Episode 12: Esiah Levy’s SeedsShare Project

Born in 1986 to Jamaican parents in South East London, Esiah Levy is a London-based creative Food Grower, Gardener Designer and the founder of SeedsShare, a project sending edible plant seeds all over the world.

SeedsShare is a project set up by Esiah in December 2016 to provide organic seeds which can be sown to produce free food and provide long-term food security for Individuals or community gardening groups, particularly in areas where organic fresh produce is at a minimum. Countries which have SeedsShare seeds growing include Japan, Canada, Peru, Indonesia, France, America, the Netherlands, Russia and more!

What makes the SeedsShare unique is all seeds are grown and harvested locally in Esiah’s own garden and various plots around London. All seeds are 100% free with only postage to pay to get your hands on them!

Key talking points were:

  • What is an heirloom vs. a hybrid variety? Which is better and why?
  • What are the easiest types of seed to collect and save?
  • As a seed distributor, is the SeedsShare subject to any regulations or legislation?
  • Can you explain the implications of legislation surrounding seeds?

Esiah has great social media accounts that are well worth a follow! You can find  and connect with him here:

Twitter / instagram / facebook – @croydongardener

Website – www.SeedsShare.co.uk

Linkedin – Esiah Levy

 

Episode Transcription

 

[INTRO]

{SFX: Intro music plays}

[00:01] INTRO: This is the Roots and All podcast, here to help you get growing. Join us as we explore everything plant-related both indoors and out, and provide the information you need to create your perfect green environment. Presented by Sarah Wilson.

[00:21] {SFX: Intro music starts to fade out}

[00:21] SARAH: Hi, and welcome to this episode of the Roots and All podcast. This week, I spoke to Esiah Levy, who is the founder of the SeedsShare Project. The project was set up by Esiah to send out organic seed for just the cost of the postage, to anywhere in the world. All his seeds are harvested from vegetables that are grown organically in his own garden and are heirloom varieties. His aim is to encourage long-term food security in areas where organic food production is at a minimum, so this is a really important project. I started by asking Esiah to explain what the project is all about, in his own words.

[00:56] ESIAH: So the SeedsShare Project was started in 2016. Really, I started the SeedsShare Project because I found a lot of seeds for the fruit and veg that I wanted to grow had the same colours, the same shapes and same flavours. But I wanted to find different colours of fruit and veg and also be able to use the seeds year after year and I found that by going online, and actually you know, hunting for seeds from companies that are independent businesses and individuals who grow the heirloom seeds that I could take those seeds from say America, grow them in the UK and start growing my own unusual fruit and veg. And I found that by doing that I went from a yellow sweetcorn to a multi-coloured sweetcorn to a red sweetcorn, from a butternut squash I went to a bubbly squash I went to squash that was green, blue, grey, a squash that was you know probably getting (inaudible) 8 pounds to a squash that was over 15 pounds. You know, I started really getting into growing unusual fruit and veg but then I thought to myself you know how many other people in the UK are having the same issue as me where they wanna grow their own food but they don’t feel inspired because the seed they are being allowed to purchase from companies online and garden centres in the UK is boring food so I thought let me just share these foods with individuals that I’ve grown in my own garden and all
they have to do is pay postage to encourage one person to share with another and also to encourage young people to start growing their own fruit and veg, so that’s how it started, yeah.

[02:39] SARAH: So obviously you are a cook, I presume?

[02:42] ESIAH: No, literally just a food grower but I have, from an early age, I’ve been exposed to utilising fruit and veg in the kitchen and also in Caribbean cuisine, so yeah, it’s part of my blood so a lot of what I grow is just going on what I’ve grown up to eat so you know, sweetcorn, and callaloo, in Caribbean cuisine, which is a type of spinach, squash as well is used in a lot of soups.

[03:09] SARAH: You’ve got some brilliant pictures on your website, actually, I think of all the different colours of things that you grow and some of them are just incredible. What I was going to ask, I suppose, is sometimes I think people forget the taste of food because they’re so keen to get seeds that are bred for size and almost uniformity and disease resistance that sometimes taste can go a little bit out of the window. Do you find that the heirloom seeds quite often are better tasting?

[03:36] ESIAH: Of course, of course. A hundred per cent. And also what you do find as well is that you never quite know if it’s gonna be the same flavour year after year, which makes it, you know, exciting as well. So growing food then becomes an expression of art, if that makes sense?

[03:55] SARAH: Yeah.

