Archive for the ‘Seeds and Seed Diversity’ Category


As I write this from near the east coast of England at 2pm on 17th December 2015, the weather outside is mostly overcast with pale gold light streaking through the clouds to the south. It is also extremely mild, probably 14 degrees Celsius.

Not such a different temperature in fact to that of the early October day when I took this picture of a flock of goldfinches which had landed in the elder tree at the bottom of the garden.

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It’s not a particularly sharp or fine picture and I don’t have a very good camera; but something about the flashes of dandelion gold on the goldfinches’ wings, as if the colour came directly from the sunny flower of that plant itself, whose seeds they love to eat, made me want to post it…

Real Seeds and Stories 2014

A post that visitors to Mark in Flowers look at regularly is Huauzontle – Let’s Grow from Real Seeds, which I originally wrote about 18 months ago in response to the planned EU plant material regulations. As you can see I updated it over the following year as the discussions and campaigns progressed.

Essentially it’s all about anyone anywhere having and keeping the freedom to save and sow our own seeds, whether we’re gardeners, smallholders, farmers or plant people like me. This freedom is one of the things under threat from those planned regulations.

So this is a short post about some of the real seeds I’ve saved this year and some of the connections they have for me, along with a picture of the seed board I made yesterday.

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I’ve been very excited to grow and save seeds of the Ají Limón or Lemon Drop chilli, which is used all over Latin America, particularly in Peruvian cooking.

first lemon drops detailNot only are the fruits an astonishing deep lemon yellow in colour, but the taste is a phenomenal five second journey through various delicate aromas including citrus! Then the bite hits and it’s pretty strong. It’s well worth it though if you have the stomach. I’ve been making raw and cooked salsas with just tomato, lemon drop, a few finely chopped onions, lemon or lime juice and salt to taste. My mouth is watering!

I don’t know what it is about the Solanum family, but from potatoes and tomatoes to daturas and deadly nightshades, in one way or another they all seem to have the ability to grab our attention!

Lemon Drop chilli seeds are available from the Real Seed catalogue – then you get to save your own (that’s what’s great about Real Seeds, they encourage you to save and grow your own!). Lemon Drops don’t cross-pollinate with other chillis either as they are a different species.

I grew some ‘Sunzilla’ giant sunflowers (also from Real Seeds) this year; three of them took up residence in our centre bed at home and they looked great. I’m not sure whether seeds I’ve saved from these will be the Sunzillas next year as I had other types growing. But since my experience in 2011 with sunflower interpollination, I’ve grown much less controlling about it.

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Then there are the orange cosmos seeds. These seeds are truly real and saved, being the descendants of plants growing in Arizona when I spent quite a bit of time there at the beginning of this century. They are annuals so I plant them each season. I almost lost them in recent years as germination hadn’t been great, but this year they bloomed happily over the summer outside the back door (alongside feverfew, spearmint and Japanese mugwort) and I have good seeds for next season.


Real Seed Catalogue is great, but there’s nothing quite like swapping and sharing seeds directly with others. That’s sometimes how I’ve made friends with people. And so a word about the envelope marked Nick’s place in Bungay. Inside are seeds of Babington’s poppy (Papaver lecoqii), a UK and Northern European native wildflower which grows in all sorts of places including Nick’s garden. Nick is a formidable grower of vegetables and downsizer and over the years I’ve known him and through our involvement in Sustainable Bungay, we’ve swapped all sorts of stories and seeds and plants and vegetables. We’ve felled dead elms and organised home medicinal wine-making demos together.

So it was a poignant moment when he moved to Wales last month to start a new life. Nick is no longer there to visit at his place in Bungay but he leaves behind many great memories (and seeds!).

Images: saved real seed envelopes 2014; lemon drop chillies Capsicum baccatum 2014; Sunzilla is coming! 2014; epazote (left) and feverfew, orange cosmos, spearmint and yomogi, 2014

(All text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons with Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license)

Flowers, Fruits and the Colours of the Day

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Every year I sow heavenly blue morning glory seeds hoping that they’ll flourish and flower together with the (yellow) sunflowers. Every year they tend not to do either, preferring to stay inside and push out some blooms when they feel like it. On Sunday (30 Sept) I found three truly glorious ones in the conservatory when I’d almost forgotten about them.

