Seed Guardians

Days like today act as great reminders about what all the hard work is for. When we first started out on this journey, the crux of the initiative was to get more children outside enjoying nature and all the great things it brings. We wanted the children to develop a love of their environment and through that love find a deep desire to care for it that little bit more. Today’s seed saving workshop was a defining moment in the story of the school allotment.


In the real world success can be a difficult thing to measure, however, on the allotment we work on the principle that if there are smiles and small people enjoying themselves then there’s hope that we might be doing something right. One of the key reasons why today’s workshop was so successful was because all the children really enjoyed themselves, not just the ones who have a natural interest in the environment. One of the biggest bones of contention From The Ground often feels is how to make environmental education more inclusive. How can it reach those children who don’t think it applies to them; who perhaps aren’t encouraged to take an active interest in looking after their planet; who think it’s not their responsibility? Today the school took huge steps in reaching those children and overcoming that barrier. One could feel the seeds of change being sown. When enthusiasm is so tangible that you can almost touch it, you know it’s been a good day in the office.

Great fulfilment comes from the knowledge that one is making a positive impact on the education of these children in ways that really matter. Nature can nurture our little ones in a way that formal education can only dream of. It can foster friendships, bring children together and ultimately change perspectives. Making our little people feel secure and special is a big part of what education should encompass, and yet frequently it doesn’t. With mental health problems on the rise, it’s clear that something is going wrong somewhere. From The Ground’s biggest driving factor has always been to empower children with the knowledge they need to make their own choices about how they view themselves and the world around them. When children are inspired by what they’re learning about, they develop great enthusiasm for the subject. It warmed one’s heart to see affection for the natural world stir in some of the most unlikely of characters. One could see the cogs of change starting to turn. There was a genuine interest in all twenty seven of them. It was hugely satisfying to witness.

Outdoor learning has a real place in the school curriculum and this couldn’t have been more apparent than today. Within one hour many different subjects were covered: maths, (counting of seeds), languages, (latin plant names), science, (seed conservation and identification), fine motor skills (child development), English, (writing, impromptu story telling - KS1 picked a pumpkin and they intend to make up their own Oakridge interpretation of Cinderella - can’t wait to hear that version!) There was substantiated evidence unfolding in front of everyone’s eyes that education is key to turning the heads of the next generation, (as if we didn’t know it.) We just need more school’s to cotton on. We need politicians to pull their fingers out. Education can be a real game changer. If lessons such as this were given on a weekly basis, then seeds of real change would be sown in the minds of children up and down the country.

Today’s seed saving workshop was given by Sally Oates, from social enterprise group Stroud Community Seed Bank. They are part of a global movement reclaiming seed sovereignty, growing seeds in gardens, allotments and community plots, to share with local people. From The Ground met Sally on the allotment a few weeks ago to discuss the format of the workshop and share ideas. What an inspirational lady she is.

Oakridge School is proud to call itself Gloucestershire’s first Seed Guardian school. It’s a wonderful accolade to hold, but what does it mean? Seed Guardians provide invaluable support to the work of Garden Organic’s seed library. Of the 40,000 packets of seeds distributed to members each year, around 50% are produced by Seed Guardians. There are currently only around 180 active Seed Guardians working hard to produce seed for the Heritage Seed Library. Demand for Heritage Seed Library varieties is high and it is often a challenge to ensure they have enough seed to supply. As Seed Guardians, the children carry out an essential role in maintaining sufficient amount of stock as well as safeguarding rare varieties. A true lesson in seed conservation.

Back in the Spring the children were given a Heritage Seed Library Orphan’s List. It contains varieties that have reached low levels and are in need of the care of Guardians to increase their numbers. It’s recommended that in the first year of being a Seed Guardian, that only one or two varieties are selected. Beans and peas are the most common as there is less chance of cross pollination.

The children selected a pea variety known as Big Ben. This variety is thought to be synonymous with pea Harrison Glory. It is thought to have been developed by Harrison's, a Leicester seed merchant, some time before 1855, when it was first offered by Suttons. By the 1860s it was available as far afield as New Zealand and the USA. It was also listed in EW King & Co Catalogue of 1898.

The second variety of seed they chose was a dwarf French bean known as Odawa Indian, (the Odawa bean traces its origins to the gardens and cooking fires of the Odawa people of Michigan's northwest Lower Peninsula. From the Anishinaabe "adaawe" (to trade), Odawa means "traders" and these beans found their way into the neighbouring Ojibwe, Hidatsa and European communities.) Seeds carry stories, and these stories ought not be forgotten.

From The Ground came across a recent article about an endangered species of pea grown by Charles Darwin in the mid 1880s that has since been saved from extinction by a network of green fingered ‘Seed Guardians’. The pea, known as ‘Champion of England’ has now been registered on the National List by a seed supplier, meaning it can now be sold commercially and enjoyed all over the world after its future was threatened decades ago. Despite being judged as ‘best pea’ by The Journal of Horticulture in 1876 and being grown by Darwin himself in his garden, the variety fell out of favour in the 1970s when mechanised harvesting took over. The seed companies chose not to register Champion of England for commercial sale, putting it at risk of dying out completely. But The Heritage Seed Library has continued to grow this endangered species, giving it a chance to be listed once more. The children at Oakridge have a chance of being involved in the preservation of this seed and similar important seed conservation projects. Now that’s a history lesson you wouldn't want them to miss out on.

