When everyone else is sowing sweet peas in their greenhouses and cold frames in autumn, I have learnt to hold my nerve and bide my time. I know that an autumn sowing is the accepted way, but it has never really worked for me. Perhaps because my greenhouse is not sited in the ideal sunny spot and is a little more shaded than it should be, my autumn sown sweet peas quickly become lanky and drawn up. Even with pinching out they are a tangled and overly delicate mess by spring, and not in any great state for planting out and making their own way in the world. But I have also learnt that if I wait until spring to sow, my sweet peas will take all summer to bulk up to flowering size, only producing a flush of blooms late in the season. Sweet peas need to be early flowers for the full effect, thrilling us with our horticultural prowess when spring has only just passed, and encouraging us to push onwards. A small vase of delicate petalled and sweetly scented sweet peas on the kitchen table should be one of the first floral crops of the year, and is appreciated all the more because it comes at a time when such pickings are still lean. The first bunch you pick really shouldn’t have to muck in with sunflowers and chrysanthemums when all is bountiful.
And so I have learnt to sow in January, along with my broad beans, which also have almost always fared best from being sown in the chill, so that they develop slowly and with roots as mighty as, if not mightier than, their shoots. This seems to give me early enough blooms and beans of both without creating floppy, etiolated, no-good plants.
And roots are particularly important to sweet peas, which do their very best when their roots grow long and deep. If I have thought ahead and am feeling patient and crafty I will fill loo roll insides with seed compost, stack them all together in a tray so that they are kept upright, and sow two sweet pea seeds into each. If in more of a rush I take perhaps a 2-litre pot, fill it with compost, and then plant seeds all around the edge and a couple in the middle. This isn’t ideal as it does mean the roots are disturbed when it comes to planting out time and you have to carefully knock the seedlings out of the pot and gently separate the roots before planting, but if you are not perfectly equipped it is better to sow now into less than perfect pots than to leave it much later. If you carry the full pot right to the canes that they are going to climb up before knocking them out and replanting, then this disturbance will be minimal anyway.
This year I am sowing sweet peas from Easton Walled Gardens’ heritage collection of 65 different varieties. It is always worth seeking out older varieties as they are the ones with the strongest scent, and perhaps mixing them with more modern and so larger flowered varieties. I am sowing ‘Henry Thomas’, a rich red ‘Spencer’ type sweet pea that should provide a bit of glossy, big-flowered glamour, ‘Katie Alice’, a deep mauve sweet pea that has particularly good scent but a smaller flower, and their ‘Heritage Mix’ of grandiflora types with smaller flowers but fabulous fragrant punch. With a bit of luck – and mice and slugs willing – my spring seedlings will be sturdy and manageable and my early summer vases will be full, beautiful, and gorgeously scented.