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The chillis have done really well this season. The slim red ones here are Ring of Fire, They bite like hell and have the extraordinary effect of bursting about six different flavours into your mouth in the two seconds before the skoville factor hits and all subtlety vanishes! The small red ones are the Apache variety, again hot but less so with good flavour for general cooking and salsas and beans. The yellow ones are Ají Limón or Lemon Drop chillis used a lot in Peru. They took a long time to germinate, grow & ripen but wow! what a fantastic multiflavour, multiaroma chilli. Like the Ring of Fire they smell great raw – just don’t rub your eyes (or nose) with your fingers afterwards – they’re really hot! You can get the seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue and then save your own for next year. Well worth it for the colour alone.

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The fiery hummingbird sage comes back year after year with its compellingly pungent leaves and bright red flowers. A native of northeast Mexico, I started growing it in 2003 from seeds gathered at a herbalist friend’s land in Arizona. Here in Suffolk I keep it going by cuttings every couple of years. So far they’ve set no seed though.

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And then sometimes you just have to leave the house and garden and get out a bit amongst the subtler but equally stunning wildflowers. Here is Charlotte ’52 Flowers’ walking amongst the flowering Devil’s-bit Scabious on a nearby common last Sunday (28 Sept).

On Making Space for Nature with Sustainable Bungay

This post was first published on 24th September 2014 under the title ‘Mark Watson on Making Space for Flowers’ as part of the “Making Space for Nature” theme on the Transition Network website.

IMG_1158“Did you grow all those yourself?”, a young woman asked me last week at Transition Town Tooting’s 7th Foodival.

She was pointing to a wicker basket filled with the aromatic lemon balm, rosemary, anise hyssop, marjoram and a dozen or so more herbs and flowers I was preparing tea from at the event:

“A lot of them I grew at home in Suffolk, some are wild plants and others are from gardens here in Tooting, including the Community Garden up the road.”

She looked suprised, almost shocked. “My only reference for that kind of thing are the supermarket shelves,” she said.

In that moment I realised many things all at once: that events like the Foodival show how we can come together and regain autonomy over what we eat (and drink); that you never know who will walk in the door and get switched on by something they’ve never considered before; that making space for nature goes beyond the world of nature reserves, wildlife documentaries or even pilgrimages into the wilderness. I realised that an intrinsic engagement with the living world is what I’ve been showing and teaching in the last six years since I became part of the Transition movement; and that Transition has offered me a role where I can use my knowledge and skills to bring plants and people together in a dynamic and inspiring way.

Bungay is a small rural market town of 5000 people on the river Waveney in north-east Suffolk, surrounded by conventionally farmed agricultural land. The common idea that people in rural areas are automatically more connected with nature can be misleading. Wherever we live now much of the time is spent in artificial spaces: in front of computers, television screens, in our minds and indoors.

When I consider Sustainable Bungay, the Transition group where I’ve been most active since 2008, I see that (re)connection with living systems and considering the planet is implicit in everything we do, from the permaculture inspired Library Community garden, to the Give and Grow plant swap days to a cycle ride down to the pub by the locks of the Waveney at Autumn equinox. The very first Transition event I led was a Spring Tonic Walk introducing people from Bungay and Transition Norwich to dandelions, cleavers and nettles, the medicine plants growing in the neighbourhood.

Voilet-adorned prunes detailOur monthly community kitchen, Happy Mondays is now in its fourth year. A meal for 50 people, most of it locally sourced, is prepared from scratch in under three hours and features everything from nettle pesto and bittercress salad to puddings with foraged sweet violets or blackberries from the common.

