four things I’ve learnt about sweet peas

Sweet pea season is in full swing here. Every room in the house has a fistful stuffed into any vase, jar or bottle we can find.

sweet peas, cottage garden blogHere are a few things I’ve accidentally learnt about the scented scramblers this year.

1. soak the seeds, then forget about them for a few days

We’re overrun with lavender Lady Grisel Hamilton and pale pink Nelly Viner. I only sowed one pack of each but they had the best germination rate of all the varieties we’ve grown.

Lady Grisel Hamilton sweet pea, cottage garden blog

we’re picking armfuls of pale lavender Lady Grisel Hamilton

The secret? I popped the seeds into water one Friday night, intending to sow them the next afternoon. But my daughter had swimming, then we met up with one of her buddies… I finally remembered them on the Monday morning, and found them looking fat and bloated. They were swiftly transferred to damp kitchen towel and when I got round to planting them the following weekend most of them were sprouting.

We had a 100% success rate with these – they all grew into strong, healthy plants. Usually I’m lucky if 50% germinate and survive long enough to be planted out.

2. winter-sown sweet peas are tough as old boots

Semi-disaster struck in April when a passing wild rabbit feasted on the seedlings from our first sowing last November. They looked like they might be goners but I planted them out anyway and they’ve recovered well enough. Their roots were far more established than the ones we sowed later, so I think they could have survived almost anything.

3. pinch the tips out for a bushy plant, let them be for longer-stemmed flowers

My neglect of Nelly Viner and Lady Grisel Hamilton continued once they were growing. Instead of pinching out their tips – as I thought you were supposed to – I let them grow long and leggy. They tangled so much that I had to spend ten minutes teasing them apart before planting them out. But they’ve gone on to produce  long, strong-stemmed flowers that are perfect for picking.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

long, straight stems

According to Gardeners World this is the best way to grow sweet peas for the vase – and if you can be bothered to pinch out their side shoots they’ll be even better.

4. don’t plant them in a wigwam

Our daughter’s sweet pea castle was only meant to be a bit of fun. But it’s become one of the loveliest features of the garden this summer.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

the sweet pea castle

However, the ones we planted in smaller wigwams are top-heavy and so congested that the flower stems grow twisted and misshapen as they try to find their way towards the light.

It turns out some sweet pea experts don’t favour the traditional wigwam method either – I found this advice from Bunny Guinness in The Telegraph’s online gardening pages:

…the wigwam shapes generally advocated are not ideal. All the growth generated from the bottom ends up concentrated at a thin area at the top. Stakes with a coarse netting (such as pig), set into the ground in a circle (perhaps 500mm/20in wide and 1.2m/4ft high) are better; or use bushy twigs of hazel or birch as pea sticks – anything with long stubble to cling on to.

So it seems that most of the so-called rules of sweet pea growing are there to be broken. I’m beginning to wonder if most gardeners make it up as they go along, just like we do.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

the castle in action


coming up roses

Several of our roses didn’t flower last year, despite growing like mad. We wondered if they didn’t have enough sun.

rambling rector rose, cottage garden blog

Rambling Rector didn’t bloom last year, but is smothered in sprays of flowers now

But they must have just been finding their feet (or roots) as they’re making up for it now. I’m beginning to wonder if some varieties, especially the ramblers, only flower on the previous year’s growth.

Alexandra rose, cottage garden blog

Alexandra opens in coppery pink then fades to a paler blush

We’re learning as we go with the roses. There seems to be a lot of strong opinion out there about things like how to prune, when to prune, whether to prune at all… The same goes for deadheading. And (gasp) whether to spray them.

Gardeners Delight rose, cottage garden blog

we’re hoping to train this Gardeners Delight up a tall tree stump in the centre of a border

So far we have been quite laissez faire  in our approach. We’ve given them a good start, preparing the soil with manure and fish blood & bone. But then we’ve stepped back and left them to it, apart from an occasional tying-in for the ramblers and climbers.

Jude the Obscure rose, cottage garden blog

Jude the Obscure – the best-smelling rose I’ve ever come across and absolutely gorgeous to boot

Some of them have a few unsightly leaves (I think it’s blackspot) and a couple of the blooms look a bit ropey where the buds were damaged by pests. I picked up a Rose Clear spray gun in the garden centre the other day. But it went straight back on the shelf when I read that it shouldn’t be used when bees are about.

I’ve heard that some otherwise organic gardeners make an exception when it comes to roses, but for now I’m sitting on the fence.

Bobby James rose, cottage garden blog

Bobby James has flung himself up this ancient Blakeney Red perry pear tree – 12ft so far, and still going strong

The first roses we bought were simple, single-flowered varieties, like Rambling Rector and Bobby James. I used to dislike the fancier  ones. But my tastes must be shifting as we now have several fuller-flowered ones in various girly shades. I love them all. And it turns out Steve is quite partial to a flouncy pink rose as well.

