Have you ever wondered exactly how seed companies get all the seeds they sell you? How they keep varieties true to type? How they breed new varieties?
I have and last January I decided to go and find out with the help of a British seed firm specialising in Sweet Peas.
Phil Johnson very kindly offered to let me see the process from start to finish! Growing and selling Sweet Pea seeds and seedlings for 10 years now, he started small with his business based in Kent. Gradually building a reputation for quality and consistency his business has gone from strength to strength.
Johnsons Sweet Peas is now one of very few independent seed suppliers in the UK and maybe the only one specialising in just Sweet Peas. In a competitive market where the big boys rule how exactly has he managed to be successful?
Phil is incredibly mild mannered, quiet and affable as a person, not someone you think of in the sense of a cut and thrust business world but maybe therein lies his success, he’s very likable and knows his subject inside out. He has been a member of the Sweet pea society from a very young age and used to give talks and lectures on them to Horticultural societies for many years, sadly time constraints have now put paid to this. He is also a member of the RHS Herbaceous trials committee, this, the growing business and family life now take priority over talks! He has a passion for Sweet Peas. He has 2 part time workers which help sow the sweet peas that he sells at various fairs around the south east in the spring but for the most part he quietly beavers away, sowing, planting, harvesting, packaging and selling his varieties by himself!
Starting now his small team will be sowing pots for sale in spring and by March/April they will have around 15,000 Sweet peas ready for planting out in people’s gardens. They grow somewhere between 160 to 170 different varieties every year which means they can provide not only baby sweet peas but also an excellent range of fresh seed for those varieties that are a little bit more difficult to get hold of …. but how!
I popped along to his facilities on a gloomy February evening to see how he starts his year.
In the massive glasshouses he had more sweet peas growing than you can imagine and certainly more than I was able to picture, sweet peas don’t need vast amounts of heat to germinate and once they have germinated they are quickly potted on and moved to the cool growing on section. The temperature in here is only just above the ambient, making it quite a chilly environment to be standing around in.
We quickly retreated to the office where I was shown the vast quantities of seed needed to supply demand, Id never even considered, never mind seen what this would entail and the thought of achieving all this with such a small team is daunting to say the least but Phil is totally unphased by it all. The seed is stored in huge bags in a climate controlled area, cool, dry and stacked to the ceiling!
Phil tells me there is approx. 12 seeds to a gram and in a year tons of seeds can go through this facility. I’ve always imagined that this would take a massive team of people not just 3!
He mentions that later in the year I might like to come back and see how they grow varieties out, obviously I am delighted to accept, and explains they do this for several reasons. Firstly to check that varieties are ‘True to type’. this means that the genetics are stable, sometimes a variety will break down over time, losing virility. That there is no cross pollination happening somewhere in the supply chain which would muddy the variety, although rare as Sweet Peas are self fertile this will sometimes occur. Lastly, and this is the part that is massively exciting! To trial newly bred Sweet Peas which will be coming up for sale in the future.
And so on a boiling hot day in June I got the call id been very excitedly waiting for!
I literally can’t describe how amazing the smell was as I pulled up and stepped out of my car, the scent of a million sweet peas escaping from the doors of 2 aircraft hangar sized glasshouses is incomparable to anything else I’ve ever experienced. Row upon row, in full flower, each vying for my attention, amazing!
Phil was waiting for me with a ‘map’ of what was growing where. Some of the names very familiar old favourites, others having just a set of numbers and letters to identify them. These were incredibly exciting as they are so newly bred they haven’t even been named! I get ahead of myself though and I was about to be given a masterclass in Sweet pea growing….
There are currently on the market 2 main types of Sweet pea
- Clamped keel
- Stronger scent
A well known variety of this type is Cupani
- Open keel
- Bigger flowers
- Longer stems
- More colour varieties
- Less scent
The next part to consider are the descriptions of flower colour
Now of course there are single colours…
And the bicolours…
Now if you can get your head round these prepare to have it blown off! Did you know about shifters? I didn’t!
These are the ones that can change colour almost completely from when they first open in the most delightful way. If you’re going for a particular colour scheme I guess they could be a bit of a nightmare but if youre more liberal in your colour combinations these can be incredible fun!
And although I can’t say too much about the new breeds which Phil has in the pipelines I can say they’re a game changer when it comes to sweet pea colours and retain the scent which we all adore!
How do you go about breeding a new sweet pea though?
Like most members of the pea family they self pollinate, this means its relatively easy to get them to come true from seed but it does mean that in order to produce new ones human intervention is needed in most cases.
Phil shows me how he opens the keel, pictured below…
to expose the stamens and pistil of the flower. The stamen, made up of the filaments and anther, are the male parts of the flower. The Pistil is the female part. The stamens must be carefully removed before the flower has fully opened, to stop self pollination occurring and pollen from a different flower applied to the pistil. Once pollinated it needs to be protected from further cross-pollination. If you can get hold of a tiny mesh gift bag they are perfect for the job allowing air to circulate but preventing insects from helping.
I spent well over an hour with Phil asking lots of questions, getting very excited over some of his new breeds and getting my very own sweet pea selfie with Frances Kate, a Spencer type particularly good for competition growing due to its long straight stems
Phil also showed me how to straighten a slightly bent stem between thumb and forefinger.
One main thing when planting your sweet peas out is not to overcrowd them, less is more! Overplanting will cause them to flower less as they will try hard to produce green growth to the detriment of flower production. No more than 2 per station and 6 inches apart. For bushy growth pinch them out often, for a show growers cordon pinch out sideshoots and tendrils. Deadhead regularly, at the very least every other day. As soon as a plant has managed to produce seed it will quit flowering.
Phil gave me permission to pick a posy of Sweet peas before I left, I was like a kid in a sweet shop! Beautiful!
The sharpest eyed of you may spot one or two VERY unusual varieties in the bunch!
How does his year end?
Come September you’ll find Phil in a far more mechanised environment!
After the dry husks have been harvested they get put through some very noisy, dusty processes in order to bring you the finished product. Once again I went to see how this happens…
Massive bags of dried pods are lined up ready for processing, then he showed me the machines that help to do it…
Firstly the pods are broken up and good seeds are thrown one way, small unviable seeds and husks the other…
Then a second process refines it…
And finally the precious seeds are clean and ready to be packaged! It makes you realise exactly how much work goes into that lovely little packet of seeds you’re about to sow!
I will never again pull a face at how much I pay for seeds, not that I really did anyway, but it’s really opened my eyes to see the whole year through.
So go and have a peruse of his lovely website and see for yourself how many truly wonderful varieties he has on offer, now’s the time to get sowing!