Bungay Community Bees was formed in 2009 in response to the global pollinator crisis. There are now more than a dozen beehives in orchards and gardens in and around the town. The group has also created a purpose-built apiary (an observation shed with a hand-crafted glass hive) in association with Anglia Regional Co-operative Society and Featherdown Farms. In the summer schoolchildren from the region come to visit the bees and go on nature walks where they learn about flowers and pollinators.

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Even behind the Give and Take days with their ethos of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Refashion, Re-just-about-everything, there is the sense that the planet needs a major break from all the stuff the industrial system keeps pumping out. Nature needs a breathing space!

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A natural breathing space is among the many things that Bungay Community Library Garden offers. In 2009 a subgroup from Sustainable Bungay teamed up with the town library, organised an Introduction to Permaculture course with Graham Burnett and worked with local builders, gardeners, tree surgeons and group members to transform the unused brick courtyard with one jasmine and a honeysuckle into a flourishing community garden with raised beds, fruit trees, flowers and herbs.

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Each year since its opening in 2010, the garden’s central bed showcases a different theme: plants for bees in 2011, plants as medicine in 2012, an edible bed in 2013 and this year dyes and textiles. This way people can get a feel for just how multi-faceted plants are and just how interwoven they are in our human lives. In many cases the categories change but the plants stay the same. The calendula you made a tea from in 2012, you tossed into a salad in 2013 and dyed a scarf with the following year!

The person curating the garden each year organises events around the theme. In the Plants for Life series I ran in 2012 focusing on health and wellbeing, there were monthly talks, walks and workshops with guest speakers, on everything from biodynamic growing to walking with weeds to the medicinal properties of homemade wine! I also ran ‘plant surgeries’ during the summer where people could come and ask questions about the project and the plants and exchange their knowledge too.

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The garden has become a focal point for many of Sustainable Bungay’s activities from steering group meetings in the summer to seed and produce swaps, Abundance exchanges of foraged fruit, and apple pressings. It is also the starting point for the wellbeing walks begun by the Arts, Culture and Wellbeing group last year.

The idea behind the walks was to explore local places together to encourage wellbeing and a sense of belonging. How that might increase personal, and particularly community, resilience, help combat the desire to be somewhere else and so encourage lower use of fossil fuels. Many people reported that simply by taking part in the collective walks brought an experience of wellbeing in itself.


There is more. Recently a group called NR35 (‘Natural Resources’ 35) based on the local postcode, began to explore “how to use our skills, knowledge and labour to generate an income by sustainably managing/harvesting the resources which are wildly abundant around our rural market town.” The results include the harvesting of fruit and vegetable gluts, some of which are supplied to local restaurants and grocers and a communal firewood store. Last spring a small group of us learned how to make a dead hedge with local tree surgeon Paul Jackson. It took just a morning but I remember practically everything Paul taught us.

So what I’m saying here is that making space for nature can start right outside our doors, and in the places we find ourselves. That it’s not always the big exotic landscapes abroad where Nature is to be encountered. We need to discover the natural world where we are and engage with it, because it’s the natural world that makes sense of everything in the end.

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In 2015 it will be my turn again to curate the theme at Bungay Community Library garden, and the focus will be on ‘Helpful Herbs’ of all kinds. Lavender and rosemary are settling into bed, with thyme, St. Johns Wort, sweet cicely and others already there. And I’m working with a team on some exciting events. I’m also planning to map the project as part of a group helping to shape a new Transition Diploma, a collaboration between Gaia University and the Transition Network. Oh, and to make it into a Transition livelihood!

Meanwhile here is a picture from a plant walk around Bury St Edmunds I led in June this year with Sustainable Bury. The caption would probably go something like this:

“You can’t go anywhere nowadays without people sitting on walls looking at Hoary Willowherb!”


Mark Watson is co-chair of Sustainable Bungay, a Transition Initiative in Suffolk, UK. Mark teaches groups and individuals to reconnect with nature through plants in the places they live. Details about his talks, walks and workshops can be found on Mark in Flowers.

