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Her Outdoors: The sweet smell of spring

Jane Merrick

Yes, it’s March! It may be chilly but the sky is still light at nearly 6pm and shoots in the garden and allotment are getting taller. Birds are singing louder and building nests. I always feel a sense of excitement that the real gardening season is upon us now, mixed with a mild panic that I have a lot to do – pricking out tiny seedlings from the propagator into little pots, fretting over and cosseting the tomatoes (which are now 3-4 inches high), sowing yet more vegetable seeds, not to mention all the annual flowers that I want to fill in the gaps in the garden and down at the plot.

Every allotment could do with some flowers alongside all that fruit and veg – a patch of wildflowers or a perennial like Sedum to attract the bees; perhaps some bulbs of crocuses, tulips and irises to break up all the bare earth in spring; sunflowers to maintain interest for children; and some annuals that are perfect for cutting, like sweet peas. When I got my first proper garden a decade ago, sweet peas were one of the first things I grew – because they are relatively easy and look stunning climbing up a wigwam. This picture is from my old garden at the back of my flat in Stockwell and shows my favourite variety of sweet pea which is also the oldest cultivar – ‘Painted Lady’, which was first recorded in 1752, the year our modern-day Gregorian calendar started.

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Sweet Pea 'Painted Lady'

I love the two tones of pink and the scent is amazing – one of the strongest-smelling with an intoxicating honey scent. Every year I let some flowers go to seed and collect the distinctive brown spherical seeds and keep them for the next year. This picture is from 2007, and seeds from these flowers were growing for the next successive seasons – I had a jar of Sweet Pea ‘Painted Lady’ next to my bed when I brought my newborn baby daughter home from hospital in July 2010. Even though they are annuals, keeping some seed for next season is like passing down genes to the next generation, creating a sense of permanence.

Sweet peas can be sown right now – as it is early March I would recommend starting them off in pots or root-trainers because the open ground won’t be warm enough just yet. Or you can plan ahead and sow peas in pots/root-trainers in October for planting out the following spring. The soil is still warm enough in October for them to germinate, and as long as the seedlings have established themselves before it gets really cold, they will be fine if kept in a sheltered spot.

There are old-fashioned Grandiflora types which are highly-scented with large flowers; and Spencer types, a mutation discovered on the estate of the Spencer family in 1900, which have ruffled edges to the petals. I prefer the old-fashioned ones but it is good to have a mixture.

I sowed 10 each of the following varieties in root-trainers: ‘Pastel Sunset’ (a mix of frilly pastel colours); ‘King’s High Scent’ (creamy white Grandiflora type with violet edging and very strongly scented); ‘Matucana’ (purple and burgundy flowers and an old-fashioned type); ‘Mrs Bernard Jones’ (almond-pink and white); ‘Old Times’ (frilly and white); ‘Hunter’s Moon’ (lemony-cream and strongly scented); ‘Grace of Monaco’ (lavender-coloured Spencer type); an unknown variety from seeds I collected from the allotment last autumn; a Spencer mixture and of course ‘Painted Lady’. They were placed in a cold frame in October but as I’ve written before, in London it never got cold enough to need to put the lid on the frame. Here are some of the seedlings in January:

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Over-wintering sweet peas in root-trainers in January

and here they are earlier today, at the start of March.

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The sweet peas in early March: they are ready to plant out

Their roots are well-established and are starting to get a bit cramped so need to be planted out soon. I will grow them at the entrance to Plot 35a, near to the seating area, where we can enjoy the scent and graceful flowers. Planting them out now risks the shoots being munched by slugs – particularly as there’s not much else for them to eat and offering fresh juicy leaves is just asking for a slug party – but, even though the seed companies and books recommend planting out in April, in the South East it is usually OK in March. To stop the slugs I will use broken egg shells and a low fence as a barrier and hope for the best. Onwards into March!

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