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GARDENING: Hoping for a sweet scentsation next year.

Byline: COLIN HAMBIDGE

If I had to name just one favourite flower it would have to be the sweet pea. Nothing matches it for colour, elegance and scent.

My sweet pea plants were most disappointing this year and I am at a loss to explain why. I grew them and treated them exactly the same as in previous years, when I was rewarded with armfuls of these beautiful blooms from late May through to late August.

My failure will have to remain one of life's little mysteries, but I am even more determined than ever to have a far better display in the summer of 2009.

Now is the ideal time to make a start, as sweet pea seeds sown this weekend or in the next fortnight will give strong, stocky little plants which can be taken through the winter in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse before being planted out to their flowering positions next March.

This may seem a long process, especially as the plants will not bear flowers until early summer, but it really is a worthwhile idea.

Despite the rather exotic appearance of the blooms, sweet peas are hardy annuals, which means they will tolerate most frosts with just a little protection. Sowing seed in October will lead to earlier flowering than those from seed sown next spring.

The very largest, finest blooms and those with the longest, strongest stems are borne on autumn sown plants which are grown on next spring by the "cordon" method. This is a straightforward - if rather time-consuming - process and involves the removal of side shots and tendrils. Growth is then concentrated into a single stem, which has to be tied into canes once tendrils are removed.

It is actually a very similar management system to that used for greenhouse tomatoes.

The magnificent displays of sweet peas at flower shows are all produced on cordons, but most of us are perfectly happy to grow our sweet peas naturally with just the provision of canes and netting.

I like to sow about five seed per 12cm (5in) pot, using John Innes seed compost or John Innes No 1 compost.

Space seeds evenly round the pot and cover with 1-2cm of compost before watering the pots thoroughly with a watering can with a fine rose attachment. Forget all the advice about soaking seed in water for 24 hours or nicking the seed coat with a penknife.

The great majority of seed will give 90 per cent+ germination without resorting to either of these spurious aids.

Pots can then be placed in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse, closing the lid of the cold fame only when sharp frosts threaten.

Take care with pots placed in a greenhouse that the young plants do not become leggy. Even in winter temperatures under glass can soar, and this does not really help when trying to produce robust plants.

Next March you should have plenty of young plants and by early June bunches of fragrant flowers for the house.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 11, 2008
Words:502
Previous Article:As you reap, so shall you sow in the garden; INTERVIEW When Alys Fowler isn't knee deep in the long borders of the BBC's Gardeners' World plot she is...
Next Article:GARDENING: Dig in for an autumn garden workout; October COLIN is the ideal month to get busy in the garden, says KATE HODAL.
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