[03:56] ESIAH: ‘Cause, you know, by growing a particular sweetcorn you’re not guaranteed that it’s gonna have the same shade of red, or it may have blue in with the red as well so it’s this literally like painting, you know, a picture and then you also find with that as well that the flavour will change, so, you know, one year you may have a dry squash, another year you’ll have a sqush that’s, you know, fairly loose in texture but then you use it according to what you’re given by mother nature so each year is different. So heirloom, I advocate to every gardener that I speak to any individual that is interested in growing food, you know, I say to them it’s best to grow open-pollination and heirloom varieties, which have lasted for generations and you know, you never know, you may create your own particular sweetcorn, tomato or squash, or onion, you know, you may create your own just through allowing the plants to be open-pollinated by bees, or you can even do hand-pollination as well.

[04:58] SARAH: OK. How do you do that?

[04:59] ESIAH: So, for example, with squash, I grow a number of varieties in my garden, for example, or also a lot of the allotment plots that I’ve got in London so what I do is preferably in the morning, go down to my garden, check for the female flowers that have opened then I use the same male flower from the same vine to pollinate the female flower and then you can use an elastic band to close the female flower so the bees don’t pollinate that particular flower and then that way you know that that particular squash variety that you’re growing, that, you know, if you want to save the seed it’s going to be the same variety and then if you do want to cross pollinate and you do want to try and create a new variety then you can allow the others to be pollinated through bees, through open pollination.

[05:45] SARAH: Oh, that’s really interesting ‘cause quite often people are taught to not allow things like squash to cross-pollinate because they’re quite promiscuous and they will not come out true to type but actually what you’re saying is you can control it but also it’s really quite interesting to have things that don’t come true to type and you just need to adapt your cooking skills to cope like you say with with what mother nature throws at you, so that just really flies in the face of what people are told they can and can’t do with veg growing. So that is fascinating. When you say you pollinate the male and female flowers, do you literally mean you kind of squish them together and that’s the pollination done?

[06:26] ESIAH: Yeah, in effect that’s what you’re doing. But you can also use human hair. You can also use a paintbrush. I myself have locks so I use my lock, the tip of my lock, and I can use it to take pollen from a male flower and put it on a female flower so, you know, it’s quite creative in the way that you can do hand pollination. You can do hand pollination of squash, you can do it with apples, you can do it with pears, you know, you can do it with a variety of fruit and veg. Like I said, what it guarantees, you know, 90 per cent of the time, is that if you either want to save seed for yourself or if you want to just grow that particular variety of squash or onion or apple or pear you just guarantee that when you’re pollinating it, it’s gonna be true to type without using chemicals, without buying seed from a company where they call it F1 sterile, hybrid. You know, it’s just casting that all aside and using natural tools and working with nature, rather than against.

[07:31] SARAH: Can you just tell us briefly what are hybrid varieties, how they’re different from the seeds that you’re collecting?

[07:37] ESIAH: Yeah, so hybrid variety seed, basically is F1. What it basically does, is that that particular seed for that one season will give you a true to type squash, for example, so a Crown Prince, you’re guaranteed for that one season that seed will provide you with a Crown Prince, however, after that one season, once you’ve harvested the odd hundred seeds that you get in, you know, an average squash, the next year, you’re not guaranteed to have the same Crown Prince, which basically means you have to go back and buy the original seed. So it kinda of keeps you a prisoner, if that makes sense?

[08:14] SARAH: Yep.

[08:15] ESIAH: You know, so one year you got these beautiful, uniform Crown Princes. And the second year, you try to, you know, be sustainable save your own seed and grow the Crown Princes and you find that they look completely different and the taste is just not like the Crown Prince at all. But it’s not a hybrid or anything like, it’s just literally where the plant is confused and it’s trying to follow one particular parent and it can’t. So, then you have to back to the shop and buy the same Crown Prince seeds. So that is the problem with F1 and hybrid seeds that you know, a lot of the general public are buying them from garden centres and also online.

[08:53] SARAH: So you’re tied in if you wanna keep getting the same thing, year after year?

[08:56] ESIAH: Basically, yeah, basically.

[08:58] SARAH: So, obviously I’m assuming squash and tomatoes, apples and pears and that kind of thing that you mentioned are fairly easy to save the seed from, but are there any that are really difficult to do that with and are there any that you might not bother, because it’s actually really difficult to grow them from seed?