Harlow Carr rose, cottage garden blog

one of Steve’s choices: Harlow Carr

Cariad rose, cottage garden blog

another one of Steve’s: Cariad (Welsh for ‘love’)

It’s strange to think that we never grew roses before we lived here. Now we have them all over the place. Clambering up trees, climbing over arches, in borders, in pots and dotted here and there at the edge of the garden. Even the flouncy ones have a relaxed charm that feels right at home here.

Golden Showers rose, cottage garden blog

we’re hoping the Golden Showers either side of this arch will meet in the middle this summer

But their prettiness is only half the story. I’m sure there must be such a thing as a connoisseur of rose scent. The range is quite astonishing, from the fruity Jude the Obscure to the clove-like Rambling Rector and the musky Cariad.

cariad rose, gardening blog

Cariad looks like a waterlily from the side

We’re only just getting to know our roses. But since they live for around 35 years I’m sure they will all become old friends.

paul's scarlet rose, gardening blog

both of my grandmothers grew this rose: Paul’s Scarlet

What’s your favourite rose? And where do you sit on the spraying debate?

outside-in: May 12/12

Outside-in charts my attempts to bring the garden into the house with haphazard English Freestyle flower arranging.

There’s so much going on in the garden this month that I almost forgot to bring any flowers inside until yesterday evening.

picked in the rain, cottage garden, gardening blog

It was raining so it wasn’t really ideal for flower-picking, but I managed to get a good haul.

alliums and peony, cottage garden, gardening blog

For the first time ever I picked some peonies. The Karl Rosenfeld variety which didn’t flower at all last year has lots of buds coming. I allowed myself three and left the rest outside.

Brookside geranium and rose, cottage garden, gardening blog

Bringing the first roses of the new season into the house made it feel (and smell) like summer is well and truly here, despite the rain and the fact that we have lit the wood burner twice this week.

Brookside geranium close-up, gardening blog, cottage garden

I really, really love this geranium. It’s called Brookside, which is impossible to say without a Liverpudlian accent if you grew up in the UK in the 80s like I did. We bought this plant from the nursery at Burrow Farm Gardens when we were driving back from a trip to Devon last year. If you’re ever in East Devon the gardens are well worth a visit – and you won’t be able to resist taking a few things home. I hope we can get back down there some time soon.

allium roseum, gardening blog, cottage garden

This allium (Roseum) is probably my favourite new plant of the year so far. It’s more delicate and subtle than the other alliums we have in the garden, and I can live with its oniony smell in the house.

So, that’s the last in my 12-month series of outside-in posts. The idea was to see if I could keep the vases furnished with flowers from the garden all year round. We just about managed, although I did resort to weeds – ahem – wild flowers in March.

It’s certainly true that we have far more flowers in the garden now than we did this time last year. It’s partly because the mild winter has brought everything forward by a good three weeks.  But I can also see that we’re slowly starting to add new layers to the fabric of the garden. And we’re getting better at choosing varieties that flower early or late in the year to extend the season and keep things pretty.

it’s beginning to look a lot like summer…

lupins, evening sun, cottage garden, gardening blog

Rabbit damage wasn’t the only thing we found in the garden after our holiday.

Our three year old watched in utter bemusement as Steve and I ran round shouting ‘the lupins are out!’ ‘the rose on the vibernum is flowering!’ ‘have you seen the alliums?!’.

allium bed, cottage garden, gardening blog

allium purple sensation

May is a pretty stupid time to go away for a week if you’re into gardening. It put a spanner in the works for hardening-off the tender plants. And although we had Steve’s brother lined up to do the watering (thanks Dave!) I didn’t really want to sow any seeds in the last couple of weeks before we left.

allium cristophii, cottage garden, gardening blog

allium cristophii

But it was wonderful to come home and see how much everything had changed. Some of the plants that are now in their second year are starting to look really at home.

malvern hills rose, cottage garden, gardening blog

malvern hills rose

And the borders are literally buzzing with bees.

allium roseum with bee, cottage garden, gardening blog

allium roseum

Hello, Summer.

malvern hills rose back lit, cottage garden, gardenig blog

malvern hills rose



those pesky wabbits

616px-Young_wild_rabbitA few weeks ago I spent a happy few minutes with my daughter watching a rabbit nibbling weeds by the compost bin. She’s a big fan of Peter Rabbit and his cronies.

When Steve saw, he told me it spelt disaster for the garden. I muttered something about Mr McGregor and ignored him.

How naive I was. We’re just back from a week’s holiday and our neighbour tells me he has seen up to four rabbits at a time skipping around the veg garden. They’ve had a go at the peas, but it seems to be the new cutting patch alongside the veg that has really taken their fancy.

