When Kate and Ben first decided to make a business out of saving and selling seeds their idea was to specialise in rare, heritage and unusual varieties. They soon realised that there were problems with this as a business model.
Firstly there is a good reason why people stopped growing some of the old types or varieties of vegetables – to do with problems in cultivation or because the flavour was not very exciting! By chance a group of us were chatting last week and several of us had found the same problem with recommendations from James Wong in his ‘Home Grown Revolution’ – Goji berries may thrive in the dry South East of the UK at low altitude and with an urban microclimate but they die in the wet SW of Wales high up in the Preselis. And none of us rated asparagus peas for flavour – but then everyone has different preferences.
Secondly they discovered that many people like to buy all their seeds in one order and whilst they would happily try something new or unfamiliar they would not go to a separate supplier to do so.
So now they sell a huge range of seeds including the ‘ordinary’ peas, beans, carrots and so on. What is different about their catalogue is that most are old fashioned or unusual varieties, all have been trialed by them
Seeds are started off in modules then planted out according to a rotation plan which Kate works out with much head scratching to take account of factors such as height (therefore shading of adjacent crops), spread, length of time in the ground (some plants flower in the second year) and the risk of cross-pollinating with a related but different plant. Sometimes one species will be isolated in the polytunnel even though it grows well outside to stop unintentional crosses. Because growing space is limited they have a team of people who grow some things for them – mainly those which take up a lot of space and sell in bulk like peas and beans.
Once the plants have grown and flowered they are harvested and brought into the top floor of the barn and spread out on tarpaulins to dry. I expected that the precise moment when they were ready for threshing would be determined by using high tech equipment but no, Ben uses his sense of taste and the resistance of the seed coat to his teeth to decide! Once ready, the material is threshed – originally by hanging up the tarps and whacking them with a stick or spreading the stuff on the ground floor of the barn and flailing it, but now with a machine. Final drying is in a cabinet Ben built which has a fan to blow air through it. Once completely dry they are packed in plastic boxes with silica gel sachets and taken to the office in Newport for germination testing and packing before being despatched to fill orders. If you fancy having a go at saving your own seed, which will have the advantage of allowing you to select the plants which do best in your unique conditions, there are comprehensive and very clear instructions on the Real Seeds website http://www.realseeds.co.uk but beware if you save seed from F1 varieties the characteristics will re-shuffle in the next generation and only half the plants will retain their hybrid vigour.
Since I cannot always successfully save my own and there are always new things in the catalogue I, for one, will be putting my order in in November when they will publish the new list. We sampled edible lupin seed and if there is enough some may be available this year and then there is a new type of climbing bean,’Princess’ which they may be able to share ….