It’s Harry Potter mania in our house at the moment. Little Weed#1 and Middle Weed can’t get enough of all things Hogwarts and for a while I thought that was why I had selected a variety of sweet pea called ‘Nimbus’ this year (after Harry’s broomstick, the Nimbus 2000). Then I remembered visiting the Gold medal winning Eagle Sweet Peas stand at Chelsea last year, where I was particularly struck by a variety called ‘Lisa Marie’ after the owners’ daughter, described as ‘plum on silver’ (in the middle of the photo above). Nimbus, by Kings Seeds, is a similar colour combination. Having chosen this variety of Lathyrus odoratus for its appearance, I opted for the heavily scented purple blue ‘Alan Williams’ to grow alongside it.
I have only just got round to sowing my sweet peas this year. As Eagle Sweet Peas advise, there is no need to soak or chit the seeds. I just planted mine in well-watered seed compost, probably cramming a few too many into a pot. They are now on the kitchen windowsill waiting to germinate and to be planted out in a month or so once I’ve pinched out the growing tip to encourage side shoots. I had great luck with sweet peas in our old garden where the soil was only about 10cm above chalk (although I did grow them in a raised bed), and am hoping to repeat that luck in our new garden.
In her Garden Book, Vita Sackville-West recalls how the original Lathyrus odoratus was sent from Italy in 1699 by a Father Franciscus Cupani to Dr Robert Uvedale, headmaster of the Grammar School at Enfield, Middlesex. Dr Uvedale had a fine collection of foreign plants which after his death were sold to Sir Robert Walpole for his garden at Houghton in Norfolk. Vita advocates growing this original wild sweet pea, arguing, “the wild pea is not showy, in fact its pink and purple are very washy and the individual flowers are small, but they have a certain delicacy of appearance and the scent of even half a dozen in a bunch is amazing”. She recommends leaving the wild sweet peas to “scramble up twiggy pea sticks in a tangle and [be] kept entirely for picking in an unwanted but sunny corner of the kitchen garden”. At the end of the season these wild peas can be left to set their own seed for the following year. English Sweet Peas sell a variety called Sweet Pea Cupani Original, which was collected from the wild in Sicily in about 1975, which has all the original characteristics of Father Cupani’s original, as well as other heritage varieties.
For me, sweet peas are redolent of midsummer and romance. My mother grew hundreds of sweet peas for our June wedding 10 years ago, sowing them in October, and overwintering them in a cold frame. Thanks to her efforts, they flowered at just the right time (of course it is very important to pick the flowers regularly to ensure a constant supply and to prevent the plants from setting seed) and we had beautifully scented bunches of sweet peas on every table. This year we are planning a garden party to celebrate a decade of marriage and I hope to have my own sweet peas ready by then!