Where other plants can divide opinions, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like a sweet pea. Beautiful, boudoir-scented and with a range of colours to cover every personal palette, they also flower for ages (until into October at Puggs Meadow last year). Their only failing is short vase life – only last three or four days but the plants are so prolific when one bunch is over, there’s another ready to be picked.
As well as growing them up traditional teepees, this year I am also trying cordons. George, who scoops all the prizes at our village show, grows them this way, to get longer and better, albeit fewer, stems. The two rows are 18 inches (45cm) apart, the plants spaced at eight inch (20cm) intervals. A month after planting, I’ll tie in the strongest stem and cut off any others. Once they reach four-five foot up the cane, I’ll untie each one, lay them horizontally and train them up canes further along. I’m supposed to take off all tendrils too, so all the energy goes into the flowers. It sounds like the most almighty faff but I’m very grateful to RP Sweet Peas for such detailed instructions on its site.
As to sowing, I did some in October in the unheated greenhouse, more on the windowsill in March and will do some more in April too, the hope being that I have the longest possible season. A fair range of colours is going in, many new to me but stalwarts are: Lathyrus odoratus Grandiflora Cupani (reputed to be the original cultivated sweet pea which a Sicilian monk, Francis Cupani, sent to England in 1699; what it lacks in stem length it redoubles in room-filling scent); Albutt Blue (white with a blue picotee rim, sounds horrible but really lifts a pale-hued bunch) and favourite of my sweet-pea suprema of a mother, Mrs R Bolton (pictured top), wonderful scent and a standout pink that looks magic with either pale or dark colours.
A final word on sowing: received wisdom is that sweet peas need long root runs and resent root disturbance (you’d never know it from those mingy little pots crammed with seedlings you get in garden centres). You’re either supposed to grow them in root trainers, which I have an irrational loathing for, or plant two to a pot and then plant the whole contents so as not to damage the roots. My mum, sows five to a largish pot and then splits them and plants each singly – and hers are jaw-droppingly magnificent. I tried all ways last year and they all flourished, I could see absolutely no difference in the growth or floriferousness (try saying that after you’ve been to the dentist), so this year I’ve done two to a three-inch pot and split them on planting. I’ll be on the watch for any signs of sulking resentment.