening a larger shop somewhere down the line. Then there was the cafe, another unknown to contend with. Would the cafe use our veg and what kind of things would they be serving up?

Finally, there was the local wholesale market of shops, pubs and cafe’s. I knew the farm had sold veg to all these last year but how much should we grow for them for this year?

Too many variables to predict what quantities we would need to grow..

The next question was what  range of stuff should we try and grow? What would be popular, what would work on this sloping hillside that had been under grass for such a long time?

I decided to max out on onions as they are a staple but received cautionary advice that I may be overdoing it.

This is a tough problem because veg growing has a long lead in time and with most crops. You only get one shot per season to get it right. You cannot  just switch it on and off.

The big question at the back of all of our minds was (and still is) who is our market, who wants to buy what we grow at Greenslate Farm?

One person advised me that “there is no point in selling stuff more expensively than Aldi as people won’t buy any of it.” If we have to compete with Aldi on price, I think we have a problem.

My own gut feeling is that our customers are the ones who value our ‘story’ and who get what this farm is about. There are so many alternatives to us out there, price isn’t the only deciding factor.

All these questions will be answered in time. What people want, what people like and what people value is a puzzle that taxes cleverer brains than mine.

One thing is a certainty though, people are starting to hear and understand what we are producing and why we are doing it. I definitely need to grow a lot more produce next season. There is a market out there for locally produced fruit and vegetables.

We have recently started supplying local organic wholefood cafe ‘The Allotment Coffee Shop’ in Wigan Lane.

Martin and Bernie who run the cafe approached us because they really wanted to source locally grown produce. They actually grow some of the veg that they use in the cafe on their own allotment so they appreciate the qualities of home grown food and the work involved.

They only opened earlier this year and they have their own ideals about sustainability and their own concerns about the environment. In many ways it is a perfect match for us with mutual respect in both directions.

Roll on next season when we can really pump up production and feed more local people from our shop, our cafe and other local outlets who value what we are trying to do here at Greenslate Farm in Billinge.

How much will we need to grow then?

Easy Rhubarb Chard

Rhubarb Chard at Greenslate Farm
Rhubarb Chard at Greenslate Farm

What a beautiful looking plant ‘Rhubarb’ chard is. It always catches my eye as I walk past it in the field. Its bright red stems contrasting with the deep dark green glossy foliage, it just says ‘healthy’ to me.

It has nothing to do with Rhubarb apart from its appearance but a few customers have asked me if it is Rhubarb when they have spotted it.
Rhubarb Chard is a variation on Swiss Chard (Beta Vulgaris), a member of the beet family related to beetroot and sugar beet. There are also yellow and pink variations. It cooks and tastes similar to spinach but I personally think that it has more flavour.

Nutrition wise, it is up there with some of the healthiest foods being one of the most nutritious vegetables around weight for weight. It contains loads of good stuff such as vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, magnesium, manganese, copper, potassium, iron, choline, vitamin E, vitamin B2, calcium, vitamin B6, phosphorus and protein.

Why are we not eating more of it then? We once had some Mediterranean visitors to the farm who got quite animated and excited when seeing it growing and demanded we sell them a huge bunch of it. It seems that they knew its value.

As the recipe says, this is an easy one to cook and a great side dish.

Easy Rhubarb Chard

1 x 400g bunch of Swiss Chard
1 dessertspoon coconut oil
1 large clove garlic
1 red chilli, sliced
1/4 tsp coriander seeds

Rinse the rainbow chard and separate the stalks from the leaves.

Cut the stalks into 2 1/2 cm pieces, roll the leaves and cut them into 2 1/2cm slices (keep the stalks and leaves separate).

Heat the coconut oil in a large frying pan or wok and saute the garlic, chilli and coriander seeds over a medium heat for about 30 seconds.

Add the rainbow chard stalks, lower the heat, cover the pan and cook for 3-4 minutes.

Add the chopped leaves and toss with the garlic, chilli and stalks mixture.

Cover the pan and cook for a further 3-4 minutes until tender.

Stir and serve.

