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Slavery in the Garden

Colonialism is a hot topic. Colonialism and plants have a long history together, dating back to the expeditions of the plant hunters who ‘acquired’ specimens from all over the world during the past two centuries. I won’t go into that here, but there is presently much discussion about the way colonial attitudes have become entrenched in our everyday behavior, causing deep social injustice. It has also been noted that this transfers into how we dominate and treat other species, extending to the whole of nature. The most obvious example of this is animals in factory farming, or indeed any animal held in captivity for our benefit.

It all derives from our desire to domesticate wild things. Domestication is defined as ‘one group of organisms influencing the reproduction and care of another group, to secure a more predictable supply of resources from that second group’. It is essentially holding captive and subjecting the prisoner to the captors will, so they are no longer ‘willed’. Wild was derived from the word willed.

The plant hunter’s prey were wild before being captured and enslaved into reproduction enabling endless variants on their species. On the other hand, the expansion of its territory from the plants point of view might be seen as the plant having the advantage from the situation. Some exotic imports broke out of their allocated territory into the wider ecosystem and are now seen as invaders. They are branded ‘non-native’ a term which now has uncomfortable connotations when talking about control. 

Once released from the straight jacket of its container, one might say a tree or shrub adapts to its new environment and is fairly autonomous. Except when we plant them into a space that’s too small and when they try to grow to their natural size we proceed to hack them about, to keep them ‘under control’. We do this with hedges. And grass. This usually means plants are unable to flower and set seed. We are undoubtedly influencing their reproduction, we are, in fact, preventing it.

We sow or plant annual flowers and vegetables, which reproduce in a single year, casually uprooting them before they have time to set seed. ‘Bedding’ plants are looked down upon as throwaway plants in the northern hemisphere, because they can’t survive our winters. Marched en masse into council flower beds to make a jolly spectacle and evicted within months, they have been well and truly domesticated. 

We have a resistance to wildness in public areas but also in the garden, terrorising wild plants as ‘weeds’ and a deep fear of losing control as we struggle to keep our safe domestic bliss in our ‘outdoor room’. Until fairly recently leaving a seed head on any plant in a garden was seen as sloppy gardening, autumn was a time of tidying, when everything was razed to the ground. Nature neatly supressed.

What else were flowers for other than eye candy for humans? Seeds were a nuisance, as they meant unwanted seedlings appearing in inconvenient places and the thought that seeds may be essential food for other species visiting the garden occurred to only a few early ecologically aware folks. Plants that had lost their colour and developed seedheads were deemed ugly, hence the term ‘gone to seed’, being used for something (and someone) that is undesirable and past their best.

The sole purpose of the life of an annual plant, from the plant’s perspective, is to produce seed to continue their lineage. The nutritious and delicious foodstuff that is often our sole purpose of nurturing this seed to fruition, is for the plant just a vehicle that enables it to send its seed off to a good start. Vegetables are mostly annual plants and would flower and produce seed at the end of their year cycle if left to their own devices. Fluffy Kale seeds would be dispersed by the wind or rotting tomatoes would just drop at the foot of the plant if a passing animal hadn’t devoured them. If they had, then the seed would pass through the bird or mammal and be deposited somewhere to start the next generation. But humans do not defecate on the land leaving the seeds they have ingested in a rich, moist medium that nourishes the growing seedling, so we are not playing our reciprocal part in the deal for receiving the bounty from the plant. And gardeners would not usually allow a vegetable like a lettuce or beetroot to ‘go to seed’. At this stage its leaves becomes bitter, or the root woody and inedible.

Instead we go to the garden centre, or pour over seed catalogues on a winters eve for a variety that might do better than the last one we tried. Most of the seeds recommended seem to be F1 Hybrid varieties, created by scientists. These are a cross between two different, but heavily inbred parents (only known to the seed company) which means if you do harvest their seeds, they will be sterile or not resemble the parent plant. Bad news for the plant but good news for the seed retailer as you have to rebuy every year.

