The sweet peas are an investment. A good one with the promise of marking summertime, but one that is not without a requirement for continuity and a little-and-often attention. The rounded, manageable seed is easy. A finger pushed into compost and three seeds per pot for good measure. Sown either in the autumn and overwintered in the frame for a little protection for the strongest plants and earliest flower or, alternatively, at the first glimmer of spring in February. You have to watch if the mice are not to eat the freshly sown seed before it has even germinated and, although perfectly hardy, they like good living once ready to go out in April. They require good ground, with manure or compost and plenty of moisture to send their searching growth up into a carefully managed cage of supports. We use hazel twiggery from the coppice here. Helping their ascent, so that their soft tendrils are trained within easy reach for picking, another part of the daily vigil. And finally, once they start to bloom, you need to keep on picking to keep the flowers coming if they are not to go to seed.
All in all the rewards are forever worth it and the jug sitting beside me, with the whole room perfumed of summertime is testament. Their vibrancy is the personification of long days spent outside doing and the elongated evenings that stretch ahead until bedtime. We spend this valuable time looking and find the evenings and early morning the best time to pick them, for the cool flushes their flower and helps in keeping for longer. The evening bunch for the bedside and the morning bunch for the kitchen table. Pick and you can keep on picking every other day and, when the plants finally begin to run out of energy in August, you will be sure to feel the next season coming. The weight of harvest and in the case of the Lathyrus, the desire to go to seed, which we make allowance for when the stems get too short to pick so that we can save some.
We grow two batches of sweet peas now. Named varieties of the Old Fashioned sweet peas, which we buy new every year from Roger Parsons and Johnson’s. Selected for their perfume and not length of stem we grow them up informal hazel wigwams in a strip of land we call the cutting garden. These are an ever-changing selection as we add to and subtract from a variable list as we move through new varieties and revisit ones we’ve grown to love. These selections have plenty of Lathyrus odoratus blood coursing through their veins and we like the fact that you can feel the parent and that they have not been overbred at the expense of their stem length, flower size or perfume.
Set to one side and grown amongst the perennials in the main garden are the pure Lathyrus odoratus. We keep them apart because the seed was collected by the plantsman and painter Cedric Morris on one of his journeys to Sicily. The direct line has been carefully handed down to custodians who knew the importance of continuity. First, directly from Cedric to his friend Tony Venison, former Gardens Editor of Country Life, and then from Tony to his friend Duncan Scott. Meeting Duncan was a chance happening, as he is the neighbour of a client who thought we should connect. Duncan knew of my friendship with Beth Chatto, who in turn had learned directly from Cedric and had many of his plants in her nursery.
Duncan’s seed was handed over in a brown paper bag with the inscription ‘Cedric’s Pea. Lathyrus odoratus, collected in Sicily’. In turn I have recently had the pleasure of sending seed on to Bridget Pinchbeck who has taken on the responsibility of restoring Benton End, Cedric’s house and garden in Suffolk, to become a creative outpost of The Garden Museum. A full circle made in not too many leaps of the gardeners’ weave and easy generosity.
I am very happy to help keep the line alive and to pass it on, as we have spent much time looking through Cedric’s eyes over the years. First with plants that Morris gave with stories of their provenance to Beth Chatto and her in turn to me. And then through his dusky almost-grey and pink selections of Papaver rhoeas and latterly his Benton Iris which we grow here and treasure. Lathyrus odoratus was first introduced in 1699 by the monk Francis Cupani, the name which you will often find the pea listed under. I wonder whether Morris made his trip to Sicily in Cupani’s footsteps to find the pea for himself ? Regardless, it is good to imagine the find and relive his undoubted excitement at it. The vibrancy of the flower, with its vivid coupling of purple falls, wine red standards and the halo of unmistakable perfume.
It is Cedric’s lathyrus which is the first of our sweet peas to flower. A whole two weeks earlier than the named varieties and still the most perfumed of all. When we walk the garden in the late half-light of June, it is with an invisible orbit of scent that stops you on the path. The late light or early morning are the best times to see their colour. Clear and sumptuous and well worth the effort of continuity.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 19 June 2020