Easy Rhubarb Chard
Easy Rhubarb Chard

(Recipe adapted from Easy Swiss Chard on Simple Recipes).

Runner Beans With An Eastern Twist

As I grew up, runner beans were never one of my favourites. A memory of the stringy, sharp cornered ‘over rippened’ things that my dad once brought in from our home plot, took some time to fade.

I am pleased to say that Greenslate beans are not like that, they are a delight. With a season like we are having at the moment, runner beans are thriving.

I believe in trying everything that we grow, so I brought some home and asked Jane what she fancied doing with them.

Trying new recipes is a big thing for us and this is what she came up with. Adapted to suit our tastes from a recipe by Kris Dhillon, this recipe gave me a new perspective on the Runner Bean.

This recipe would serve about 4-6 people as a side dish but two hungry vegetarians managed to wolf down the lot in one sitting.

It is a mildly spiced dish with subtle curry tastes that didn’t bury the flavour of the beans. Very moreish, I was thinking that I would have some left for lunch the next day; it didn’t happen.


Runner Bean Bhaji

500g runner beans, topped and tailed and cut into 1cm pieces
1 large onion
1 dessert spoon coconut oil
2 cloves of garlic, chopped finely
3 cm piece of fresh ginger, chopped finely
1 large green or red chilli, chopped finely
1 tsp turmeric
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp garam marsala


Melt the coconut oil in pan and saute the onions until just starting to take on some colour.

Add the garlic and ginger and cook or a further minute.

Add the chilli, salt and turmeric and stir.

Add the runner beans and stir to combine everything.

Add a little boiling water, stir, cover with a lid and cook over a low/medium heat for about 20 minutes. Stir every now and then and add a little more water if necessary.

When the runner beans are tender stir in the garam masala and cook for 1 minute more.

Serve with cucumber raita, rice and naan bread or as a side dish.

Cucumbers; a cool recipe idea.

Cucumbers on the Greenslate shop shelf

We have plenty of cucumbers at the moment, our plants are pumping them out like crazy and what a great summer vegetable it is. Cucumbers make me think of Greece and a holiday I had there over twenty years ago.

Tzatziki turned up on my plate one evening in the restaurant and I asked the waiter what it was. He explained ”is a salad,” but it didn’t look like any salad I had ever eaten. Dipping in was a revelation. Fresh, minty, creamy with tangy garlic, I have loved it ever since. Cooling and fresh, it keeps you coming back for more.

I love Tzatziki as an accompaniment to any Greek food, as a dip and also a great side dish to any curry.

At this time of year though, when cucumbers are so prolific, fresh and tasty, it’s great to have as the centerpiece. As my Greek waiter indicated, it’s a salad in its own right.

Cucumbers are one of our success stories this year, we have them in abundance and I can honestly say I feel there is a massive difference between ours and something plastic wrapped from the supermarket. Perhaps it is the varieties that we grow (Tanja and Marketmore) or maybe because we don’t use any chemicals, herbicides or artificial fertilisers.

My recipe for Tzatziki is:

1 (or 2) large cucumber peeled, de-seeded and grated
2-3 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tbsp Mint leaves, finely chopped
Half a large tub of plain Greek yogurt (the actual amount is up to you, depends how ‘yogurty’ you like it).

Note, adding 2-3 tablespoons of lemon juice is an option and some recipes have lemon as the main flavour with mint as optional extra. I prefer mine minty.


Peel, de-seed and grate the cucumber, place in a colander, then sprinkle with a little salt. Place a saucer on top and something to weigh it down. Leave for a while so that the salt and weight drive out some of the water from the cucumber. Without this step the dish can become quite watery.

Place all the ingredients in a dish and then mix well. Chill in the fridge. Enjoy

My Tzatziki

If you have any good recipes you want to share for Tzatziki, its variations, or anything with cucumbers, send it to me or leave it in the comments below.


It’s Been A While

Veg display in the new shop

The last few weeks have been a bit hectic with the opening of the shop and cafe so my blog postings have suffered in frequency. Sorry, I will mend my ways and get back on track posting more frequently.