Just before we went away I decided to take a gamble, putting out some of the young plants we’d grown from seed in the greenhouse. The rabbits couldn’t believe their luck.

newly planted cutting patch, cottage garden, gardening blog

before the rabbits came

Now many of the plants have telltale marks of rabbit teeth: it looks like they’ve been neatly snipped with scissors. I’ve discovered rabbits have strangely selective tastes. My Earthwalker sunflowers are untouched, while Vanilla Ice has been razed to the ground. Cosmos are clearly a favourite, but only the ferny leaves. They have left me the stalks. The consolida Snow Cloud that I was growing for the first time – and very much looking forward to – have been virtually destroyed. The gaillardia and cleome don’t have a mark on them.

This should just be a temporary setback rather than the end of the cutting patch. I had spares of most of the plants, except the consolida, and I think there’s still time to sow a few more batches of seed.

We’re supposed to be getting a new fence to keep the dogs off the veg garden and cutting patch. I’d been planning something pretty and cottagey. But perhaps a rabbit-proof fence will be more appropriate.

Or am I being over-optimistic to hope that now we’re home – and the dogs and cats are at large in garden again – the rabbits will stay in the fields.


Wild rabbit photo from Wikimedia Commons

making a sweet pea castle

hazel poles for sweet peas, cottage garden, gardening blog

hard at work coppicing hazels

We’ve finally dug up the remains of the massive pampas grass that dominated the centre of the garden when we moved here. Well, Steve has anyway. And it looked back-breaking from where I was standing.

This is the only section of garden that gets sun all day. So now the pampas has gone our plan is to create an island border and fill it with the sun-loving perennials that we struggle to find space for elsewhere.


It’s going to take a bit of work though. Especially since the list of plants we want to include gets longer by the day. For the time being, we’ve turned the pampas patch into a sweet pea castle for our three-year-old.

sweet pea castle, cottage garden, gardening blog

trying the castle for size

Our hedge is full of hazels that grow like mad and provide us with an endless supply of plant supports. Last weekend Steve coppiced a few and I strung them into a frame for the sweet peas to scramble up. It’s like a traditional sweet pea wigwam, except we left a hole at the front for a door and didn’t gather the poles at the top.

It’s fairly robust, but if I did it again I would think a bit more carefully about my stringing technique. I should have alternated, doing a row at the bottom then one at the top, instead of just working my way up. By the time I got to the top, I decided the poles should taper in a bit, but as I tightened the string some of the lower layers slackened off. That’s the problem with making it up as you go along.

Steve did praise the fact that I worked clockwise then anticlockwise. Apparently this makes it stronger. I just nodded knowingly when he told me, and didn’t say I’d only done it that way because I was too lazy to cut the string after each level.

sweet peas

nibbled by a rabbit…

I’d been planning to use the Easton Walled Garden heirloom sweet peas that we sowed in November to grow up the castle. I thought the blue, pink and white of the Lord Nelson, Miss Willmott and Dorothy Eckford varieties would work well as a centrepiece for the garden through the summer. As well as providing a pretty, scented den for our girl and her playmates of course.

However, semi disaster struck a couple of weeks ago when a passing wild rabbit decided he was rather partial to sweet pea shoots. The plants seem to be recovering, so I’ve still used them. But I interspersed them with a couple more old-fashioned varieties that we sowed later (Nelly Viner and Lady Grisel Hamilton).

Last year our sweet peas grew up and over their poles. I don’t know if the rabbit-nibbled ones will grow anywhere near as tall. I suppose we can always fill any gaps with a few runner beans.

outside-in: April 11/12

Outside-in charts my attempts to bring the garden into the house with haphazard English Freestyle flower arranging.

Sarah Raven brandy snap mix, cottage garden, gardening blog

Our vases have been full of tulips this month.

My favourites for picking were Sarah Raven’s brandy snap mix.

Their colours seem to suit the garden and the house. Steve prefers tulips in bright reds and yellows – I like them too – but these softer colours are more harmonious and gentler on the eye.

I’m especially smitten with a variety called belle epoque. It reminds me of the coral charm peony we have by the back door. I find it difficult to pick peonies since their flowers are so fleeting, but it feels far more acceptable to cut a few tulips. These lasted a good week in the vase, and smelt wonderful – almost summery.

belle epoque cottage garden, gardening blog

an overblown belle epoque tulip is almost peony-like

In fact, some of them looked a little nondescript in the garden, but came alive on a windowsill when they caught the sun.

Tulip Cairo and Ronaldo, cottage garden, gardening blog

this rust-coloured cairo tulip looks more remarkable in a vase than in the garden

Its hard to believe these flowers came from the dry bulbs I planted on a bitter day in November.