Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI) is a multi-stranded initiative, which aims to grow out heirloom seed and distribute it in the Kingston region. They coordinate various activities including the annual Seedy Saturday, two seed gardens, and a seed guardianship scheme. The initiative is lead by a steering group of women who are all well-connected in the local community. At least three of the steering group work as farmers, and as a result, they have thought seriously about how to grow good quality seed and involve other farmers from the outset.
A beautiful array of colours and patterns in the community bean box at the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary
KASSI aims to grow out heirloom seed and make it available to organic farmers and backyard gardeners throughout the Kingston region. They have established a network of seed guardians who already have the skills to save open-pollinated seeds or are willing to learn. The members of the network have been growing out specially selected varieties, which are then made available more widely via the main public event of the year, Seedy Saturday. Seedy Saturday is a one-day community festival that KASSI members have been running since 2008. It features seed saving demonstrations and workshops, seed vendors and an ever-popular seed swap, that has drawn up to 350 people in recent years. It is the main way in which the group interacts with backyard gardeners and distributes seed to them.
Kingston is home to an impressive seed collection managed by KASSI steering group member Cate Henderson, called the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary. This collection is a ministry of The Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, a residential community of religious woman, where Cate is employed with the main aim of conserving the collection. KASSI provides back-up for this collection and grows out many of the varieties for distribution. The collection was gifted to the Sisters by an elderly couple, Mr & Mrs. Mouck, who had saved seeds since the mid 1970s but who were losing the physical ability to be able to continue their good work. In 1999, they donated around 300 varieties to the Sisters, including heirlooms and many that had been grown and saved in the Ontario region for 40 years. Many of the varieties date back to the 1800s and several, including the Monk Pea and the Painted Lady Runner bean, are believed to originate from the 1500s.
Thomas Laxton pea: an heirloom variety dating from the 1880s
Cate maintains several seed gardens on the Providence property with the help of volunteers, and also runs seed saving workshops. The work of the Seed Sanctuary and KASSI are directly connected but the two organisations maintain a different focus: the sanctuary’s main goal is to conserve, whereas KASSI are interested in bulking up quantities and distributing seeds.
Heirloom: a seed variety that has been, or is worthy of being, passed down through generations
Heirloom Seed Sanctuary definition
In order to bulk up quantities of seeds, KASSI are employing different strategies. They are working with a network of seed guardians, including backyard gardeners and organic farmers, who grow out varieties on their own land. In addition, they have established a seed garden with the main aim of growing large quantities of seed. The one-acre plot is based at Lakeside Community Gardens, where volunteers meet a couple of times a week to weed, water and harvest. KASSI secured funding for a gardener to coordinate the seed growing as well as volunteer activities. The group advocate the seed garden as a place of learning: volunteers who help in the seed garden become more skilled than people who drop in at workshops.
Long white bunching onions at one of the seed gardens of the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary
KASSI have ambitious aims. They are building a local seed system from scratch and trying to raise awareness to a level where local seed supply gains popular support. By focusing on creating a network of skilled seed growers, they ensure that the seed distributed to the public is high quality and that the varieties are suitable for their region. In the future, the group hope to support the creation of a local seed company or co-operative to supply backyard gardeners and organic growers. This desire to grow for farmers, as well as home gardeners, sets them aside from many other seed projects in North America, which are focussed purely on home-scale gardening. Their successes so far are made possible by the different strands of KASSI’s work, which connect in ways that help increase awareness at the same time as increasing the availability of local seed.
The idea of being able to collect all of your own seeds, to grow your food year after year, is the epitome of sustainable farming
Patrick Joslin, Volunteer, Heirloom Seed Sanctuary
Thanks to Mike Hammond at the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary for the photos.