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SWEET SCENT OF SUMMER: These trusty favourites will keep on giving all season long

SWEET SCENT OF SUMMER: These trusty favourites will keep on giving all season long

  • Nigel Colborn explains how you can grow sweet peas from seed in small pots
  • UK-based gardening expert remembers his dad growing them every year 
  • They branch to develop multiple stems which scramble over supports to flower

The lightest whiff of sweet pea fragrance takes me straight back to childhood. My dad grew sweet peas every year, so from June to September there were full vases in the house. 

He was deadly serious about them, spending hours training single stemmed plants up ten-foot bamboo canes. Side-shoots and leaf tendrils were removed as they appeared, so all the plants’ energy went into the flowers. The result was a steady supply of champion, five or six headed sweet-pea flowers on long stems. 

When he carried them to the house or to give to friends, he always held the bunches at the bottoms of the stems. That made them look longer stemmed and more like prize blooms. 

Nigel Colborn explains how you can grow sweet peas (pictured) from seed in small pots. UK-based gardening expert remembers his dad growing them every year

You can grow the plants from seed, sown individually in small pots or seed trays. You can also direct-sow seed into the ground. Being annuals — bred from a wild Mediterranean pea — they can only grow from seed. 

Achieving prize blooms is time consuming. But grown naturally, they’re gorgeous in the garden as well as when gathered

ESSENCE OF SUMMER 

Sweet peas supply excellent cut flowers for the house. They branch to develop multiple stems which scramble over supports and flower profusely. The blooms are still pickable, though shorter stemmed will last just as well in water. 

Given free rein, they’ll clamber over small shrubs or up a hedge, holding on with their tendrils. You can also train them semi-formally over obelisks, up cane wigwams or on pea sticks. With shorter, natural stems, the flowers look prettier on the plants. 

If you constantly remove spent flowers, your sweet peas will flower steadily for much of summer. But if any seed pods are allowed to develop, flowering will slow down and stop prematurely. So deadhead your plants every few days, to keep those fresh flowers coming. 

Soil types do not seem to matter, provided they are never waterlogged. Sweet peas need full sun and will flourish in hot weather. Cold winds slow down growth but these plants are not weaklings. For small spaces, they grow happily in containers. Large pots, tubs or half barrels are best, with sticks to support the stems. Make sure the pots drain freely and water regularly. 

THE MONK’S SPECIAL 

To me, fragrance in a sweet pea is essential. Commercial seedsmen, who bred the scent out of some modern varieties, are vandals. Their flowers may be super-duper but without perfume, they’re botanical eunuchs. 

The original wild sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, is a rare native of Sicily. The large, intensely fragrant flowers are two shades of purple. The plants were first grown in Britain by a teacher, Dr Robert Uvedale. He received seeds from a Sicilian monk, Francis Cupani, in 1699. 

Seeds of such a truly wild sweet peas are unavailable. But you can still buy seeds of fragrant Lathyrus odoratus Cupani from specialist seedsmen. It is almost identical to the wild plants and has massive garden value. 

Like its forebear, Cupani has two-tone purple flowers with knockout fragrance. Those are as close as you’ll get to true wild plant. If you want sweet peas this summer, sow seeds now. But these pretty annuals are amazingly adaptable — I recall a specialist, David Matthewman, who exhibited sweet pea flowers over 12 successive months. 

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