In the 1970s our founder and organic growing pioneer, Lawrence Hills, created the Heritage Seed Library (HSL), in response to a growing awareness that vegetable varieties across the UK were rapidly disappearing.
And thank goodness he did.
Earlier this year a report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation found that “only 9 plant species account for 66% of total crop production”. People are beginning to wake up to the fact that the loss of diversity in our food crops leaves us vulnerable. This is worrying. And highlights just how important our ‘living library’ of vegetable varieties is.
Today, Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library is recognised as a leader internationally. The skills and techniques we have learnt over the past 50 years have meant that with a small team, and often basic equipment, the Heritage Seed Library manages a collection of around 800 varieties, distributing just short of 30,000 seed packets a year. It’s not uncommon for the varieties we collect, save and maintain to ultimately be relicensed for commercial sale, putting them back in mainstream circulation and increasing the choice for gardeners and the genetic diversity in our growing spaces.
Without the Heritage Seed Library, these varieties would have been lost, and lost forever.
The vast majority of the work of the HSL is done in the ground, in our grow-out areas, polytunnels, and in the gardens and allotments of our volunteer seed guardians up and down the country. But this work is all underpinned by something equally important - our database.
Our HSL database has served us well for many years, indeed some have suggested it’s older than many of the varieties themselves! It’s groaning under the pressure of today’s requirements, and that’s why we’re writing to you. We hope you might be able to help us invest in new technology to support this vital work for many more generations.
We have identified a suitable solution, which carries a cost to the charity in excess of £30,000. This includes licensing the technology, and the time and resources required to cleanse, transfer and adapt all our data, variety information, photographs and more, to fit the new database. We will need to do this whilst continuing the ‘day job’ of growing, collecting seed and sharing the varieties.
We are extremely grateful for the generous support from a longstanding Garden Organic member who has donated £10,000 to get this project off the ground. We now require a further £20,000 to complete it.
An updated database will mean significant improvements to the efficiency of the HSL operation. Better stock control and forward planning would allow the team to grow exactly what’s required each year - no more, no less.
It will also enable us to track parental lines for varieties - this is something we have not previously been able to do, and if we were able to would allow us to easily connect every batch of seed produced by our seed guardians and ourselves to the parent seed over multiple generations. This provenance is important for managing quality, helping us to quickly identify issues for further investigation and better understand the performance of varieties wherever and whenever they are grown.
But the new database will not just be a ‘behind the scenes’ improvement. If we can upgrade the technology, we can deliver a new richness of information to our members too.
A sophisticated characterisation function will allow us to capture, and in the long run to share, more information on each variety we hold, including:
- Known resistance to pests and diseases, and resilience to environmental conditions
- Historical origin
- Geographical information
- Culinary uses, including raw and cooked food information
At the moment we can capture a small amount of each, but we know there is such a vast amount of information on these varieties that we’re missing out on. Information that we know members would like to receive.
Holding this information isn’t just a ‘nice’ feature to offer though; it’s important to be able to record and store all the details behind each variety, capturing the phenotype - or observable characteristics - and the social and cultural history which can tell us so much about a moment in time. It is information that we are often asked for by research organisations and academic institutions and we respond by laboriously searching through paper files, taking time that could be better spent growing and saving more varieties.
Our database is key to what we do and how we do it, efficiently and effectively. We really hope you can help us to upgrade to a new database, to make sure we have the foundations in place to enable us to conserve these precious varieties for decades to come. Every donation, big or small, will contribute to this vital investment.
Thank you for your support of Garden Organic and the Heritage Seed Library.