Jeremy Coleby-Williams: Why save seeds?

In Byron Bay in NSW, a garden has been developed that contains a diversity of useful and edible plants. In many ways these plants represent a gift from generations of gardeners who have saved the seeds from year to year. A seed is a message from the past and a promise for the future.

This garden is supported by many volunteers from across the country, and combined has one of the best educational gardens in Australia. Michel Fanton was born in France and continues a family tradition of saving seeds. His partner Jude Fanton shares this passion, and from this common ideal they gave life to the Seed Savers Network in Byron Bay. The garden and its volunteers became a thriving community.

There is an amazing variety of vegetables in catalogues of over a hundred years ago. Supermarkets today have an apparent abundance, but this seeming cornucopia of variety has been gathered from a large collective of growers who grow for perfect appearance. In the search for perfection in modern fruit and vegetables there is a question that the nutritional value of these foods has been lost. There is now a saying that it takes “nine apples a day to keep the doctor away”.

The development of food plants can be represented by a ladder; plants on the bottom rung are the unimproved wild species utilised by ancient man and contained the widest genetic variability that will ever exist. The top rung represents modern hybrid crops that are undoubtedly productive, but with limited resistance to pests and diseases. Plants on the middle rung are old varieties that can be saved as seed at home; they are adaptable, resilient and diverse. So conservation by seed saving keeps options open.

All that is required to save seed is some patience. By allowing plants to go to seed the fruit is left to remain on the bush to mature, developing into seed. This is what would happen as a matter of course in nature, but as productive gardeners we collect and eat, or preserve all fruit that a plant bears. Plants will look untidy in the garden when they are left to mature, but this must be accepted if seeds are to be collected. Plants must consciously be kept from being harvested so that they can be grown especially for seed to continue the cycle of planting and growing the same varieties year after year.

The skill of seed saving, particularly of vegetables, was being lost, and was of concern to Michel and Jude, and was the reason why they decided to set up a national Seed Saver’s Network. They could see the need to rejuvenate this skill to prevent valuable varieties being lost forever. They set up the business about eighteen years ago, when seed patenting laws were being put in place that was another small step that gave more control to forces outside of Australia. It was also the reason why they decided to become a national seed saving network, rather than a local one. To do this they were encouraged greatly by the founder of permaculture in Australia, Bill Mollison, and set about sourcing seeds from all around Australia. A national request for seed from traditional varieties resulted in an unexpected response, which meant that they needed to set up a recording and system and seed bank. The seed was then packaged and redistributed by a team of volunteers.

Michel and Jude began growing some of these varieties in their own garden to learn how to grow them and to find out what they were like. They are particular about keeping the seeds of plants that offer more nutrition and that grow well in Australian gardens.

Seeds represent millennia of wise and considered decisions. The survival of particular varieties of plants depends entirely on the everyday choices that home gardeners make. Seeds bring communities together, and this long history of saving seeds goes back to when mankind were hunters and gatherers. By continuing this tradition in our gardens we are practicing this old tradition of planting from seed to seed.

Information contained in this fact sheet is a summary of material included in the program. If further information is required, please contact your local nursery or garden centre.