[09:14] ESIAH: I’ll be honest, I never think to myself this particular seed is difficult, therefore I’m not growing it, but a good example would be the Chilean Guava, where the process to save the seed, the process to get the seed to germionate and look after the seedlings, if not one the most difficult to do, in my opinion. But, it doesn’t mean it’s not part of the SeedsShare Project. And it is part of ther SeedsShare Project and it does give people a good challenge and I’m happy to say a lot of people have managed to grow Chilean Guavas, maybe not in the first year but in the second year, as they get more confident with their food growing.

[09:53] SARAH: Yeah.

[09:54] ESIAH: A lot of people have managed to grow Chilean Guavas, so Chilean Guava would be a good example of if you see that little fruit, and it is tiny, less than half the size of the tip of your little finger.

[10:06] SARAH: Wow.

[10:07] ESIAH: To get those seeds out and to ferment and to get the flesh off the seeds which I do with tomato seeds as well, so literally just getting the seeds and putting them in a cup of water and allowing the flesh to come away from the seeds and then draining the seeds and then drying the seeds through a natural process just leaving it on your windowsill on a plate. Because the seeds are so tiny, it’ s a case of, you know, separating the seeds and going through the process by hand does take some time.

[10:34] SARAH: Yeah, I can imagine. Have you got, like a social media site where people kinda go on and share their pictures of their successes?

[10:39] ESIAH: Yeah, of course, so I’ve got the SeedsShare website and what people can do on the SeedsShare website is send me updates of their pictures, which we have on the website, where people can see individuals, what they’re growing. Also have social media, Croydon Gardener, and on Instagram and on Twitter, as well, so if you just use hashtag SeedsShare, with two s’s, then you can just provide an update of how your squash is growing, your corn, your onions, your kale, your, you know there’s so many varieties and that’s already happening now,

so if you go on Twitter or Instagram and just put in SeedsShare or Croydon Gardener, you’ll see just you know, the amazing colours that people have managed to do all over the world.

[11:22] SARAH: That’s fantastic. I bet it gets quite competitive.

[11:25] ESIAH: It does, this year especially Giant Hubbard has been the most popular for SeedsShare members to grow because this particular Giant Hubbard is a open-pollinated heirloom variety so a lot of individuals have got this Giant Hubbard so you’ve got some people that didn’t expect it to get as big as it’s got, they’re quite surprised and they’re trying to accommodate for its big size and then you’ve got individuals that are hoping it was going to get so big and they’re over the moon that they’ve managed to grow a squash that’s got as large as that.

[11:57] SARAH: Yeah.

[11:58] ESIAH: Then that particular seeds for that Giant Hubbard was from a Giant Hubbard I harvested last year.

[12:03] SARAH: Yeah.

[12:04] ESIAH: So it’s pretty fresh, yeah.

[12:06] SARAH: Wow, that’s incredible. I just love the thought of your seeds flying aropund the globe and just growing in all sorts of different locations, it must be brilliant to see. I was gonna ask you, you get your compost, um, I was really interested in this cos you get it from your local council.

[12:19] ESIAH: I do, yeah.

[12:20] SARAH: And they allow residents up to three free bags, per day, is that right?

[12:25] ESIAH: Yeah, so basically part of my philosophy is to use hundred per cent recycled materials to grow my fruit and veg so what I do, Croydon Council allows three bags of compost, but they don’t stipulate what type of bags you can bring to the recycling centre so I bring large IKEA bags and you can fill them up to the top. And yeah, it’s completely free.

[12:54] SARAH: That’s brilliant.

[12:56] ESIAH: So, you know, I do encourage those that are listening that are living in urban areas, cities, like London, to go round to your recycling centres and you know, check if they do provide free compost. And if they don’t, speak to your Councillor, get them on the case because to be honest with you, my opinion is we shouldn’t be buying compost from garden centres, it should be free, because a lot of what is collected is green waste from households. Especially now where a lot of people pay for the service it’s actually turned into compost so I would rather that compost is put back into communities for free instead of being packaged up labelled up and sold in garden centres, I just think that’s a bit of a travesty, it should be free.

[13:41] SARAH: It is, I mean where’s the sense in taking it somewhere else and then selling it? It’s gotta go back to where it comes from doesn’t it?