This is a busy time of year even without those two new commitments. It is always a dilema that when you are at your busiest harvesting, you still have to keep up with the sowing and planting otherwise there will be nothing to harvest in the winter.

Keeping on top of things outdoors has also been a challenge this last few weeks with the heavy deluges soaking the ground through. Getting the tractor on the land to work it up for new crops has been an impossibility, putting us further behind. Growing wise, this weather has been great and the weeds are flourishing.

Huge storm cloud over Billinge Hill
Yet another heavy rain storm rolls down over the hill

This week I am trying to put those concerns behind me as I take a short break from farming and get on with some writing. It gives me a chance to reflect on what has been happening on the farm lately and realise the mountain that Greenslate Community Farm has climbed.

Firstly, there is the straw bale build and its opening event. Two years in the making, two years of toil for Kath and her team and then finally it is here. Well, nearly, if you could have seen the place the night before it opened with Kath still laying floor tiles and people painting whilst washing down, you wouldn’t have believed it could have gone ahead, but it did.

Move on a few weeks and the shop opens. A highlight for me to at last have a dedicated space for all the fruit and veg that we have been working on growing since January to be displayed and sold. It’s what I am here for, it’s what I needed to see.

Another week later and another labour into the night sees the cafe open. So now people are cooking and eating the food that we grew here on site, eating it in our own cafe. It’s the real deal, food yards not food miles. Hazel, Annmarie and their team, congratulations.

So many people have contributed and worked so hard to bring all of this together. It would be pointless even trying to thank and represent them all here. To honour them and what they have achieved, we now need the world to know about our cafe so that it can support itself; economic sustainability enabling environmental sustainability.

An Australian Winstanley In Wigan

Dane Winstanley

I had a great day last week working with a young man all the way from Australia who knew about Greenslate Farm before he set off on his journey to England. Dane Winstanley came on a journey during a break from college and he is returning to his studies on ecology in January. In the mean time he is on a road trip, firstly to meet up with family in the UK, then going on to other parts of Europe to see friends.

Dane had been reading about Greenslate Farm online in Australia and had decided to come and volunteer here during his visit. He picked beans with me and did other tasks, a really good worker who has had experience working on other farms. I treated us both to a scone from the Cafe (home baked by Annmarie and brilliant by the way) and we talked about all sorts of things as we worked and ate together including environmental issues and politics.

Dane was well aware of Gerald Winstanley and the forthcoming Diggers Festival which he won’t be able to get to as he will be elsewhere in Europe. As I showed Dane around the farm, we stood looking at the allotments and talked about Gerald Winstanley.

The relevance of his family name and the idea of a community farm and allotments worked by people to feed themselves and their families seemed highly symbolic and I felt my voice cracking with emotion as we talked about it. I said, “this is something to tick off your bucket list” and he agreed.

Straw Bale Build Opening

Today we held the grand opening event for the Straw Bale Cafe and Shop at Greenslate. 

The shop, cafe and building look fantastic although there are still a few finishing touches needed. Kath and her team of volunteers have done an amazing job. What has been built here will be an amazing asset to the local community for years to come.

We had our own mini circus to help celebrate the event and the Mayor and Mayoress came to officially open the building.

As the grower at Greenslate I am very excited that we now have our own purpose built shop and cafe selling the fruit and veg that we have worked so hard to grow. 

I think that the concept of having a shop and cafe less than 100 yards from where the produce has been grown is a very powerful one. It shows that local production is possible right in the heart of the community. It is why this farm is here and what the Greenslate Community Farm is all about.

It’s going to be fun over the coming weeks and months to see how things develop, what will sell and how customers will interact with us.

Some Help From Screwfix

I have had the help of a few of the Screwfix crew today who are here for their ‘corporate’ teambuilding day. Most helped on the straw bale build but these guys wanted to get back to the Earth hoeing and planting pumpkins. Great help that was really needed. Thanks so much guys.

Strange Spider

I know little about spiders and certainly have never seen one like this before. Anyone out there know what it is?