The Southern Seed Exchange was started in 1992 by Holger Kahl, a lecturer in the Organics section of the Horticulture Department of the Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology, and two students. The aim was to preserve plant seeds threatened by extinction. Originally seed growing was in the hands of farmers and gardeners, but with the growth of large seed supply companies with their emphasis on regular shape, size, colour and transportability, many of the traditional old varieties were lost. The Seed Exchange aimed to preserve as many of the old varieties as possible and make them available to home gardeners. Seed would be local cultivars i.e. grown to the local conditions, or heritage or heirloom cultivars or seed that is no longer available commercially or seed which has been saved in a family for a number of generations.
The aim of preserving these seeds results in other benefits eg teaching people how to grow and save seed, and increased bio-diversity. As well as making seeds available to members, over the years the Exchange has run a spring seed swap, where seeds and plants can be exchanged (a further autumn seed swap was commenced in 2007), organised garden visits, arranged speakers on horticultural related topics and produced newsletters and seed saving guides. The newsletters and guides (which are still available in our online resources for members) were written by Martin Tickner over a number of years.
A milestone for the Exchange was the opening of a straw bale seed shed on 5th November 2005 at the Christchurch Polytechnic horticulture campus at Seven Oaks in Opawa, Christchurch. Construction started in October 2003. Funding came from the Christchurch Polytechnic and the Canterbury Community Trust. Some building materials were donated and labour came from volunteers and students on a Polytechnic straw bale construction course. The straw bale construction meant that there was a relatively constant cool temperature changing only gradually between winter and summer.
The shed remained in use until 2018. By then the Polytechnic who still owned the site had leased it out to Seven Oaks School. The school shifted to other premises which meant that with the site being vacant there was vandalism and some seed was lost. The decision was made to shift to Avebury House, a site owned by the Christchurch City Council. At the same time a freezer was purchased to enable long term storage of the seeds which previously had all been stored in plastic or glass jars.
In April 2003 Holger Kahl resigned as a Trustee due to work commitments. This severed the link to the Polytechnic which had been invaluable to the physical running of the Exchange. One notable name is Suzanne Blyth who was involved with the Exchange for some years, including as a Trustee. She worked part time for the Polytechnic where her work office was shared by the Exchange. She resigned in April 2003, but continued as a project manager while the seed shed was built.
The exchange is run by a small group of volunteers. Over the years this has led to various crisis as volunteers have left or resigned, and they have not been easy to replace. Currently this, plus Covid 19 has meant that the Exchange is operating at a low level, and seed swaps have not been able to be held. There is currently a re-organisation underway and with a new website the Exchange can rebuild and face the future.
Maintaining our seed bank is only possible due to the passion and dedication of our seed guardians. Our guardians recognise the dire situation of the world’s food diversity and through the exchange, make their contribution to preserving seed lines not otherwise deemed “commercially viable”.
“The art of seed saving is an incredibly rewarding and empowering skill to have. It’s also a very cheap way to garden! Having access to locally-adapted seed lines is invaluable from a pest and disease resistance standpoint, you just know they’re going to do better than seeds grown in a commercial setting, for a commercial garden. Giving some back to the exchange is easy and ensures everyone can access all the weird and wonderful things we grow”