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 slips and cutting sent in from all over the island. They grow heritage vegetables for seed and they even facilitate the Department of Agriculture carrying out vegetable trials. 3,000 fruit trees are produced each year for sale and I can testify that they do sell out, having tried to order trees in the early spring. Almost every variety of last years crop was sold out.
My visit let me through Lamb’s Orchard, named for the great Irish horticulturist, Dr Keith Lamb as well as Kevin Dudley’s Way, another man honoured for his work on Irish apples. 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, bred to pollinate the crops are sited about the orchards. As well as apples, plums and pears the Seed Savers grow soft fruit like red, white and black currents, jostaberries and gooseberries. Cuttings are taken annually from the mother plants and the resulting offspring are sold.
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 precious rare seeds they collect. (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. This was built to house volunteers.
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. ISSA are always looking for new members and with different prices for families, students and unwaged, it is an affordable cause worth supporting – even if you only want access to those seeds and spuds… Contact them at irishseedsavers.ie for details of their open day in September.