Strangford seed bank building a wide and varied inheritance

Debbie Gilles of True Harvest Seeds in Strangford, Co Down

AT the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, 10,500 athletics were each given a single seed to drop into 60-plus mirrored cabinets which were pushed into the middle of the arena reflecting all the colours of the rainbow as they moved.

Everyone was smiling, and now, after the fireworks and the fun of both games, the seeds and the saplings carried in by children have been planted in Rio to commemorate the Green Games.

It underlines the importance of the tiny seed. I sprinkle them in the garden and I’m delighted when some little flower appears, I love it when seeds drops from an established plant and takes root.

Until a few days ago I had a beautiful sunflower gracing the garden, a single seed probably from the birdseed we put out. But it’s all a bit random and taken for granted. What would happen if there was a drought to end all droughts and they seedlings die? We could lose vital species. Indeed with climate, farming and industrial practices changing and the continuing use of imported seeds and plants, we have lost out already.

Young trees planted in towns and villages are most often from other countries and as they are not native, they flower at a time when our bees are not around to pollinate – bad for the bees and their dwindling population.

But here’s the good news – seed banks throughout the world are storing rare and native species for generations to come. Nothing new – even the Vikings carried a seed chest when they came marauding down the Irish Sea, so it’s quite fitting that the only wild flower bank in Ireland is in Strangford where Debbie Gilles of True Harvest Seeds is building a wide and varied inheritance.

As an amateur breeder and the registered seed merchant in Northern Ireland, she is special. Her business is to preserve native plants species on the island of Ireland by saving their seeds.

It’s not just wild flowers – vegetables, fruit, trees and bushes are included too. And with support from a variety of organisations, not least Kew Gardens, Millennium Seed Bank, who help store True Harvest Seeds, Debbie and her colleagues are rapidly establishing a long term home base.

I was delighted when she invited me to accompany her to Oxford Island on a seed collecting day. I thought this was the optimum time of year, harvest and all that, so she surprised me by telling me she starts early in the season collecting ivy seeds in February.


But there’s a word of caution. Everyone working for the charity True Harvest must get landowners' permission before collecting.

“Even the shoreline is owned by someone so it’s not just a matter of going off and gathering seeds; every one has to be carefully sourced and recorded before they find a permanent home; they are all tested for stability, uniformity and suitability," Debbie told me.

"Our growing out is going to be done by True Harvest Seeds at our field site production unit in Kilclief, Co Down, starting in 2017, where long-term volunteers will be recruited to help before they are stored or released to the public or organisations.”

The charity works closely with government departments, environmental groups and councils. It’s a complex business. Area surveys are undertaken, collecting has to be at the right time then the material brought back to Strangford to be dried and prepared for long-term storage at –20C.

"But it’s vital that we hold in trust the thousands of native plants that are so exclusive to our island," Debbie said. "There are 1400 species of wild plants in Ireland and over 32 counties that’s a lot of collecting.”

There are more than 70 trained volunteers to help in this task and a seed saving kit is available for school projects – all vitally important as seeds, when properly collected and prepared for storage, can last for more than 200 years.

If you’d like to know more or would like to help out go to


Watch out for the National Dear Children’s Society Roadshow which comes to Northern Ireland next month: Glenavon House Hote, Cooktown 10am-5pm, October 1; Cregagh Primary School, Belfast 10am-3pm, October 4; and Mencap Consortium, Dungannon, 10am-2pm, October 5.


Dear Anne,

I saw your recent article on the work of Dr John Sarno and back pain. I was delighted when I saw this topic covered in Irish media; it is a topic close to my heart as I suffered with pain for years. I know a lot about TMS (Tension Myositis Syndrome) and have put theory into practice.

(Note from me: TMS in layman’s language is applying mind over matter.)

What would make an interesting article would be a review of the book The Great Pain Deception by Steven Ray Ozanich. This book cured me from years of pain, I was unable to walk and was very depressed. In my case it was knee pain, TMS is far more than back pain.

I am close friends with the author as I made contact with him a few years back in desperation as I searched for a cure. We consulted back and forth and his help and support was invaluable to me.


This book is available on Amazon.

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