Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Would you trust a seed swap seed?

Its February, so it must be seed swap time again!
Seed swaps have been growing in popularity for some years now. The best known one in Britain is Brighton's Seedy Sunday. The events are an excuse for a get-together for gardeners apart from anything else, and since gardening often is a rather solitary activity, this seems a jolly good idea. Very often the seed swap is just a peg on which to hang the event, with most attention and energy spent on going to talks, eating, networking, buying stuff from stalls etc.
But what about the idea of the seed swap itself?
Basically the idea is that you save seed from a good variety and then package it up and offer it to other people, so you are sharing your good variety. But why do this when the range of seed available commercially is so good?

Promotors of seed swaps like to portray themselves as keepers of genetic diversity, safeguarding old varieties from extinction and keeping that diversity going for the next generation. Commercial seed producers are generally cast as agents of wicked corporations which are trying to limit the range of what we grow, so they can monopolise it. Particular venom is reserved for F1 seed varieties, which will not breed true and are therefore 'one use only'.

Seed swaps tend to concentrate on vegetable varieties. Given that such an epic range of vegetable seed is now available commercially, whereas the range of ornamentals: annuals, perennials etc, has actually gone into decline, I would be more likely to see myself visiting a seed swap to get interesting ornamental varieties. The emphasis, and the undoubted moral ardour is however very much on the veg, so that is what I'll concentrate on.

Sorry to pour cold water on what sounds like such a good idea, but I'd be pretty wary about getting my seed from a seed swap myself. Here's why.

Is it what is says on the packet?
With the best will in the world, it is very easy to muddle seed up. I have just been informed by a correspondent that DEFRA (the British government department for agriculture and the environment) recently did a survey of online seed sources, and 60% was the wrong species, i.e. not just another variety of carrot, but beetroot instead!

How has it been kept?
When you buy a packet of commercially-produced seed, you can be 100% sure it has been harvested and stored in optimum conditions. You can never be sure with seed swap seed, where its been. Seeds deteriorate if conditions aren't right. Damp shed? Overheated room? This season's harvest, or last years?

Local does not mean best.
One of the 'facts' touted around the seed swap movement is that vegetable seed from locally grown plants will be adapted to local conditions and therefore grow better. This is complete rubbish. Nearly all the veg we grow have what is known as a wide ecological amplitude – they'll grow well across an enormously wide range of conditions. Most of us (in the UK) will have noticed how the Italian company Franchi sell their (very reasonably priced) seed really widely now. Does this mean that their vegetable varieties will do less well here because this is not Italy? No. And in many cases the varieties are the same anyway.
Even if vegetable seed could meaningfully evolve towards being better adapted to local conditions this would take many generations to achieve.
The only possible exceptions might be those veg which are right on the borderline of being viable in the local climate. Tomato or aubergine seed from somebody who has grown the plants outside at a northerly latitude is going to be in with a chance, at least.

Genetic Drift
Someone has a veg variety they like, so they keep the seed, and sow it again next year, and the year after that, and so on. Every year it will actually change slightly, so that after a few generations it may have lost the special characteristics it had that made it special. Commercial growers ruthlessly 'rogue' their plots of plants, removing any which do not 100% match the original. They also operate on a large scale, so minimising the distorting impact of the odd rogue plant. Anyone seed saving on a small scale will be growing a relatively small number of plants, so if you are saving from ten plants, one of which is a bit dodgy, then that'll be 10% of your seed harvest off-kilter.
When growing veg in the garden, there is a strong tendency to harvest the good plants, so saving seed from the remainder. With plants where you cannot 'have you cake and eat it', like lettuces or carrots, saving seed from one's own plants might actually mean you are consistently saving from inferior plants.

Saving varieties from extinction
Given what I have just said, the problems in maintaining a variety's integrity on an amateur basis can be pretty major, so I don't see seed saving and seed swaps as doing anything very much towards maintaining genetic diversity.

Seed companies of course maintain considerable seed diversity, but that isn't much help to anyone with a small plant breeding business . There is a very valid criticism of the seed business - that they have a monopoly, and is probably one of the reasons that we (in Europe or North America) see very little small-scale or independent vegetable seed selection and breeding. The exceptions are tomatoes and chillis, where there seems to be a very healthy market in amateur or small-scale breeder varieties. See Simpsons Seeds.

