Sweet peas will make your garden smell wonderful

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LAST week I visited Mr Fothergill’s trial grounds near Newmarket.

I try to get there every year at this time, so it was quite noticeable to me that this was a very different season, because so many flowers and crops were well behind what they were in previous years.

In some respects, this was a good thing, because we visitors got the opportunity to see things that in a normal summer would be over by now.

The most obvious of these were the sweet peas.

The sultry air was full of their fragrance, not just in the area where they were growing, but throughout most of the trial grounds.

Time and again I kept returning to them to have another sniff; I don’t remember the perfume as strong ever; maybe it was the weather that day, but it convinced me that it is far too long since I grew them myself.

Mr Fothergill’s has declared 2013 the Year of the Sweet Pea. Sadly, interest in sweet pea growing has been declining in recent years, perhaps because many novice gardeners think there is some mystique in their cultivation.

Admitted some serious growers and exhibitors have their own techniques – sometimes secret – but for most of us, who just want a row for cutting and fragrance, well, if you can grow peas as a vegetable, you can grow sweet peas.

Soak the seeds overnight, then sow in pots in October and overwinter in a cold greenhouse or cold frame for an early crop; for later flowers, either soak overnight as before and sow in pots in the greenhouse in early March, or outdoors, directly into the soil, in April.

Regular picking will keep the plants flowering for many weeks, providing they are well watered in dry spells. That’s all there is to it.

Breeding has produced short plants suitable for growing in hanging baskets, and compact varieties that are ideal for tubs and other containers, but for me, a sweet pea wouldn’t be a sweet pea if it didn’t grow two metres high or more and climb up netting or a similar support.

And although there are some magnificent cultivars that would win a prize in any show, I would not consider growing them unless they had a strong fragrance.

There were many of these at Mr Fothergill’s last week, but the one that stood out for me was the white ‘Norman Wisdom’; I remember this being launched by the grand old man of comedy himself many years ago at Unwin’s trial grounds when they were at Histon and it’s great to see that although Norman might not be with us any longer, his memory lives on for gardeners in his super-fragrant sweet pea.

New varieties still continue to be bred; next year is the Centenary of the Chelsea Flower Show, so it is only right that the fragrant, pale lavender multiflora variety bred in New Zealand and introduced by Mr Fothergill’s in their 2013 catalogue is named Chelsea Centenary.

It’s my guess that we will be seeing a lot of this next summer; if it helps to rekindle an interest in this lovely flower, so much the better.