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Irish Seed Savers: Seed Swap Sunday

Sunday was the annual Seed Swap Meet at the Irish Seed Savers farm in East Clare. I met quite a few characters and picked up a dozen paper envelopes containing interesting seeds for this year’s garden. I also contributed quite a few seeds from my dried chile pepper collection. If New Mexican Chimayo chiles start sprouting all over Ireland, I will take pride in my role as Johnny Chileseed.


Seed Coordinator Jo Newton kept things running smoothly, she is one of two women in charge of the Irish Seed Savers organization.


The seed swap system is pretty simple. Everyone brings seeds to share and lays them out on the counters in the seed house. There’s are area for chiles and tomatoes, one for beans and legumes, others for brassicas, squash, flowers, etc. etc.


You go around the room and take what you need. I got some greens that I will plant right away and some colorful French beans that I’ll plant several months from now. I put the dried chiles out and let people break them open and take the seeds.


New Mexican chiles might sound like an odd addition to the Irish Seed Savers collection. But in fact, I first learned about the organization when someone gave me a packet of Syrian white courgette seeds–the text on the evelope said that the species was introduced to the country by a refugee. At the farm, new seeds are sprouted and plants are grown to verify the identity of the species. The seeds of the second generation plants are then added to the seed bank. The organization welcomes seeds from all over the world that might expand Irish biodiversity. The chiles I contributed will probably only thrive in greenhouses, but that’s not unusual. Heirloom tomatoes, aubergine (eggplant) and lots of other vegetables can only be grown in polytunnels or greenhouses in Ireland.


There is a reception area and shop near the entrance of the farm where you can make a donation or buy plants and seeds. There’s also a cafe around back where you can eat lunch. Pizza baked in the earth oven is the main culinary attraction. The earth oven (also known as the cob oven) is an ancient design made of dried mud, sand and straw in a dome shape. A wood fire inside provides the heat. The oven and food prep area is protected from the rain by a sod roof–the oven’s chimney sticks out through the grass. It looks like the habitation of some magical race of wee people.


Irish Seed Savers was founded in 1996 by an Irish musician named Tommy Hayes along with his American wife Anita. The organization started in Carlow, but eventually relocated to this 20 acre farm in Capparoe just outside Scarriff. The farm has stocks of 600 kinds of organic, open pollinated heritage seeds. It is also the site of a native Irish apple tree orchard with some 160 varieties.


Thank the gardeners of the world for the revival of heirloom fruits, flowers and vegetables. Once in danger of disappearing, the purple tomatoes, striated radishes, and multi-hued morning glories of yesteryear have now become trendy and fashionable. Seed banks, seed saving organizations and heirloom seed catalogs supply gardeners with these heritage cultivars. 


But the real goal of seed saving organizations around the world is protecting the biodiversity of the planet.


Robb Walsh