Ryan and I have just spent a few days in Dorset, and – apart from Friday when it rained non-stop – the weather was lovely. While we were there we popped in* to see Joy Michaud at Sea Spring Seeds, a small company that sells plants and seeds, specialising in chillies. You may have met Joy on the Sea Spring Seeds stand at a gardening event – she loves taking her seeds on the road and meeting her customers, even though there’s plenty of work to be done back at the farm!

Now, I don’t want to make you jealous (OK, I do), but this is the the Sea Spring Seeds location:

Sea Spring Seeds

Not jealous yet? How about if I zoom out a little bit…

Sea Spring Seeds

That’s Chesil beach in the background; Sea Spring Seeds has a stunning location on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast. The sun-soaked south facing slope is perfect for chillies, which like a lot of light, although the winds coming in from the sea can give the polytunnels a good lashing.

The tunnels serve a variety of functions. This one is set up for chilli variety trials – Joy and her husband Michael are constantly growing different varieties of chillies (new and heritage) to see which ones are worth adding to the catalogue. They grow 3 plants of each variety, which gives them a lot of information about the quality and consistency of the seed source, as well as the productivity of the plants and the flavour/ heat of the chillies:

Hanging basket salads and chilli trials

Whereas this one is home to chillies that will be sold as plants:

Chilli plants

Isn’t the pallet terracing a neat way to keep all the plants level, whilst giving them all the benefit of the slope? They were drinking in the Dorset sunshine yesterday, and will soon be ready for despatch. Sea Spring Seeds also sell chillies and sweet peppers as plug plants, which are sent out from the end of April. Joy will start packing and posting them this week!

Bolting trial at Sea Spring Seeds

Another tunnel (and there’s a rotation, to prevent the build-up of pests and diseases) has been used to conduct a bolting trial for overwintering leaf crops – looking at how quickly they flower and set seed. Whilst commercial breeding aims towards consistency and assumes the whole crop will be harvested at once, home gardeners need something a bit different – they don’t want all their leaves to be ready in one go, they want a long harvest period. The clear winner this year was a red mustard, which had only just run to seed in the middle of April!

Red mustard - bolting trial winner!

Of course, brassicas running to seed isn’t the end of the world, as you can eat the flowers, but it does signal the end of the overwintered leaf crops.

There are outdoor trial beds as well. In the foreground there’s the end of a leek trial, where you can clearly see that some leeks are long-standing, whilst others have bolted. One of the longest lasting was Bandit:

Outdoor trial area

All of the information Joy and Michael gather informs the varieties they choose to sell – they select their catalogue with the home gardener in mind, and don’t sell anything they haven’t grown themselves.

They’re also breeding new chilli varieties. You can’t see them from the road, but the site contains a lot of little isolation greenhouses, where specific varieties can be isolated from pollinating insects and kept pure. Desirable varieties are grown out and stabilised before being offered for sale.

Isolation greenhouse at Sea Spring Seeds

Sea Spring Seeds also have a small catalogue of seed for exotic vegetables, which are unusual in that they have been collected from immigrant communities in the UK. So they’re already adapted to growing here, making life much easier for gardeners! At the moment it includes Fig leaf gourd (Cucurbita ficifolia, which I know as Shark’s Fin Melon), Callaloo (Amaranthus spp.), Luffas (Luffa spp.) and bitter melon (Momordica charantia) as well as Poi Saag (aka Malabar Spinach, Basella alba), which Joy says forms a fairly bushy plant until one day it suddenly decides it’s time to climb, and then it sets off upwards like a rocket!

So whether you’re looking for chillies and sweet peppers, reliable veg or something a little more exotic, have a look at Sea Spring Seeds!

*Sea Spring Seeds is a mail order company, not generally open to the public. Ryan and I made an appointment for our visit.