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Laying the seed for sweet peas

I had my first garden when I started living on my own, in a small flat across the road from my grandparents. My garden comprised a few beds around the base of the building, and a larger triangular bed at the back of the building, and out of sight. There I planted the bearded irises my grandparents bought me as a reward for helping weed their garden.

In the small beds along the sunny side of the building, I grew a range of tiny rock plants [sometimes the label was bigger than the plant] and a few of my favourite flowers, including two different kinds of sweet pea; the low-growing bijou types, and some ‘Unwin’s Striped’, a peculiar variety that is white but heavily speckled with deep maroon.

My grandfather told me I was continuing a long tradition of sweet pea growing on the property, as the owner in the 1930s had been an aficionado, growing prize varieties, following ‘best practice’. For the time that would have been an arduous process, as it would have involved digging a double-depth trench, and filling that with lots of animal manures, before backfilling the trench.

People were very serious about sweet peas in the 1930s. I have a catalogue from Ryders, an English seed company, issued in 1931, replete with over 100 distinct varieties, as well as many different mixtures. You would be hard-pressed to find a tenth of that in any seed company today. By the way, Samuel Ryder, the founder of the company, was also a keen golfer, and donor of the Ryder Cup, played between Europe and the United States.

I continue to grow sweet peas, buying in seed sometimes, harvesting from my own plants and also gathering interesting seed from other gardeners. I long ago gave up growing the dwarf types, but if you are constrained in a small garden, they are a good way to have the delicious scent of sweet peas in the house.

I mainly grow ours along a frame originally built for beans, at the rear of our vegetable garden. It is simple enough – some construction reinforcing mesh supported by a couple of waratahs – but it does the job.

Thinking back to the older methods of growing sweet peas, I recently decided to give the soil under the frame a hearty replenishment, adding in plenty of chicken and sheep manure, along with a good dollop of compost. I also threw a handful of lime in, as sweet peas like a pH of around 7 or 8, and the manures and composts will tend to slightly lower it.

I have sown a packet of a commercial bi-coloured mix in the newly worked-up soil. It is early enough to start sweet peas, but they will germinate before the winter frosts arrive, and will slowly grow over winter, before bursting into full growth in summer. You can wait until spring, but by then it is probably best to sow indoors and transplant once the plant has become well-established.

New Zealand is home to one of the world’s best sweet pea breeders, Keith Hammett, also well-regarded for his dahlia cultivars. We are truly lucky in being able to access some of his exciting varieties.

We grow ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, surely one of the brightest and strongest bicoloured varieties.

The standard petals are bright red, and the keels are white, forming a strong contrast that will be seen across the garden. We have been saving our own seed of this variety for several years as we love it. If you prefer all red, you could try ‘Lipstick’, which has wavy, crimson red flowers.

On the other hand, if the oddly spotted ‘Unwin’s Striped’ sounds appealing, you could try Hammett’s ‘Flight of Fantasy’, which comes from a new breeding programme that Hammett has embarked on. It features a range of colours, but most flowers have flakes, stripes, or mottled features, just like the older form I grew nearly 50 years ago. It would certainly be one to get people talking.

On the other hand, if you want the deepest coloured variety I have ever seen, you may have to wait a little while as ‘Almost Black’ has sold out for this season.

It is a very dark maroon/navy colour, that can appear black in some circumstances. It is certainly an interesting colour, although I must confess that I think the lighter-coloured forms are more in keeping with the summery fragrance.

‘Blue Shift’ is one I have not seen, but I am keen to try it out. It changes colour as it ages, starting out with pink shades before shifting to blue and aquamarine as the flowers age.

If the scent is your major consideration, ‘High Society’, a lovely pink picotee variety, is one of the most fragrant cultivars in the world, and very pretty with it.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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