Growing Sweet Peas – the lazy person’s guide

Imagine it is mid-summer, the morning sun is warming the day and you are gathering handfuls of pretty, multi-coloured and fragrant flowers to bring back into the house.  If this sounds like a heavenly dream then read on.  The dedicated gardener will need no further encouragement to grow sweet peas but for those less keen on gardening or with little time, they are still the perfect choice.

So, even if your idea of gardening is to sit in it with a glass of chilled, white wine, there is a quick and easy way to grow sweet peas for, at this time of year, pots of young seedlings are available from garden centres.  They are usually grown in a single pot with a dozen or more plantlets crowded together.  They nearly always come as a mix of colours but it is necessary to check that they are a tall-growing and scented variety.  Avoid buying the scentless and/or dwarf types, both of which I dislike intensely – why grow these when they should be fragrant and elegant?

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Sweet peas grown informally on a ‘wigwam’ in the garden border

If the weather is reasonable and the soil not frozen, the seedlings can be tipped out of their pot, teased gently apart and popped in the ground about six inches (15cms) apart.  It is beneficial to make sure that the soil in the pot is moist so give them a good drink an hour or so before planting.  Sweet peas, being climbers, need something to clamber up: the traditional way are hazel sticks. These are ideal for the sweet peas attach themselves readily to the rough and twiggy stems.  If hazel cannot be found, bamboo canes also work well although the young plants may need a little helping hand at first to attach themselves – use any short twigs for this just to prop them up.  The canes, which are traditionally placed into a circular ‘wigwam’, need to be about 7-8ft long so that once in the ground they are about 6ft tall.  Apart from keeping them watered in dry spells and free from slugs and snails that’s it.  They will begin to flower in June and continue (providing you pick them regularly and never allow them to set seed) until the autumn frosts.  Incidentally, they grow well up fences too providing they get adequate sunshine.

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For more experienced gardeners and those that want to enter the local flower show try growing them as ‘cordons’.  With this method they are grown in straight rows on bamboo canes or strings to a height of 5ft.  A place in the vegetable garden is ideal as they can be readily accessed from all angles without treading on other plants.  The spacing is again six inches apart.  For the best blooms, remove the tendrils and any side shoots as they appear, also any flower stems with less than four flower buds. With no tendrils for self-clinging it will be necessary to tie the plants to the stakes with string or by using metal rings sold especially for the purpose.  When the plants reach the top of the canes and/or the flower quality diminishes, cut the plants free of their stakes and lay them carefully along the ground. Tie in the growing tips to their nearest stake and train as before.  The plants will flourish having been given a new lease of life.

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These sweet peas, grown as cordons, are now ready for layering

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The layering process

Sweet peas are readily grown from seed, either sown in pots or the ground in March/April or in pots in October.  I prefer to start them in individual pots regardless of the time of year and to protect them from the worst of any cold weather.  The seed does have a hard coating and many gardening books advise chipping the individual seeds with a knife.  Not only is this hard work and time consuming, I have never found it to be necessary.  The seed is both plentiful and inexpensive and if a few don’t germinate does it really matter that much?

The growing and exhibiting of sweet peas reached a peak in late Victorian and Edwardian times with many specialist clubs holding shows.  With patience and luck, who knows you may become a medal winner at your local flower show?  Even if you don’t, you’ll be rewarded by a garden full of colour and a house full of scent.

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There is lots more no-nonsense advice for gardeners in my book “Why Can’t My Garden Look Like That?”  To take a peek inside the covers, click here.

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Behind The Covers: a book’s hidden story

Like many of us, I can’t resist searching through a pile of second-hand books whether they’re in a shop, car boot sale or just an old cardboard box in a street market. If I want a modern paperback I will go to our local bookseller and buy new but when it comes to second-hand, it is non-fiction I’m after – and the older the better.
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There is something rather special to holding a book that has been previously owned, and hopefully loved, by someone else. It is even better when you find that they have written inside the cover. Sometimes it is the signature of the author with a personal note added or a birthday greeting from an aunt but it is the name of the unknown owner that really excites me. In those two or three words an imagined picture emerges of the man, woman, girl or boy that was also opening the covers with the same sense of eager anticipation.IMG_0741A copyright
Over the years I have picked up a number of these books, usually for no more than a couple of pounds and more often just for pence for they are of little real monetary value. Occasionally I have struck lucky: a book on cricket turned out to have been signed by Donald Bradman, the legendary Australian captain, and turned my seventy-five pence purchase into a profit of over ninety pounds within days. More often the book remains on my shelves forever.

