I sow my sweet peas on the short days between Christmas and the end of the year. It is a quiet, gentle activity which helps me to reflect on the year which has been and to think happy thoughts about the year which lies ahead. I sow three seeds to each 7.5cm/3″ pot, water the compost well, and line the pots out in a cold glasshouse. In a week to ten days, the bright green shoots are through. When they reach 10cm/4″ tall, the tip of each one can be pinched out – another way to thwart the apical dominance – which encourages the development of side shoots. This is something I have done on time only occasionally. The end of January and the beginning of February is one of the quietest times in an English garden and I usually venture far enough south to find the sun. Sweet peas can be sown as early as November and as late as April, but I prefer to sow when I do as the plants are better timed in the garden calendar and the right height for planting out after the risk of frost has passed. They are native to southern Europe, Sicily through to the Aegean islands and Cyprus and enjoy full sun. I have not seen them in the wild, although I would love to do so. I imagine they enjoy river banks and wet places, as when growing in England they thrive best in humus-rich, very moist soil. Indeed, my greatest success has been to grow them in a spot where a land-drain had collapsed and the soil was almost boggy.
I worked in a garden for seven years and sweet peas were the lady-owner’s favourite flowers. During my first summer there, she would be out every day, cutting the flowers to take into the house, tie-ing the growing stems into the trellis which we used as support. She favoured the softest of pinks and blues, cultivars such as ‘Frolic’ and ‘Leamington’. In late spring the following year, she came and asked me how to plant them out. The trellis had 20cm/8″ squares, so one pot per square was the right planting distance. When next I passed that way, I quietly removed half of all she had planted. Her harvesting that year was erratic. In my third year she wanted bold colours like ‘Beaujolais’ and ‘Daily Mail’; her tastes had changed. We planted them out together, but she lost interest and I finished the task alone. In my fourth, I asked if she wished to help me, and with words which broke my heart, she asked “What are sweet peas?” Throughout that year and until I left, I would cut the flowers every day through their season and take them into the house for her. I would offer them to her and she would go through the motions of enjoying them, even though she had lost her sense of smell. I wonder if anyone grew sweet peas for her after I left. She had the brightest spirit of anyone I have ever met, piercing the world with her intense blue eyes. Her suffering has ended now. I have picked sweet peas today and they scent my house. I cannot help but think of her, and her light which dimmed too early.