By Roger Roberts. Roger is a long-standing member of VON and a Cambridge allotment holder.

Is there anything quite as magical and wonderful as sowing seeds in our gardens, our window boxes and our sprouting trays and watching them stretch up, unfurl their leaves and spring into life? Like kind words, compassionate thoughts and right actions, good quality seeds blossom into fruits and flowers which nourish the body, mind and soul, reminding us of the importance of renewal, growth and the cycles of life which permeate our existence.

Seed and garden suppliers are plentiful in the UK but organic suppliers, in particular ones which cater for the vegan organic grower, are still fairly rare. In this article we have focused on four seed producers and distributors: Tamar Organics, Beans and Herbs, The Organic Gardening Catalogue and Aconbury Sprouts. One or more of these companies is likely to be familiar to readers of Growing Green International, as all are aware of the requirements of the vegan-organic gardener and stock items specifically of interest to those of us who seek to avoid products which are contaminated by the slaughterhouse, the chemical industry or genetically-modified material.

Tamar Organics

Tamar Organics, based in Rezare, near Launceston in Cornwall, started as a small organic market garden in 1994 and the company’s mail order catalogue evolved alongside it, as owners Cathy Guilfoy and Neil Richards searched for organic compost, fertiliser and seed. Tamar supplies a number of small organic growers and trials everything in its catalogue. Cathy and Neil are very experienced growers and the service they provide is first-class.

The company offers about 500 varieties of vegetable, herb and flower seed, sourced from the UK and other parts of Europe, such as France, Italy and Germany. Although a few of the older, unusual varieties are, of necessity, not yet organically certified, everything on Tamar’s website www.tamarorganics.co.uk is organic and, as of next year, the paper catalogue will be entirely organic too. As Cathy points out, however, vegan-organic seed is not yet recorded or recognised, so it is not possible to cater for vegans in this way as yet.

Tamar has a very good selection of sprouting seeds, trees and herbs, and supplies comfrey and seaweed feeds, along with vegan-friendly fertilisers. The company also has an excellent range of organic green manure seeds for fertility-building and stocks Fertile Fibre’s VeGro Multipurpose Compost. Fertile Fibre produces three types of compost which are organic, peat-free and certified by The Vegan Society: VeGro Multipurpose Compost, VeGro Seed Compost and VeGro Potting Compost – see www.fertilefibre.com/growing-media/vegro for more details.

Beans and Herbs

The proprietor of Beans and Herbs, Pippa Rosen, is a VON member and follows vegan-organic principles on her smallholding, using green manures, comfrey and other techniques familiar to the stockfree organic gardener. Pippa grows about 20 per cent of the seed she sells at her smallholding in Wiltshire and the rest is sourced from other certified organic UK and European seed suppliers. Pippa is a strong advocate of open pollination and encouraging the widest gene pool possible. For this reason she does not grow or stock F1 hybrid seed amongst her 100 varieties of beans, flowers and medicinal, aromatic and culinary herbs.

As for the genetic modification issue, Pippa – like the vast majority of VON members – is deeply suspicious of the arguments used which suggest that GM technology is the way to feed the world. As she points out, we have more than enough food to feed the world’s population already and the fact that many people are still starving and undernourished is a political and distribution problem rather than a result of insufficient food production. Food security is an increasingly urgent issue and, as most readers of Growing Green International will agree, producing GM seed and patenting seed are not the ways to solve the problem, even though some companies might gain financially in the short-term from this technology.

As Pippa argues, diversity is the key to food security and Beans and Herbs has a fine selection of heritage bean seeds, which allows older varieties to ‘live on’ despite EU legislation and the desire by some to see uniformity and a narrowing gene pool in seed production. You can find the Beans and Herbs catalogue at www.beansandherbs.co.uk – please note that the company prefers customers to use its website to order, which saves paper and improves efficiency.

