GARDENING: Brian Kidd on how to grow perfect sweet peas

Sweet peas - the scent of summer
Sweet peas - the scent of summer

Free sowing class for keen gardeners

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What about growing lovely sweet peas this summer? People are always talking about a lack of fragrance in the garden, well here's a plant which will grow well in almost any garden provided they can get up into the sunshine.

Even if you don't have a garden, there are varieties especially bred for window boxes, tubs and hanging baskets. Look for Bijou mixed or Explorer.

If, however, you have a good sunny spot, there is plenty of height available and you would like the quickest possible screen, perhaps for privacy, then grow tall sweet peas especially bred for the exhibitor. You should be able to get four or even five blooms to stems which are more than 10in long and you'll be picking bunches from June to the end of August.

When looking at the seed packets make sure the varieties are fragrant – not all exhibition types are perfumed.

Because of  the cold weather mid-April is a good time to sow seeds. Sweet peas need deep pots because they make a long initial root, so, here's a tip from one of our gardening club members: save cardboard tubes from toilet rolls and kitchen paper and sow two seeds in each tube using any seed sowing compost to fill them.  The length of the kitchen paper cylinders? Yes, cut them in half.  Another method is to use tubes made of rolled newspaper. Keep them in shape with rubber bands.

Sweet pea seeds have a hard coating so shake each variety in dry sand in a glass jar with a screw top for five minutes and then soak overnight in rain water. This ensures the seeds will swell and if sown in the warmth, they will germinate in 10 to 20 days.

As soon as they begin to germinate, put them in full light and once you have eight pairs of leaves, nip out the tops of all plants. This encourages a good strong stem to emerge from the plants' base. While all this is going on, make sure the place where they will grow is well cultivated. Dig out a trench at least 12in deep and three feet wide and dig in as much organic matter as you can – compost, well-rotted manure, mushroom manure, rotted grass mowings or rotted bedding from rabbits or guinea pigs. By the time the seedlings are ready to be planted, the ground will have settled and the soil's bacteria started turning the organic matter into humus.

Staking is important if you want good, long-stemmed blooms. Canes eight feet long are best. Insert into the ground so 10in of each cane is buried. The canes should be eight inches apart with 12in to 15in between the rows.

The plants are gross feeders, so, 10 days before planting out in mid-May, scatter fish blood and bone or Vitax Q4 at a rate of four ounces a square yard over the soil's surface and rake it in to a depth of three inches.

After 10 days plant the plants, one to each cane.

As they grow, tie in the leaf stalks to the cane and pinch out all tendrils and side shoots. This is done daily and you will see the first bloom buds forming once the stems are four feet high.

It won't be long before the stems reach the top of the canes but, no problem, what we do then is untie the stem on canes one and six, and bend down each of the stems so they are re-tied again on to the other cane and then each stem is re-tied to the new position. This can be

continued all summer as all the time they are growing they are producing flowers.  Regular supplies of liquid fertiliser diluted in water will ensure this long season.

If you can't be bothered with all of this, then get hold of a big bundle of pea sticks and fix them up like a wigwam. Plant the plants and leave them alone. You will still have a good show but with shorter stems. However, the perfume is not affected!

If you sowed the seeds earlier, you will be able to plant them out now. They are very hardy but protect them from birds for a few weeks. Take the top and bottom off a plastic bottle, it makes an ideal little cloche which can be taken off once the plants are growing well.

THIS WEEK'S TOP TIP

A very handy sprayer containing ready-made Roundup weedkiller is very useful for spraying weeds in cracks in pathways at this time of year. But it will kill all plants, so mind it doesn’t drift on to cultivated plants.