Images: Talking plants and teas at Tooting Foodival, September 2014 by Chris from NappyValleyNet; Wild sweet violets adorn Happy Monday pudding by Josiah Meldrum; School visit to Bungay Community Bees’ observation hive by Elinor McDowell; Preparing the beds, 2010, Bungay Community Library garden (MW); the garden flourishes, summer 2014; Walking with Weeds, Plants for Life, 2012 (MW); 1st Wellbeing walk by the Waveney, 2013 by Charlotte Du Cann; Throwing our arms up under the cherry trees, April 2014 (CDC); Of walls and hoary willowherb in Bury St Edmunds, 2014 by Karen Cannard

More real seeds… coincidentally

I had literally this morning just signed Global2000’s latest appeal for the EU Seed Regulation to be scrapped and begun again from scratch in the EU Parliament’s plenary session vote coming up on 13th March*, when I heard a thud on the doormat. And this is what had arrived:

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My latest order from the Real Seed Catalogue. Lovely open-pollinated (non-hybrid) seeds and none of them genetically modified. And with great names: ‘Lemon Drop’ chili, ‘Special Swiss’ sweetcorn, ‘Dragon Purple’ carrot and my favourite: SUNZILLA ‘very, very BIG SUNFLOWER. Real Seed orders always come with instructions for sowing, harvesting and saving the particular seeds seeds in your order, many of the seeds are heritage and heirloom varieties And the prices are very reasonable.

These are the very types of seeds under threat by the proposed draconian regulation. So do sign the appeal for the EU Seed Regulation to be scrapped and started again from scratch. We need to support seed diversity. And see here to find out more about the proposed law.

* On 11th March the Seed Regulation was voted down by the European Parliament by a majority of 511 to 131 votes. This is great news. However the European Commission has not yet completely withdrawn the proposal, which means that “many small growers, growers’ associations and gardeners at both a professional and amateur level” still stand to be affected by future legislation. Ben Raskin of the Soil Association advises us to be vigilant here.

Related post: Huauzontle – Let’s Grow from Real Seeds

Rediscovering Chia

PB070010 lowresI wrote and published this post originally on 10th May 2011. The Chia seeds and seedlings below grew into enormous plants with late-blooming stunning blue flowers lasting well into November that year! They formed no seeds though and the next year’s plants from the same seeds weren’t so good (chia plants are annuals). Chia seeds are a currently popular ‘superfood’. And they are pretty energising. Having some in my breakfast this morning reminded me of those amazing plants. This post isn’t really about superfoods, though.

I Have Discovered Chia

P5107052This of course is untrue. A statement worthy of Columbus. As if Chia did not exist before I came upon it. Which it clearly did, because it has been growing in the place we call Mexico and all the way down to South America since way before 1492. Despite its given Latin name of Salvia hispanica. There is another Chia, Salvia columbariae, (I think that is to do with doves, by the way, not Christopher) that grows in the Southwestern states. But that’s a different plant.

I don’t know what it is with sages. The lovely Mexican Fiery sage (that’s one of its English common names – another is Red Mountain sage) was known as Salvia oresbia until someone decided in 1991 it needed changing to Salvia darcyi to reflect its modern ‘discoverer’. I’ve been growing it since I collected seeds from a herbalist’s garden in Arizona ten years ago and I keep it going by cuttings. It’s awesome. And now blue Chia has joined its red relative downstairs in the conservatory.

So what’s all this about? Well, last week Charlotte gave me a packet of Chia seeds for my birthday. She told me to close my eyes whilst she placed the packet in my hand. I was so exited when I saw them I didn’t know what to say. This is the endurance food of the Tarahumara, a people famous for their ability to run long distances in hot desert conditions. I put the equivalent of a teaspoon in my mouth. And chewed. They swell up immediately and are crunchy as well as mucilaginous. And quite delicious. Taken as a drink they are a stimulant, but I haven’t tried that yet.

In Aztec times the seeds of Chia (from the Nahuatl chian meaning ‘oily’) – were used as a form of currency to pay taxes. A direct link between food and value and the natural world.