On the other hand open pollinated seeds will produce a variety that will breed ‘true to type’ from one generation to the next (if not allowed to cross with another variety in the same species). 50 years ago every gardener in the world saved their own seed, so every gardener was in effect a plant breeder, choosing the characteristics they admired, especially taste and tenderness. They were harvesting a slightly different strain of each vegetable every season, each time the seeds had recorded all the information gleaned from their parents lifespan in that growing season in the local environment. This diversity created a huge living genebank that was very resilient against disease or climate change. If your crop failed for some reason there would be someone in your village you could get the seed from who had a successful variety adapted to the local conditions.

Now almost all these local strains have been lost and the standardised seeds we are sold are often not even grown in the UK, and certainly not adapted to our local soils, so to get a successful crop we have to drench them with fertilisers. In fact the seed providers are not really interested in the small percentage they sell into the gardeners market at all. Their seeds are bred for the needs of large-scale chemical farmers who want to to satisfy their clients, the supermarkets, and they want uniform shapes and shiny fruit, tough to survive shipping and display. Diversity, taste and tenderness seem to have gone out of the window!

In a world where time is money, it seems gardeners have had less patience for the slow art of seed saving. But Covid’s lockdown has brought a shift and theres a movement starting to question the dominance of the four agrochemical companies that now control more than 60% of global seed trade, and the fact that in the last 100 years we have lost 90% of the diversity in our food crops globally. Organisations like Seed Sovereignty and Seed Co-operative are developing a network of seed growers across the UK, to increase the proportion of UK produced open pollinated seed
sold in the UK, but also to encourage local communities or regions to create their own seed banks. People get around the complicated legislation and cost of over £100 to register a seed variety
for retail by using membership schemes and seed is exchanged in wonderful community events called seed swaps.

Several years ago I became a member of Europe’s oldest community seed library the Heritage Seed library of Garden Organic, a charity campaigning for organic growing. I was intrigued by the old varieties with names like ‘Bradford Bomb’ and ‘Uncle Bert’s Purple’ many of which had been passed down through families for generations.. You could, and still can, become a ‘seed guardian’. Their Orphan’s List contains varieties that need guardians to grow them to increase their numbers. Some veg, like carrots and parsnips, are biennials and require great patience as they wont produce a flower in the first year and the seed has to be collected in the second year. But the carrot’s beautiful flower and seedhead look great in any garden. In fact the flowers of many vegetables are very pretty.

At that time in my career as a flower photographer I was starting to look at the other stages in a plants life cycle. At the time I couldn’t devote the care needed to raise an orphan but I grew and collected seed from many of these Heritage vegetables, some which I grow to this day. I photographed the complete life cycles of 12 varieties spread across the year with the aim of producing a calendar for GO but at the time their budget didn’t allow production. I’m pleased to say it has finally come to fruition for 2021 and hope it will help celebrate and popularise the wonderful vegetable varieties they protect.

During lockdown there has been a huge increase in people taking responsibility for their own food and my hope is  they will start looking at the plants that so willingly provide so much for us in a different way. I believe saving seed and passing it on in community and down through generations is a way of creating a joint heritage with plants. The love and care invested in nurturing them through their complete lifespan is a way of collaborating and cultivating relationship and healing our dominant and extractive attitude to nature.

So take a moment before you rip out a vegetable plant that is starting to grow a flower stem, and enjoy observing this stage of its life, saving the seed and sowing it the following year. You will be in a sense rewilding it, stepping back and relinquishing the control entrenched from our old colonial attitudes. There’s been a gradual move towards working with nature in our gardens so let’s extend this to our veg patch. And lets consider the whole lifespan of a shrub or tree when choosing a variety, so if it cant reach its potential to flower and set seed maybe settle for a smaller species that will enrich the ecosystem of our gardens and participate within the web of life in a more holistic and reciprocal way.

Images from the Heritage Seed Library calendar

The Heritage Seed Library 

About open pollinated seeds and supplier list

The UK’s Community Owned Organic Seed Company

Seed Sovereignty

Kale ‘Ragged Jack’

Kale ‘Ragged Jack’

Beetroot ‘Bolthardy’ seeds forming

Lettuce ‘Bronze arrow’ forming a flower bud

Broad bean ‘Crimson flowered’

Pea ‘Purple podded’

Carrot ‘John’s purple’

Leek ‘Hannibal’

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