[13:47] ESIAH: Yeah, I mean if I can say as well, you know, to exclude all of the vanity packaging that you have on compost in a lot of garden centres, they’re saying you know this compost is better than this compost, better than this compost. When it comes down to it, you know, compost is humus and humus is a breakdown of organic matter and if used correctly the compost that you get free of charge from the local council, what should be free of charge, if used correctly is just as good as what’s cost 5, to 10 up to 15 pounds from your local garden centre. That’s my philosophy. I mean I’ve always collected recycled materials. You know, I collect coffee grounds. I also collect spent hops you know with the wave of independent breweries it’s worth people that are listening to this podcast to go and ask local breweries for their spent hops. I actually use spent hops as a mulch, a natural mulch, because I don’t purchase membranes. I use cardboard and spent hops and I actually haven’t weeded my old garden where I lived previously for the full six years I was there, I didn’t weed it once.

[14:52] SARAH: Wow. That’s amazing. Like you say, there’s so many of the little breweries popping up it’s a bit of a no-brainer. It’s a brilliant idea.

[15:00] ESIAH: Yeah, spent hops, coffee grounds, cardboard, compost, it is in our urban areas and it is waste and it should be offered to the general public free. And we then in turn have to use it.

[15:13] SARAH: Yep, I completely agree. I’ve got a shop and I have sold seeds in the past and I’ve been quite interested in re-packaging my seeds and selling them. It’s not really viable for me as a small business because of the legislation governing the collection and sale of seeds, so do you know a little bit about the legislation surrounding seeds and does it apply to you, or is it different for you because you’re not charging for the seed?

[15:41] ESIAH: When it comes to laws on selling seeds, the way the law acts, in my opinion, it restricts a lot of creativity and also what it does it reduces the amount of variety on offer to the general public. I mean, there’s EU laws where it actually prevents an individual like yourself who has an independent business, of growing their own heirloom seeds and selling them because you have to make sure that the variety is part of a specific list, a bespoke list, according to the law. And if it’s not part of the list then you can’t sell your seed. Now me, personally, because I don’t charge for my seeds and the only charge is postage and packaging, which works out, you know, under three pounds, so that’s both the UK and globally, I don’t fit into that red tape. So with my particular seeds, you know, I grow them in the garden, I package them up and providing on where I send them I may have to do specific guidelines and meet the guidelines for sterilisation. But other than that, no, it doesn’t really affect me. But to be honest if I was to sell seeds, I’d feel like, in my opinion, that I’d be cheating myself because I just want people to get out there and grow food so you know, I’ve come from a background where a lot of people I’ve known who’ve wanted to grow food they were put off by, you know, this idea that it’s too expensive. Growing food in an urban city like London doesn’t apply, you know, because the gardening programmes you see, a lot of the gardeners and a lot of the gardens that are being used as platforms to grow food is out of a lot of people’s reach, you know, because a lot of people don’t really have a garden. Or even just have a balcony, so for me, I just wanted just to take away any obstacles. And a young person, you know, that’s under the age of 20, who’s interested in growing food but they think they’re being put off by money, you know, take away the obstacle; cost of seeds, cost of compost, costs of a mulch and even introduce them to the no-dig system as well.

[17:47] SARAH: Yeah.

[17:48] ESIAH: So really and truly all they’re doing is just sowing and harvesting. Do you know what I mean? So yeah, that’s how I feel about it.

[17:55] SARAH: So if somebody is interested so they’ve just got a balcony or a few containers or they’ve just come across a little bit of land or an allotment, how would they go about contacting you and how does the kind of process work if they’re interested in obtaining some seeds?

[18:14] ESIAH: So, two ways to do it; social media, so, you know, if you contacted me on Twitter on Croydon Gardener or Instagram I’m Croydon Gardener, I will let you know the PayPal system and then you just pay postage and just provide a postal address and then the seeds, off they go. You can also go onto the website and there’s a live chat where you can just leave your details and your postal address. On the website actually gives you the information of how to pay the postage through PayPal, but that’s not all once you get your seed there’s also an online consultancy service, which is basically based on just pay what you can afford. So if you have individuals helping community groups and individuals helping, you know, disadvantaged children and they’ve got the seeds but they don’t know what they’re doing, they can still contact me via social media platforms and also my website as well and I’ll just give them step-by-step and help them (inaudible).

[19:08] SARAH: Brilliant. And if they’ve grown something and they want to share their seeds themselves, can they do that as well?

