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Wondering which sweet peas to pick for the perfect perfume? Just ask Monty Don…

Although the flowers are beautiful, and can keep on being so into autumn, it’s the scent of sweet peas I love most. 

It has unfathomable depths of gentle sensuousness, and is one of those delicate yet persuasive garden fragrances that’s more enticing and seductive than any man-made perfume.

Unfortunately, the choice of fragrant sweet peas is more limited than the scores of visually sumptuous varieties that are all but scent-free, which is a result of the obsessive breeding and showing of sweet peas in the last 100 years.

Monty Don reveals the scent of sweet peas is better than any man-made perfume. Pictured: A wigwam of fragrant ‘Matucana’ sweet peas

COULD YOUR GARDEN WIN?

There’s still time to enter Britain’s most prestigious amateur gardening contest – whatever the size of your plot.

  • To enter, send 4-8 photos of your garden (which cannot be returned); a plan of your garden; and your name, postal address, phone number and email address to National Garden Competition, PO Box 485, Fleet, GU51 9FF by Friday 23 July.
  • The judges will make a shortlist of gardens to visit to select four finalists. If you’re on the shortlist you’ll be contacted by Saturday 24 July; visits will take place from 27 to 29 July. Final judging will take place from 4 to 5 August. Finalists and the winner will be featured in Weekend.
  • The judges’ visit will conform to the government Covid-19 guidelines at that time. If conditions preclude garden visits, other arrangements may have to be made to complete judging.

THE RULES

  • The competition is open to amateur gardeners, who should have designed and principally built their gardens themselves.
  • Entrants should maintain the garden with no more than one part-time helper.
  • Entrants agree their gardens may be used for promotional purposes.
  • Entrants must be over 18. Usual Daily Mail rules apply. The judges’ decision is final.

THE PRIZES

  • £2,000 first prize, plus special blue plaques for all finalists.

The original sweet pea introduced to this country in 1699 is likely to have been a magenta and purple bicolour now called Lathyrus odoratus ‘Cupani’. 

The pretty pink and white ‘Painted Lady’ was one of the first bred varieties, being recognised as such in the 1700s, but very few new varieties were raised until Henry Eckford, the head gardener at Sandywell Park in Gloucestershire, virtually invented grandiflora sweet peas in the late 19th century, producing more than 100 cultivars. 

These have larger flowers and a much wider range of colours but, crucially, retain their fragrance. The plum-coloured sweet pea ‘Monty Don’ is a grandiflora.

‘Cupani’, ‘Painted Lady’ and another bicolour, ‘Matucana’, are the best sweet peas of all for fragrance. Other than these, it’s best to hunt out Eckford’s grandifloras, which will make up most of any ‘old-fashioned mix’ of seeds.

We grow the richer colours in the Jewel Garden, including ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Black Knight’, ‘Midnight’, ‘Violet Queen’, the bright orange ‘Henry Eckford’ and the magenta ‘Annie B Gilroy’. In the Walled Garden we have white sweet peas, all with good scent, including ‘Dorothy Eckford’, ‘Royal Wedding’ and the ivory ‘Cream Southbourne’.

I sow my sweet peas in early spring, with three seeds per 8cm pot, germinating them in the greenhouse before moving them to coldframes to harden off. If one or two don’t germinate, I don’t replace them. One strong plant will produce as many flowers as six weak ones. However, when you buy sweet peas from a garden centre there might be as many as a dozen in a pot and it’s a good idea to thin them out to give them a chance.

Late frosts are the enemy, but mid-April is a good rule of thumb for planting out, as long as the sweet peas have been hardened off – give them at least a fortnight outside in their pots, and cover with fleece in a cold snap. They’re susceptible to slugs when first planted out, so keep an eye on them, and make sure they’re well watered. They will need tying in every week or so for the first few months but will support themselves once they get growing strongly.

To keep the plants flowering, you must pick the blooms every eight to ten days, because they quickly go to seed as the weather warms up. They are also quick to go to seed if they become dry, so a regular soak is essential. As you do so, remove any seedpods that appear because the plant will channel more energy into seeds than making new flowers.  

YOUR KITCHEN GARDEN: NEW POTATOES   

The whole point of first and second early potatoes is their texture, taste and, above all, sweetness. The sugars in a potato fresh from the ground are more intense

The whole point of first and second early potatoes is their texture, taste and, above all, sweetness. The sugars in a potato fresh from the ground are more intense

My birthday in July triggers the annual ritual of digging my first new potatoes of the year. Some years I can hold the harvest of conker-sized spuds in one hand, whereas in others they are swelling into overblown maincrop, a few weeks past their perfect egg-like size.

Regardless of proportion, they are a treat that cannot be replicated out of season without losing savour and betraying the whole ethos. This is the pleasure of growing your own: there is nothing between you and the experience.

I concentrate on first and second earlies, which are bred for their ability to grow and produce tubers quickly. ‘Charlotte’ is a trusty favourite – ready from late July, it keeps for months.

The whole point of first and second earlies is their texture, taste and, above all, sweetness. The sugars in a potato fresh from the ground are more intense, and if you cook and eat them straight after harvesting there really is an appreciable difference from anything that has to be packed and transported. New potatoes should be dug for each meal and each harvest cooked in its entirety, for leftover cold ones are almost as good as those served steaming hot.


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