There's nothing like the scent of sweet peas for evoking childhood memories, writes Justin Newcombe.
Sweet peas are the sort of plants that have developed a mythology all their own. Their heady scent, ultra-feminine range of shades and iconic form have ensured them a place in the flower pantheon. This devotion all started back in 1699 when Father Francis Cupani sent seeds of the original wild sweet pea from his native Sicily to Dr Robert Uvedale in England. This original sweet pea had a small maroon and violet flower and over the years proliferated into a range of bicoloured and plain variations so today there are two distinct varieties. There are the smaller grandifloras and their larger-flowered siblings, the Spencer types (which, yes, were named after Princess Diana's grandmother, whose garden spawned the first larger flowered variety).
Although sweet peas don't come into flower until late spring, now is the time to start your planning. Part of the mystique surrounding sweet peas involves the elaborate rituals around planting times, seed preparation and ideal soil conditions, but in my experience as long as you stick to the basics of good soil prep you can't go too far wrong. They also need a nice sunny spot and well-drained soil.
Most "experts" generally agree that in milder parts of the country you can sow your seeds anytime between June and August.
As sweet peas are part of the legume family they can be included in your crop rotation cycle so make sure you don't plant them where you've previously had beans or edible peas. Sweet peas require a good serving of well-balanced compost to get them started; at our place we use the diggings from the chook run which seems to be the perfect mix of nitrogen and phosphorus. Too much nitrogen will result in lots of great looking foliage but a famine on the flower front.
Many gardening books will recommend you sow the seeds directly into the prepared ground but you can successfully raise them in punnets and then transplant them when they reach about 8cm tall.
As your plants take off they will need some support so erect a wigwam of bamboo or similar structure before you plant your seedlings.
Protection from slugs, snails and birds is a must. As the weather progresses to spring and early summer you will need to ensure your plants are well watered and mulched to keep them in peak condition. Then once the deluge of flowers begins, regular picking will encourage an apathy-inducing display of flowers (similar to feijoa-apathy and tomato-apathy brought on by a surfeit of those crops). At this point you will be well-placed to impress just about anyone who strolls into your garden as sweet peas in full flight are nearly always a conversation starter.
For many of us it is the smell of sweet peas that is so inherently powerful. Their ability to evoke childhood memories of grandparents' gardens or small vases lovingly placed on the bedside table, demonstrates the age old connection between smell and memory. It is possibly this quality that makes sweet peas so deserving of their place amongst the plant world's floral heavyweights.