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My interest in social and family history means that I can never resist carrying out a little research into my purchases. A book on Victorian garden design published in 1861 and presented in 1879 to Duncan Buchanan by the Paisley Florist Society slowly revealed its story. The Paisley Florist Society, the second oldest in the country and founded in 1782 , is still going strong. The fate of Duncan Buchanan’s Barshaw Gardens changed over the years: in 1912 the house and gardens were sold and turned into a public park which is still open to the public. After he won his prize he pencil sketched a delightful view on the back page which, for me, makes the book priceless.garden book agarden book 2
Not all books have such a happy story. A G Street wrote Round The Year On The Farm in 1941 and is a calendar of farming life and tasks supplemented with photographs. The signature Edgar Liversedge of Rawmarsh didn’t take a lot of research for in 1914 his mother Emily, in a fit of madness, cut his four younger siblings throats before cutting her own. Before she did so, she sent young Edgar, aged 12, downstairs to wait for his father to return home so that he could tell him what she had done. As it happened she and ten year old Doris survived and Emily found guilty of murder was sent to a mental home for life. How did Doris and Edgar fare after such a terrible ordeal? One can only hope that Edgar, who had perhaps turned to farming, found solace in nature and the great outdoors.

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Now, when I open my A G Street I find I am not only reading a charming record of the time of farming with horses but also a record of the sadness of the book’s owner. This is, I’m glad to say, an exception for most second-hand books have a happy hidden story just waiting to be uncovered.

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2014 in Review: July – December

Christmas has been and gone, even the New Year is a few days old.  A time of old traditions and also some new ones – one of which is the review of the year past.  The first six months can be found by clicking here; now for the next six.

This is the time of feasting, of plenty but in days gone by the essential time of year was harvest.  Without a successful gathering of the corn life during winter would be tough for country folk. Harvest, which starts here in July, is still one of the busiest times of the farming year and despite modern machinery replacing many of the labouring jobs in many ways the task remains unchanged. As a young man I helped on what must have been one of the last farms to harvest in the ‘old way’.  Working from dawn to dusk, it was hard but we didn’t stop until we knew “all was safely gathered in”…

All is Safely Gathered In?

I tend to avoid Exmoor, England’s smallest National Park, in August for it can become quite busy with visitors (I’m selfish and don’t want to share it with others).  This year was different and I arrived in glorious sunshine, the perfect time to see the heather moorland which is in full bloom this month, a purple haze.  To keep it looking as perfect as in the image below, the moors are set alight, an ancient practice known as ‘swaling’. The resultant new growth provides food for the sheep, the wild ponies and the other wild birds and animals that roam the moor…

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Horses play an important part in my life and in September the Burghley Horse Trials take place.  The trials feature three elements of horsemanship: dressage, show jumping and cross-country.   It takes a brave horse and rider to tackle the latter element for the course is very testing and some of the jumps huge.  Accidents do occur, fortunately rarely seriously but when there is a problem with perhaps a fence needing repair, part of my job is to prevent other competitors from running into them. Stop That Horse! lets on what happens ‘behind the scenes’…

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The story of Lorna Doone and John Ridd, the man who saved her is a well-known and much loved tale of romance and treachery, set on 17th century Exmoor.  Many of the places and people – but not all – that feature in the book do or did exist.  In October I explored what is fact and what is myth? Click here to find out…

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There can be fewer more bizarre buildings in the world than The Pineapple in Scotland.  In November I was lucky enough to stay there and to explore the other fascinating and ruined buildings associated with it.  I also found time to travel further afield and take in the spectacular scenery around Loch Lomond…

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Rummaging in a cupboard at home in December I  came across some old photographs that had been inherited many years earlier.  Noticing a signature and doing some research turned into something far more exciting than I ever could have imagined – it turned out to be ‘a great game’…

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2015 looks to be a good year with a number of exciting projects and travel ahead giving plentiful topics for blogging.  May it be a good one for you too.   Thank you for your support and may the New Year bring you all health and happiness.

HAPPY NEW YEAR