Planting our living heritage

2013-08-26 00:00

ON arrival at Eidin Griffin’s farm one is greeted by an exuberant collection of dogs and chickens, and the farm’s name Wits End is a little amusing.

But far from being at her wits’ end, this environmental activist is making great strides in collecting seeds that may save our future.

She is championing the cause of seed saving in KwaZulu-Natal, and on the Dargle farm where she lives, she has begun to collect heirloom seeds for future generations of organic farmers. Her seed-saving empire is not as grand as it sounds — but as they say in all good fairy tales: “Just one seed can grow into a mighty tree”.

Imagine a yellow tomato that is totally ripe and ready to eat, or a purple pea that is perfect for the pot. These eye-opening varieties are actually not the product of laboratory experiments, but are actually old varieties of vegetables that became unfashionable.

Heirloom or heritage seeds are seeds that have survived through generations, untouched and untampered with. They have not been genetically modified and have stayed true to type. There are a few seed companies in South Africa that promote heritage or heirloom seeds. They are all passionate about encouraging seed diversity, and encouraging gardeners and farmers to use heirloom seeds.

In South Africa, many traditional subsistence crops are disappearing at an alarming rate, and they are being replaced by commercial hybrids and GMO varieties. It has been estimated that in previous years there were over 300 different varieties of maize being grown in the rural areas.

But due to the reliance by rural farmers on government hand-outs, the seed diversity has been lost. Traditional farmers have lost heirloom varieties that have adapted over hundreds of years to their specific environmental and pest loads.

Heirloom seeds grow to be unique varieties of common plants. Often we have not seen these varieties because the ones commonly sold in shops and nurseries are those that have been developed for commercial purposes.

In her art room-cum-study, her collection of heritage seeds are housed in an assortment of glass jars and spice bottles, and she has appealed to her network of farming and environmental friends to save and collect seeds from authentic and unique plants that grow naturally in the local environment. Her focus is on food-bearing plants, mainly vegetables and herbs, because it is her dream that every family should be able to feed themselves from their garden.

Her passion for heirloom seeds was awoken when she started learning about permaculture gardening and how to work with nature when preparing a food garden. She came to South Africa from Ireland when she was a young woman. She lived at Rustlers Valley in the Free State, which encouraged a subsistence and back-to-nature approach. There she became very self-sufficient, planting a vegetable garden, making her own home from natural materials and surviving on what nature provided.

“I suppose it was tough at first, but it was also such enormous fun. I learnt skills that I can use anywhere. My love of plants and gardens grew, and I realised that the Earth gives us what we need and we need to respect that.”

Griffin went on to learn about permaculture and her creative energy has spread to her home and kitchen. She made scrumptious savoury muffins and a fresh garden salad for lunch, as she chatted about her seed-saving journey. The seeds are a living link to history she explains.

“Some seeds go back in families who grew them for years and when they see a certain type of pumpkin they will say: ‘Oh yes, there is an Uncle Fred pumpkin’. The variety and flavour have a visual memory for people. The problem with only growing commercially viable plants is that we are restricting ourselves in flavour, texture and variety.”

She also spreads her philosophy while teaching children how to create rural school food gardens in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. Her energy and enthusiasm rub off on the children, who are sent off to their homes to find seeds. Griffin is happiest when she is knee deep in a garden planting or wandering around someone else’s garden foraging for seeds.

She said: “Our food, health and happiness are being manipulated by multinationals.

“We need to encourage gardeners and ecofriendly people to grow food. They need to spread the word that we all need to secure our own food supply.”

Seed saving is not a new phenomenon, as it was a necessity in the old days and a part of farming. But in the past few decades, seeds have become commercially available to farmers, who buy seeds that are supposedly tested. Heirloom seeds are specifically adapted to the region, and are likely to have developed resistance to specific insects and weather conditions.

Griffin’s seed garden on the farm consists of plants and vegetables that are less common than those found in the stores. She allows the plants to grow and then seed. She collects the seeds and dries them, and then freezes them for 48 hours.

The freezing process kills all those insects or bugs that might be inside the seed and it does not harm the efficacy of the seeds in any way. They are sorted and stored in bottles in her seed room.

She said: “Friends have brought me heirloom seeds from overseas and I have tried to grow the plants here to see if they can survive and thrive in local conditions. If they like it here and they grow well, I save the seeds as well.”

Griffin has five large African melons on the step outside her front door and she is waiting for an opportunity to open them and harvest the seeds.

“I am always interested to see what grows well in the rural communities and what nutritional value they have.”

Griffin works with SEED (Schools Environmental Educational Development), managing its Outdoor Classroom Programme in three schools in KwaZulu-Natal. She also does work with the Midlands Meander Education Programme teaching schools about food gardens.

To find out more about her work,

e-mail her at

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