Stories that seeds can store Lena Nygårds, Project leader pom fröuppropet – an appeal for seed

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Stories that seeds can store

Lena Nygårds, Project leader POM
Fröuppropet – an appeal for seed

2002 – 2005 I worked with Fröuppropet, POM´s appeal for seed. A lot of seeds of different vegetables that had been cultivated during a long time, sometimes in four generations in the same family, were sent in. Among the material there are very many different peas, beans, broad beans, swedes, turnips, potatoes, leeks, and some seed from annuals.

All these collected stocks are now preserved at the NordGen, which has storage located both in Sweden, in Denmark and at Svalbard where the secure storage vault is located.
A story about women’s silent work

When I started the appeal for seed I could never have imagined that a seed could store such a lot of stories of different kinds. The seeds tell us how these different vegetables have been cultivated, used and passed along by people during the 17-18th century. Many times it’s a story of women’s work in the kitchen garden – and these are stories that are very little documented. Perhaps this is because the work yielded vegetables that went directly into the kitchen and never turned into money, and because the work was done, as a woman described it “on time that didn’t exist”.

Elsa in front of the winning pea”

The story about Elsa

When Elsa was a young woman in the1940s she won the competition “Who grows the highest pea in the community?”. Elsa won with her pea ”Norrhult” that grew to 3,25 cm. high. Elsa’s mother, and before that her grandmother, been growing this pea, and Elsa, nowadays in her eighties, still grows it because this pea taste much better and gives a better harvest than modern varieties. The competition was arranged by the agricultural society as a way of teaching people to grow and eat more vegetables. One reason was to make the country self-supporting during the war. Another reason was to try to increase interest for gardening and homemaking, to get the young women to stay in the countryside and not move to the cities.

To maintain a tradition

One day a letter with some turnip seeds arrived at Fröuppropet. The grower Bengt, who lives in the north of Sweden, told his story. By cultivating this turnip he of course maintained this old variety, but more important for him was to maintain the tradition of ”stealing turnips”. He remembered when he as a child together with the other children went out in the darkness to the fields and stole this nice sweet fruit. In the north of Sweden it was rare that one cultivated fruit trees, so turnips had to take the place of sweet tasting fruit. So now Bengt grows his turnips and requests the young boys and girls in his village to go out and take some of the turnips every autumn.

Dad in front of the pea grotto”

A “grotto” of peas

This is John, the father of three children who grew up during the Second World War. John and his wife Märta built their own house and their entire garden was used for cultivating fruit, berries, vegetables and potatoes. There was hardly a spot where you could find grass in the garden.

Every spring Märta sowed peas in a half circle that become like a grotto or arbour as the peas grew very high. This grotto was the place where the family had their coffee in the afternoon during summer. The peas - sugar peas - were grown to eat fresh during the summer but also to save for pea soup during the winter. The family combined the usefulness with pleasure.

A four generation old yellow bean

Märta lives in Gotland. She is the fourth generation to grow this bean. Now she’s in her eighties and her back hurts, though she wants to have her own yellow bean together with Christmas ham on Christmas day. She says that her beans are more tasteful and mild compared with those you can buy. Her story about the yellow bean is a story about the everyday hard of four generations of women with a house, a lot of children, the animals of the farm and a kitchen garden.

In the summer of 2006 Märta got the distinction of Guldärtan, which is given to those who work for diversity. Guldärtan is a collaboration between different counties in Sweden and POM.

The County governor of Gotland delivers

the distinction of Guldärtan to Märta.

In the middle Lena Nygårds, POM.

Genetic resources in use

Fröuppropet received about 30 different collections of beans. The genetic investigation isn’t done yet, but when you grow these beans you can see that they are different in colour, way of growing and time of maturity. But do they taste different? And how to describe this?

I asked two chefs for help. We prepared the beans in the same way and then tasted them one after the other. They wrote down their descriptions of the different tastes. One of the beans, “Signe”, got the best judgement: “Beautiful, mild and a good taste with a nice balance between the salt and the acid”.
When these chefs opened their new restaurant in Stockholm, ”Signe” was on the menu. ”Signe” had been grown out and multiplied during the summer of 2008. 20 kilos of this bean are now stored and waiting for some farmer in Blekinge, the landscape where the bean comes from, to grow it. Hopefully “Signe” will then be sold in farmers’ local shops and served in local restaurants.

To document the story of growing for household use

It’s not always easy to get people to tell their story about growing for household use. The knowledge about it, and the “handicraft” itself, is just something you always do or have done. Many times one never has talked about it or named it. Many of the elders have learned it from their parents or grandparents when they were small. The knowledge has become a part of your body.

Growing for household use in the kitchen garden belongs or belonged to the daily duties and trivialities of farm life. It can be easier to talk about cultivating flowers or potted plants.

I have written about my experiences, from talks with women about growing for household use, in the book “Marthas Lilla Gröna”. The book tells the story about the garden of Martha who lived in Gotland 1901-1995. Martha and her two brothers were farmers. Martha’s responsibility was the household, the garden and raising chickens and selling their eggs. I never met Martha, so the garden itself and elder women in the village gave me the story. The book helps one to see what a lot of stories an ordinary garden can tell us, but also all the questions a garden awakes.
In my work with the book, I found that a good way to get information about the traditions and the experience of growing is to gather a group of women who know each other more or less and feel secure together, and then start a talk. Someone tells about something that reminds another one. Or one woman tells about something that awakens interest, then the other women think - perhaps my story also could be of interest.
I hope this book, “Marthas lilla gröna”, will inspire to the start of a national movement that will document growing for household use during the 18th century.
I wish you good luck in your talks!

Best regards from Lena Nygårds

To read for inspiration

”Vi odlade till husbehov”, Lena Nygårds, POM 2005

”Om ärter”, en etnobotanisk skrift, Lena Nygårds, POM 2007

”Marthas Lilla Gröna” - inspiration till eget grävande i nyttoträdgårdens historia, Lena Nygårds, RAÄ 2008

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