In their role as seed guardians, the children did a lovely job of collecting their very special ‘Big Ben’ orphan seeds. Not only did they listen to what was being spoken about, but they respected the words that were said. There’s a difference. Ultimately, one feels they learned a hell of a lot.

Likewise with their Odawa Indian dwarf French beans. In the grand scheme of things, one might feel that seed heritage has no place in the current school curriculum. However, people frequently lack the vision to see beyond the obvious and it’s within those gaps that opportunities are created. A lack of vision in some provides endless open ended ways of seeing the world in delightful and uninhibited ways in others. There is much to be said about foresight and forward thinking.

Of course, it wasn’t just orphan seeds the children were saving. Over nine different seeds were identified and successfully collected: sweet peas, lettuce, sunflower, runner beans, peas, corn cockle, corn flower, phacelia and tomato. Apart from the heritage seeds, which the children will send back to the seed library, they will store the others and plant them next year, thus completing the cycle.

The session began with a brief overview and introduction, including information about heritage seeds, the children's role as seed guardians and the importance of seed conservation. Sally also explained the process of seed collection. The children were then split into six groups and shown which seeds to collect.

There is something to be said for the task at hand. There is much beauty in the brilliance of it. How often does one have the opportunity to be mindful though? Not so much these days. In a world where screen time dominates and social media sores, it’s a worry the way the world is going. To bring our children back to the bedrock of childhood, to the foundation of where imagination sparks, is so important, and it all comes alive in places like the allotment. Children re-connect with what it means to be a child. They rediscover their sense of curiosity, their sense of fun. Why? Because they’re looking up to the sky, way beyond the screen and instead to the horizon that lies beyond. There’s a whole world out there that they sadly just don’t seem to see anymore.

There is much correlation between ideas and the wonders of nature. Growth of any kind knows no boundaries. Great thoughts are formed from the tiniest of ideas, just as great trees grow from seeds, or flowers from bulbs. What starts as just a tiny seed can grow into the most prolific of ideas, given the right conditions. Only the mind knows the boundaries to which it can exist, and the wonderful thing about children is that they don’t know their own minds. They have a wonderful, uninibited beauty that knows no boundaries to which their imaginations can extend. There is so much room for growth. Hope inspires and with inspiration comes a determination to grow stronger. It’s that mindset one wants to embed in our children.

Today the children collected a wonderful and vast array of seeds. The sunflower seeds were a particular favourite, for obvious reasons. Children have such fond memories of trying to grow the tallest, straightest, longest, biggest. It’s no wonder they felt a strong connection to this rather glorious flower. One hopes when they’re older with children of their own that they too will engage with the simple pleasure of growing the tallest sunflower. Let’s hope that job hasn't fallen to robots by then.

The tomatoes also proved popular, but for very different reasons. Out of all of the seeds collected today, which were all dry, they were the only wet ones. How wonderful for the children to squish the seeds between their fingers and feel the gooey juices. It was a proper lesson of discovery that only hands on, outdoor learning can provide. They won’t look at a tomato in quite the same way again!

Often, when one opens their mind they also open their hearts and hands to a whole new way of seeing and feeling the world. One assumes that just because the school is nestled within the gorgeous Cotswold countryside that all the children intrinsically have that natural love of the great outdoors. That simply isn’t the case. Many children come to school each day without any great thought for the fields they pass or the birds that sore above their heads. There’s no love lost for the sights and sounds of nature that passes by them. If one stopped. Just for a moment. A whole new world might reveal itself.

Maybe it’s not us who are the guardians of seeds but seeds who are the guardians of us. Maybe they are here to act as a reminder to us of the responsibility that we have to sow seeds of faith, hope and love. To disperse ourselves as decent, honest human beings, as friends, parents and teachers, who self seed positive aspirations for our children. We leave much in the hands of our little ones but how can we be sure that the seeds we’ve sown are strong enough? If there was a seed library for humans, how many of us would be worth saving? In our children’s eyes, we would all be worthy. But as seasons change and years come and go, perhaps the seeds will be the last ones standing.

Seeds are beautiful things. Who knew they came in so many wonderful, vibrant colours. There really ought to be a Pantone system for them. Like gem stones plucked from a rock, they capture within children something quite intangible. We may have only had the allotment for less than a year, but time is a delight when you’re not in a hurry to use it up. That’s how the allotment feels. There’s never a hurry to be anyway or do anything. It’s not like real life. So let’s carry on telling our fairy tales. The hero isn’t a knight in shining armour or Prince Charming, it isn’t about a damsel in distress. The motto of the story is that there is no happy ending. Things don’t end well just because that’s the way the story goes. Our children need to know that they’re responsible for their own happy endings. That they’re responsible for how their world looks and if they don’t look after it then it won’t have a happy ending either. Seeds have a story all of their own, but it’s up to us to work out how we plant that seed in our children’s minds.