[19:13] ESIAH: Of course they can. What they can do, they can either share the seeds with SeedsShare and then I can send the seeds out and use them as a reference and also give them updated feedback on where their seeds are being grown. Or what they can do is, you know, they can either do an individual campaign where they can offer the seeds, you know, if they wanna use SeedsShare they can if they don’t, you know, I’m not going to be suing anybody, do you know what I mean? They can go ahead and just do that. But there are examples, especially on Instagram, where I’ve told people, you know, your seeds grew in Poland and now they’re being grown in Peru.

[19:53] SARAH: Wow.

[19:54] ESIAH: Yeah, they’re being grown in a forest in Peru, you know, so your kale seeds from Poland are massive plants in Peru and they’re helping the community too.

[20:04] SARAH: Wow. That is amazing! How far have you sent seeds do you reckon, what’s the furthest place?

[20:10] ESIAH: I would say the furthest place…it’s been everywhere…Japan, Brazil, Canada, America. I would say, right now, it’s Peru in the Amazon. Peru in the Amazon, yeah.

[20:26] SARAH: I can’t even imagine my humble little seeds growing in Peru, it’s just amazing.

[20:30] ESIAH: And also, if I can say, what you find and this is , you know, this blows my mind, but what you’ll find is that a lot of what we grow in the UK regularly, year after year after year, for example kale, onions, potatoes, when they are grown in Africa and Peru and Brazil, they look completely different in size and also colour, you know, because what you’ll find especially in Africa, the soil being so red, a lot of the potatoes that are grown in the UK which were white skinned, in Africa are red-skinned. And that’s why I encourage seed-sharing, because what seed sharing basically does, it enables a community to start growing food that they otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to, you know, that is so bountiful in a country like the UK. And then they take that and they grow it in their community, they grow it in their village and what they find is not only is it prolific but year after year after year, it’s changing, it’s adapting to the climate and there’s new varieties being grown that they’ve grown themselves and they can keep it, store and pass it on from generation to generation.

[21:46] SARAH: Wow. I’m blown away actually, you’re doing such good work and things that I hadn’t even thought about like the soil changing the colour, you just wouldn’t assume that those kind of crops could grow so readily in other places where the climate is so utterly different but I think that what you’re doing is brilliantinasmuch as you are just turning what is conventional horticultural knowledge just completely on its head and more people need to be doing that and just experimenting and ignoring the text books and ignoring all the so called rules and just cracking on and growing it because that’s really the bottom line isn’t it? We’ve just got to try it and grow it and do it ourselves.

[20:28] ESIAH: Absolutely, absolutely. And you’ve got to remember I was happy when I was told this and I was told this by a tutor of mine at Capel Manor and the tutor did make this good point, he said to me, you know, corn didn’t come from the UK. Where corn originally came from it wasn’t just yellow. So everything that we’re growing in the UK and everything that we’re buying seeds for, everything that we’re thinking is strictly uniform, you know, strict rules and we have to abide by that particular colour, shape, flavour, even name, originally it wasn’t grown that way. It was grown with nature not against nature and colour, creativity, that was at the forefront. It was only when it was taken from those countries and brought back to the UK and other countries like the UK and it was, you know, marketed and then it was turned into a cash cow and that’s when it loses it’s soul because at the end of the day, growing food’s like cooking food, like eating food, it’s about your soul.

[23:29] SARAH: Yeah.

[23:30] ESIAH: And that’s what it’s about.

[23:31] SARAH: Yeah, well, like, variety is the spice of life to quote the old cliché and if everything’s the same there’s no fun in that is there?

[23:43] ESIAH: Exactly.

[23:44] SARAH: Well, thank you for talking to me, I think you’re doing amazing work and as I say, I’m absolutely blown away by it really. I would urge everyone to go and check out what you’re doing cos if nothing else, the pictures of your veg are like you say, they’re like works of art, they really, really are lovely.

[23:58] ESIAH: Thank you.

[23:59] SARAH: I love the attitude of adapting your cooking to suit the vegetable you’ve got, rather than expecting the same predictable results every time you cook. I’d like to say a huge thank you to Esiah for being interviewed and also congratulations, as this episode is released in the month that sees the two year anniversary of the SeedsShare Project and long may it continue. Go to the Roots and All website and check out the show notes for full details of how to find Esiah online and to find out how you can participate and support the project. So thanks for listening and I’ll catch you next Tuesday.
[24:09] OUTRO: For more information, visit the Roots and All website at rootsandall.co.uk. To download more episodes visit iTunes, your favourite podcast provider, or get them direct from our website.

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