And what about planting some? I checked out an old Horizon Herbs catalogue for sowing instructions. Easy, germination in 4-8 days. TWO days later and the little pots were full of sprouted seedlings. I’ll post an update later in the Summer when they’re in flower. I don’t think seed from plants grown here will be so full of soluble oils and fibre, but it’s been a hot Spring so far. Who knows what the Summer will bring? And whether Chia will be a plant for the future in these changing climes.

And talking of changing climes and why it’s vital to really value the natural world and recognise that all our lives depend on the living earth first, which should not be held hostage to untrustworthy governments, the free market global economy or our own apathy, take a look at this. (May 2011)

Pics: Chia flowers (later that year); Chia seeds, Mexican Fiery Sage, old Horizon Herbs catalogue, Chia seedlings

Archive: A Different Kind of Tea Party

from August 2011:
Summer came to an end yesterday with a surprise… a visit from fellow TN blogger John (Heaser) and his wife Rebecca. They turned up on our doorstep after a sea walk in Southwold, armed with a huge bag of homegrown carrots, beetroot, romanesco courgette and cucumber.

I picked fresh peppermint and spearmint from the garden for tea and we sat in the tent porch talking about plants and vegetables – everything from runner beans through to sunflowers, the ten types of potatoes John is growing this year and the ‘ricola’ peppermint I gave to Rebecca for her herb patch. This type is grown for Swiss chocolate and smells like After Eights.

This year we have grown more vegetables than normal – runner beans and tomatoes in amongst the herbs and flowers, potatoes at the edge of the compost heap (currently home to a large family of grass snakes), cucumbers, courgettes and aubergines. But the garden is still mostly unmown and left to its own wild devices for the benefit of birds, lizards, bumblebees and the friendly snakes.

John gave me a vital piece of advice for potato growing. And though it will be obvious to people who have been growing them for years, it may not be to novices (like myself). So I’d like to share it:

Potato leaves love sunlight BUT the tubers need to be protected from direct sun and so need at least an inch and a half of soil over them. This keeps them under the ground and stops them from going green (green on potatoes indicates a high level of solanine, which is poisonous to humans). Yesterday I had found a few good-sized potatoes exposed to the surface. But there wasn’t a lot left of them after I’d cut the green away.

Then the conversation turned to another kind of blight – imminent economic collapse, which had been a key subject of discussion both at the Uncivilisation Festival Charlotte had gone to, and the recent off-grid Sunrise festival. John said he’s glad to have 30 years’ experience of growing food at home to provide at least some basic necessities in the face of future adversity.

But what of the general awareness of anything being other than ‘business as usual’? Last week I had gone to Southwold for tea with a friend from London. She was glad to be on holiday she told me because her next door neighbours have spent the past nine months having building work done on their house and the noise is unbearable. And EVERY one of the houses around her has had major building work in the past few years. And the conversation among the other Londoners present was the same conversation I would have heard before I left two decades ago. Money, house values, children’s education. Nowhere in this seemingly financially secure company was there talk of collapse or the sense that life was going to be any different than it had always been.

As I walked home in the pouring rain I wondered: Is this because most of us are not aware of the storm brewing, or don’t want to look out of the window, or that it’s a taboo subject? Not the kind of surprising talk you have over tea?

There is an excellent interview on Transition Voice by Lindsay Curren with Dmitry Orlov, peak oil commentator and author of Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Example and American Prospects. The interview is long but well worth the effort to read. In it he talks about collapse American style, where for most people in the ‘polite society’ of ‘how are you?’ ‘Fine’, collapse is ‘not even on the radar’. I don’t think that’s just America.

What kind of teatime conversations are you having?

Text and images by Mark Watson under Creative Commons license with Attribution Non Commercial No Derivatives Pics: John, Rebecca, Charlotte and me at the tent with mint tea; John’s homegrown vegetables; ricola peppermint

This post first appeared on the community blog This Low Carbon Life on 30th August 2011