The Organic Gardening Catalogue

The Organic Gardening Catalogue, official catalogue of Garden Organic, is run as a joint venture with Chase Organics in Hersham, Surrey (www.organiccatalogue.com). Chase has a long history of supplying organic gardeners and growers, and members of the Chase family were founding members of the Soil Association, helping to campaign against the hazardous chemicals which were widely available at that time. In the early 1990s Chase teamed up with Europe’s largest organic gardening charity, Garden Organic (previously called the Henry Doubleday Research Association), to create The Organic Gardening Catalogue.

The catalogue contains over 600 varieties of vegetables and herbs, predominantly organically grown, with others untreated after harvest. Although the ideal situation would be to have a 100 per cent organic range, the company says that many customers have expressed a preference for a greater choice of seed varieties. So The Organic Gardening Catalogue seeks to ensure that customer needs are met whilst maintaining the qualities of a particular variety, such as its heritage, uniqueness, disease resistance, flavour and popularity. “We will always choose organic options where possible,” says Michael Hedges, Managing Director, “but we don’t want our customers to miss out on choice where organic seed is simply not available.”

The Organic Gardening Catalogue has expanded its non-animal product range of composts, plant foods and soil conditioners, including the addition last year of a vegan potting compost which has proved popular. All products suitable for vegan customers are marked ‘Animal Free’ in the catalogue and on its website. The company also offers organic comfrey, plug plants, fruit trees and its own range of seaweed tonics and fertilisers. “We’ve seen a growing demand for animal-free products over recent seasons,” says Michael, “not just from vegan and vegetarian customers. We have also seen a noticeable decline in demand for bone meal, and hoof and horn.”

Aconbury Sprouts

For those of us who like to bring living foods into the kitchen and enjoy eating delicious sprouted seed, then Aconbury Sprouts receives a strong ‘raw of approval’! Based in Herefordshire and run by Jim Hardy, the company specialises in organic sprouting seed and supplies seed to ‘grow your own’, as well as already-sprouted seed. Sprouted seeds, pulses and salad greens are perhaps the ultimate convenience food, packed with nutrients, vitamins and antioxidants, and the selection on offer at Aconbury Sprouts is very wide, as readers will see if they visit www.aconbury.co.uk. The company also supplies vegan compost for growing shoots in trays such as sunflower, peas and wheatgrass.

Conclusions

Having spoken with all of these companies, it is clear that there is a growing awareness of the needs of the vegan-organic gardener. VON members and others are having an impact on the seed and garden supply industry, and the avoidance of animal products in the garden, and in agriculture in general, is starting to be accepted as a valid, sustainable and successful way of growing, even by those in the mainstream.

It is also evident that these seed companies are performing a crucially important service by providing us with a low-cost means of producing an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Far from ‘making a packet’, these companies are providing good quality seed, grown and harvested with great care and attention, at very reasonable prices. These seeds represent remarkably good value and writing out cheques and filling in credit card details online to such dedicated growers is surely a pleasure.

Finally, there is a strong and direct connection with our ancestors and our heritage as we sow the seeds of fruits and vegetables which have been grown in our fields, gardens and allotments for centuries. Our seed packets contain a life-force and a history which connects us to something very deep and fundamental, making the sowing of seed, like all worthwhile acts in this life, an act of love, rather than a simple work task.

As the poet and philosopher, Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), writes in The Prophet:

And what is it to work with love?

It is to weave the cloth with threads drawn from your heart, even as if your beloved were to wear that cloth.

It is to build a house with affection even as if your beloved were to dwell in that house.

It is to sow seeds with tenderness and reap the harvest with joy even as if your beloved were to eat the fruit.

It is to charge all things you fashion with a breath of your own spirit,

And to know that all the blessed dead are standing about you and watching.

As vegan-organic gardeners, may we all sow seeds with tenderness and reap our harvests with joy, demonstrating a respect for the past, a belief in the now and a strong faith in a vegan, cruelty-free, plant-based future.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 30 (Winter 2012), p12.