The accusation is sometimes made that all commercial veg seed breeding is for the big growers, and the amateur grower has to do with the crumbs from the table. Well, actually the demands of all growers are pretty similar: strong-growing, reliably producing crops tolerant of a wide range of conditions and pest and disease resistant. It is the latter factor which makes modern breeding so superior to 'heritage' or 'heirloom' varieties – so much breeding effort now goes into producing varieties that will stay healthy without using pesticides. This is why the statement on one seed swapping site that “It keeps seed making in the garden and out of the laboratory” is so daft. If you want to live in the Middle Ages, that's fine, but most of us would like to move on.

F1 seeds are presumably one of the 'laboratory' crops. For many of these, there is probably little point in us growing them, as their advantages are mostly for commercial growers. BUT for the latest in disease-resistant varieties, or sweet corn or courgettes for cooler climates, then there is little option – F1s maybe more expensive, but their advantages can be well worth the extra cost. The prejudice against F1s is little short of ridiculous, a sort of spill-over from the rather hysterical opposition to GM breeding, a technology which by the way has yet to show any of the ill-effects that were predicted. 
Much of the discourse around the seed swap movement reflects a kind of 'small is beautiful' romanticism. There seems to be a widespread belief that evil multinational corporations are hell-bent on forcing governments to ban varieties, forcing us into a kind of vegetable totalitarianism. In reality, the range of varieties has risen dramatically over the last twenty years, partly because more mainstream commercial varieties are available to the amateur, the expansion in the range of heritage varieties available, and the increasing interest in trying varieties from other countries. Above all, we are more adventurous and are demanding and fussier consumers, so the trade in vegetable seed has inevitably reflected this. There is room for the small producer as well, the sort of place that sells obscure varieties that probably wouldn't sell well from the supermarket. For these, such as RealSeeds, we should be grateful. But if you want to see the full range of commercially-bred varieties and the opportunity to buy them in whatever quantity you want, try Moles Seeds. Better to spend your money with a proper seed merchant than risk all the unknown factors of a seed swap.Anyone selling seed commercially will generally have some sort of government certification, which in the words of one small grower, “if you buy from a registered merchant then you will get good seed, that germinates, of the variety on the packet.” So there. 

And gardeners should get together to meet each other anyway, even if it only to swap seed catalogues.


Dave Jackson said...

Seeds from seed companies can be the wrong species as well. As an organic grower locally found out a couple of years ago. (Though he was able to get compensation.) As to trusting seeds from a swap, in general yes I do. Cucurbits being the exception unless I know the individual saving them and how they have done it.

What I can not agree with is your comments on F1 Hybrids. Even with sweetcorn I avoid them. If I use an open pollinated variety they do not ripen all at the same time and I get a longer season without having to buy packets of two or three varieties.

The only seeds I have had problems with from our seed swap here in Trumpington is squashes and these are known to be particularly promiscuous. So with that caveat, yes I do trust a seed swap seed.

Joe Golden said...

You seem to be overstating issues.

We have quite good ones here. It can be a mixed bag but much is this is resolved by giving talks about husbandry and good practices.

"Widely adapted" could easily be said to be nominally adapted. There truly can be better adapted varieties for ones area. This is especially true in the USA.

Seed swaps can also be good social events of like minded individuals.

Ross said...

Well said Noel and I thank you for the explanation. Some of the more myopic organic extremists may well want to crucify you for it, but to hell with these dilute homeopathic dills anyway.

Matt Mattus said...

SO well said, Noel. Hopefully, there will be a movement to re-educate people who believe that F1 seeds are corporate ploys and that adaptation can occur in the home garden. I understand and appreciate where their passion comes from, but the swirl of misinformation is staggering sometimes.

Brian Skeys said...

You would hope that HPS and RHS seed schemes would be reliable.

Noel Kingsbury said...

Re. Brian's comment about RHS and HPS, and of course, AGS, ARGS, SRGC etc. I don't think these are problematic, in fact i think they have a good rep. My comments were addressed very much to the veg growing fraternity: where there are a lot more problems with IDing - so many veg cvs. look so similar, and many of the seed swap folk are relatively young and inexperienced (trying to say this without sounding TOO patronising!).

wubbo womb said...

Good Evening,
In the Netherlands there are big commercial seed growers. I order from Chiltern but they get there seeds from many resources.

That is the problem with a lot of seed companies they buy it not grow it. Who knows who the grower is?

The problem with seeds coming from small gardens is crossings. Seeds that in general do not make crossings and are selffertile, there is no problem

I do not mind some mixing. So I trust (hoping always it will not wander)

Hope after brexit I can order from England without extra tax or redtape.

Emma Cooper said...

