It was back in 1903 that William Unwin sold his first sweet pea seeds. However, the story starts two years earlier, in the summer of 1901. One evening, after choir practice, he was showing two fellow choristers round the many rows of sweet peas he grew to send to the flower markets in London.
William was soon hybridising sweet peas, and offering large flowered forms in a wide range of colours. By 1914 he had been joined in the business by his son Charles, who went on to become one of the leading sweet pea breeders of the 20th Century.
A second son, Frank, had a particular interest in gladioli, and he became as well known for his breeding work with these as Charles did with sweet peas. The firm soon became general seedsmen, offering a wide range of flowers and vegetables.
The family bred not only sweet peas and gladioli but also dahlias, tomatoes and culinary peas, among others. In the late 1950s, it decided to supply seeds in full-colour packets to gardening shops and those new outlets known as garden centres, until then, Unwins sold its seeds only through mail order.
The venture was a great success, and was responsible for the steady growth of the Company until today it has the largest share of the UK amateur seed market. The Company's breeding work continues, especially in sweet peas, and it has the largest annual trial of sweet peas anywhere in the world.
Sweet pea seed, like much other flower seed, is produced commercially around the world, including in the United States, Eastern Europe, Malta and Continental Europe, although very little is now grown in Great Britain.
We love the way Unwins operate.
Every operation - from sowing, through "roguing" (the elimination of off-types), to harvesting and sorting - is performed by hand. Seed is hand-picked into an apron-pouch and emptied into clearly-labelled sacks supported by metal tripods. On arrival at Unwins' premises in Britain, the seeds are then tested for vigour and their powers of germination in the company's seed testing laboratory, prior to packeting.
Before packeting, most seed is stored in a special chamber which has an environment of 20C and 20% relative humidity, making the atmosphere about as dry as the Sahara Desert at midday. The seed is then hermetically sealed into foil sachets in this same room, so each sachet has its own micro-climate round the seed, keeping it in perfect condition until the seal is broken by the gardener about to sow.