The sweetest thing: How the heady scent of sweet peas makes them a summer favourite

The faintest waft of a sweet pea recalls, for me, a thatched cottage in Wales where I was treated to tea and Welshcakes.  A vase stood on a bee-polished oak table and their fragrance filled the little parlour.

What’s not to love, about these pretty petals? They flower readily, even for the most inept gardeners and, if well-grown, provide a constant supply of cut blooms for the house. Forget orange blossom - every summer bride should include white sweet peas in her bouquet.

You can encourage these hardy annuals from seed, sown in autumn or spring.  But if you prefer to avoid the fiddly work, nip down to the garden centre and buy yourself some young plants.  

Cupani

Purple reign: The deliciously fragrant and striking Cupani sweet pea

ROYAL PROVENANCE

The choice of sweet pea varieties is vast and falls into three main groups.  Old fashioned varieties, bred from the Sicilian species Lathyrus odoratus, smell delightful but have small flowers.  Best of these is the maroon and purple-flowered ‘Cupani’ which does superbly in a large pot with supporting canes.

The classiest modern sweet peas, developed by the late Princess of Wales’s family, are known as Spencer cultivars.  These are what most people grow, valuing their big flowers – often four or five to a stem – and long, straight stalks.  

There are hundreds of Spencer peas ranging from white, through to pink, violet, deep purple or bright red.  These are best trained on supporting trellis, cane wigwams or as cordons for premium cut-flower quality.

For pots, hanging  baskets or containers, you could grow dwarf kinds such as ‘Bijou’ and ‘Cherub.’  These are bushy or modestly trailing but, though attractive, aren’t a patch on your regular, climbing sweet pea.

PEA PLAN

If you’re using seeds, follow the instructions on the packet.  Sowing in individual pots ensures minimal root disturbance but to save space, you can also raise half a dozen seedlings per 9cm pot and tease them apart before planting.

Once you have young plants, whether bought or home produced, you must decide on your growing technique.  For natural growth, plant them about 20cms apart, in fertile soil at the base of their climbing supports.  Allow them to develop as they want.

Be warned that when sweet peas produce pods, flowering ceases.  You must therefore gather blooms before they set seed, or dead-head the plants regularly.  It’s an easy routine, but you need to do it every few days, to keep the plants blooming.

If you strive for quality – or want to compete in your local flower show – opt for the ‘cordon method.’  This looks complicated but it’s a piece of cake.  Allow one stem per plant to grow, and remove all the others.  Train each single stem up a tall cane and as it grows, remove side shoots and nip off the curly leaf tendrils.  

Gradually, the stem will thicken and the leaves will turn big and cabbagey but petal quality will be superb. If you snap a main stem by mistake, don't worry – we’ve all done that.  Simply allow one side shoot to develop and tie it in as the replacement.

Cut the flowers while they’re young and keep tying the main stems to their supports as they extend.  You’ll need to tend to your sweet peas every few days, but it’s a trifling task and you’ll enjoy every moment.  With care, you could be gathering exhibition performers from June to October.  

When the stems reach the tops of the canes, untie them, lay them along the ground and carefully re-tie the tips to the bottoms of their supports again.  Alternatively, copy a builder friend of mine who erected scaffolding to access his 15ft sweet peas.  Impressive!

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