sweet peas at perch hill

When I was giving a talk at a Perch Hill open day, I showed a slide of my current favourite sweet pea, the very fresh pink, ‘Painted Lady’. Afterwards a woman came up to me and said, "Your ‘Painted Lady’ flowers look nice and big. Mine are always rather small. What can I do to improve them?" But of course my lovely pink sweet peas only looked big because they were projected onto a wall six feet tall.

As I had to tell the woman, in reality they are no bigger than hers – about two-thirds the size of modern hybrids – and there’s not much you can do to make them any bigger. That is just what they are. And the reason that they are such a wonderful flower is that they are what they are. They are very close to the wild sweet pea and because of that, they have all the undistorted virtues of the species which is partly their pinkness and prettiness, but more than that, it’s their incredible smell.

So if it’s scent you want, not showiness and glamour, the varieties you need to look out for are the truly old-fashioned types. We do simple close-your-eye tests here every year with twenty stems held in a bunch with a rubber band. I get as many people as I can around the kitchen table and then one by one I pass the bunches round. Without looking at the flower, just using their noses and judging the strength of smell, every one gives them a mark out of ten for each one. Only the eight out of ten or above make it and they’re the ones that will be grown in the garden the following year.

The only exception to the strength of scent rule is Lathyrus chloranthus. It’s acid-green with small flowers and is slower to germinate and grow than most, and it has no scent – not a trace – but I love it for its looks alone. If you float the flowers with just a tiny section of stem in a shallow bowl, the green looks wonderful in contrast to any colour and, surprisingly, sweet peas last better used like this than they do in a vase.

Watch this video of the kitchen garden at Perch Hill, to see last summer's sweet peas growing:

Also, make sure to watch the video of sweet pea tunnel growing in the cutting garden...

I grow my sweet peas up over a hazel stick tunnel in the vegetable garden. I replace the sweet peas with runner beans or last year I chose the triffid-like cup and saucer plant Cobaea scandens, a wonderful half-hardy annual climber which looks exactly as it sounds, a decent-sized cup sitting on a green calyx saucer. My sweet pea tunnel is home-made, using hazel poles pushed into the ground down both sides of the path, with thinner sticks bent in a hoop between the two and tied with a bit of wire and twine.

I also grow sweet peas over teepees, which look like a witches broom made from silver birch or hazel. These are much better than anything bought. Every beautiful woven willow frame I’ve ever seen is far too short and delicate for the rampant growth you’ll get from almost any annual climber and bamboo canes need metres of twine circled round and round to give the sweet peas enough to climb on.

Hazel or silver birch, bought as pea sticks at an old-fashioned garden centre win the day with me. The uprights need to be at least eight foot tall allowing for a foot to be sunk in the ground to hold them up in autumn gales. Just push a circle of eight poles into the ground. The circle should be about a metre across. Gather the eight uprights together with a piece of wire or twine at the top.

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