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June 2012

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Past, present and future…

Shirley Lanigan makes a visit to Irish Seed Savers Association

After years knowing of them from a distance, and buying their wares online, I recently travelled to see the actual headquarters of the Irish Seed Savers Association in Scariff, County Clare. Run by a small team of paid workers and volunteers, the ISSA was started fifteen years ago on a twenty-acre farm above Lough Derg.

Here they have developed orchards of old and rare Irish apples and pears from grafting wood sent in from all over the island. They grow heritage vegetables for seed and they even facilitate the Department of Agriculture by carrying out vegetable trials. Three thousand fruit trees are produced each year for sale and I can confirm that they do sell out, having tried to order trees in the early spring. Almost every variety of last year's crop was sold out.

My visit led me through Lamb's Orchard, named for Dr Keith Lamb as well as Kevin Dudley's Way, both honoured for their work on Irish apple varieties. The orchard of unknown trees was fascinating because the apples these trees produce will not be known for years to come. It is an experiment in patience as much as fruit production.

There is a hazel wood, grown from sponsored trees. This handsome wood was planted thirteen years ago on what was an unpromising plot of brambles. The hazels are now regularly coppiced.

Among the oddities is the self-rooting apple orchard, where we looked at quaintly named ‘Sheep's Snout', and ‘Mr McGregor,' which like many of the unknown trees, has been named for the man from whose garden it came. Native Irish black bees pollinate the apples. As well as apples, plums and pears the Seed Savers grow soft fruit, such as red, white and black currants, jostaberries and gooseberries.

The atmosphere is of an attractive mend-and-made-do, organic wildness. But in the middle of the operation is a modern, newly-built seed bank, housing the rare seeds they collect and preserve. Previous homes for the seed bank have been shipping containers and old sheds. At the edge of a field of plum trees is another remarkable building - a traditional cob house, built of straw and mud. Its deep, rounded, hand-made walls hold heat like storage heaters and its wide eaves and roof protect the walls from the rain.

I knew that there are about fifty varieties of potatoes grown here. What I did not know was that along with five packets of rare vegetable seed, subscribing members of the ISSA are annually given three varieties from this collection to grow on. Contact: irishseedsavers.ie for details of the open day in September.

 

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