I visited the London garden of my friend and fellow writer and blogger Laetitia Maklouf last week, the person I’m going to be when I grow up (and get a bit slimmer and buy some properly fabulous shoes). She is big on sweet peas, being the sort of gal who always has a jug of flowers by her bedside, and sweet peas being the sort of flowers that lend themselves to being artfully thrown into pretty, antique jugs so well. They were, she says, her ‘epiphany plant’ in that she sowed some and they grew. She also has her second book coming out next year – Sweet Peas in Summer – and is feeling inspired to fill her garden with sweet peas in preparation. As a result she sowed ranks of seeds in autumn for the earliest possible flowers next year, and she showed me the seedlings, all lined up in her mini greenhouse. Mostly she goes for candy colours, with plenty of white, and only grows those that are highly scented.
She sowed them early enough that hers have done what they are meant to do: started into growth and then slowed as the weather has cooled. They will then sit in a state of suspended animation over winter so that they have a head start on other seeds the moment the weather warms. She has placed big tripods of branches around her borders for them to scramble up and is thinking of creating an archway of the same: both cheap and effective ways of putting a bit of height and structure into a relatively new garden.
It’s been a couple of years since I grew sweet peas, but I reckon with Laetitia leading the charge they are definitely going to have a bit of a moment next year, so I’m hitching my wagon to her sweet pea crusade and getting mine in now. It’s a little late in the year, but with a little luck I might get them to germinate before the really cold weather sets in, and so have little plants that will leap onto life come spring, and provide me with the earliest possible flowers in summer. There is always a bit of a scrap between flower size and scent with sweet peas: for a long time breeders concentrated so hard on flower size that scent got lost, and the biggest blooms such as the ‘Spencer’ types are fairly uninspiring olfactorily. I have always grown ‘cupani’ (also known as ‘Matucana’, and another of Laetitia’s favourites) before, often claimed to be the most fragrant, but is far from the largest flowered. This year after a slightly panicked rummage through the seed box, I plumped for ‘Heirloom bicolour mixed’ (from Thompson & Morgan) which promises (surprise surprise) both wonderful scent and large flowers. We will see.
Sweet peas have a tough outer coating so mine started off with an overnight soak in warm water to soften them up, then into a half gutter full of compost. If you have a mouse problem your seeds wont last long: mice love sweet peas. If you think you dont have a mouse problem, it’s likely that you will quickly find out that you do. Growing in guttering does give you the option to hang the whole kit and caboodle from the rafters of the greenhouse (string around each end), where they can germinate out of the range of even the most acrobatic of mice.