I don't disagree with everything you've said, but it's not true that "the demands of all growers are pretty similar: strong-growing, reliably producing crops tolerant of a wide range of conditions and pest and disease resistant." You've forgotten one of the most important traits of homegrown veg - flavour! Last week scientists confirmed ( that commercial tomato varieties have lost their flavour in the quest to make them more reliable, and that breeders will be returning to heirloom varieties to find it again. Heirloom varieties that have been protected by individuals for generations.

Secondly, you suggest that seed swaps are unnecessary with such an abundance of varieties are available commercially. I would argue that seed swaps are one of the ways in which demand for this diversity has been demonstrated, and without that obvious demand, seed companies wouldn't be investing in this diversity. In my mind, you make the point yourself when you say "the range of ornamentals: annuals, perennials etc, has actually gone into decline" and bemoan the lack of ornamentals in seed swaps. If there are enough people who agree with you, I think you'll find that seed swaps will begin to encourage the exchange of ornamental varieties as well, and - once they do - the commercial seed companies are likely to follow suit!

Finally, diversity is not the only selling point for seed swaps. They open up gardening to people on low budgets, who wouldn't be able to afford a garden's worth of commercial seed packets every year. And, as you mention, they're social events with other activities on offer.

skr said...

I think there is a fairly robust, if small, community of ornamental seed swapers within the succulent growing community. I know I can offer up whatever extra random seed pods I have and someone will take them. They are even ok with F1s or :gasp: F2s for a surprise.

SpringSnowflake said...

I agree with your comments.

In terms of saving seed and saving it under favourable conditions for genetic diversity that is why seed banks such as the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard exist. It is highly unlikely that most people will have the optimum conditions for long term seed storage.

However, getting together with other gardeners is always good in terms of exchange of ideas (even if you are not exchanging seed!)

I have never saved seed from veg, I don't have the space to waste veg going to seed so I always buy it. Some of the seed of heirloom varieties that I have bought in the past has had lousy germination rates that I never bother again trying to grow them.

But saving ornamental seed acts as a way to increase my garden stock and helps save money.
I usually save seed from tender annuals such as Ipomoea as well as members of the Apiaceae like Daucus carota ‘Black Knight’ for instance.

SpringSnowflake said...

I agree with your comments particularly regarding viability of seed. This is particularly true for long term storage. That is why we have seed banks like the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard to ensure optimum long term (4,000 years) conditions for seed in order to safeguard crop diversity.

Seed swaps are good though for gardeners to exchange ideas veg even if no exchange of seed is happening!

Miranda Bell said...

We lived in France for 12 years before moving here and we had a twice yearly plant and seed swap which was great - as you say it was a lovely get together of likeminded people and a chance to add to your garden as well as share the excess you had with others... perhaps there should be one locally here?

A Reader said...

With respect, there's a bit of snobbery in this post. I second the comment about seed swaps making gardening more affordable to those with low incomes. An off-type homegrown tomato is better than no tomato at all--probably better than store-bought, too. And if seed swaps are a waste of time then why does NARGS have one? The average alpine grower might be more skilled than the average gardener at a neighborhood seed swap, but no one starts out great at anything. Here in the States I think gardening is catching on with the younger folks in a big way, and many are only at the beginning of their planty journeys. So maybe you could recommend some literature on seed saving instead of pooh-poohing.

Jan Dainty said...

I totally agree with what Noel has said, although I do think he might have made the suggestion that it's a good idea to get seed from your preferred seed company as well as try out some from a seed swap, and that way you wouldn't lose a whole growing season if things didn't go according to plan. I don't have any problems with his comments on seed companies - if we don't buy from them they will disappear, which would be disastrous for home growers, and if you don't want to buy from the big companies there are tons of small and very dedicated ones who will give you a brilliant service. Lastly, I garden in the challenging conditions of the west of Ireland, and I would be lost without the vigour and reliability of F1 hybrids - particularly tomato Sungold and cucumber Passandra which perform well even in our cold wet conditions (under glass)!

garden4dinner said...

A seed swap sounds like a great idea. I haven't heard of one in the Seattle area. I exchange seeds with friends I trust and I love the variety I get from it. I like the idea of a larger community swap from a social stand point. I would be a little cautious of trusting obtaining a lot of seeds and stick to types that are easy to collect and/or self-pollinators.

An3 said...

"the demands of all growers are pretty similar":

You're forgetting here the transport factor. Especially tomato varieties are selected because of their thicker skin that reduces the amount of them they can transport at the same time without loss. That's something a home grower or even a local breeder don't need to care about.