Grow British sweet peas from seed: Life list accomplishment

There were many challenges to gardening at my home in Virginia: marauding insects (occasionally of the poisonous kind), drought, strong storms, unimproved red clay soil, and the ever-present possibility of coming up with a fistful of copperhead whilst reaching in to pick the cucumbers. This made growing most anything an exercise in self-education and perseverance. Though I had relative success with some plants, a gardening holy grail evaded me: Lathyrus odoratus, the sweet pea. 

I hadn't ever seen sweet peas grown really well anywhere in my travels around the U.S., but they filled the pages of my British gardening magazines and completely beguiled me. I always thought of sweet peas as one of those quintessentially British plants, and my suspicions were confirmed the more I read. The cool and damp climate seemed to suit them, and they are perfect plants for fussing over in hope of attaining large blooms and long, straight stems so desired on the show bench. All the months of nurturing, cordoning, tying in, pinching, and de-tendriling seemed to epitomize British horticulture. 

I did try to grow sweet peas once at home, but my attempt yielded a weak and weedy plant that pushed out one pathetically tiny and virus-mottled bloom before withering. I assumed that with the too-hot, too-fast Virginia climate and the unavailability of most of the really good British strains (and the amazing varieties bred by Dr. Keith Hammett, a Brit in New Zealand), sweet peas were destined to be plants I'd never grow. And that this defeat came before I'd even yet seen--let alone smelled--a proper sweet pea was doubly galling. 

And then I got the chance to study horticulture in Britain, and one of the first things I wanted to do was take advantage of the otherwise ghastly climate to finally grow sweet peas. Last year I bought two small pots of 'Spencer Mix' and stuck them--in June--into the raised planter beside my front door.

I trained the vines up jute netting affixed to the house, watered them once a week with diluted tomato food, and picked enough posies to scent my house until autumn. Unlike me, the sweet peas seemed to love the miserably cold and grey summer, and they lifted my mood. Despite the garish combination of colors in the mix, I was totally hooked. 

This year I wanted to do one better, and actually start my peas from seed. That led me down a rabbit hole of research, as I struggled to choose a few varieties that I could grow in my limited space. I spent the long winter nights with whisky and Pinterest, playing with color combinations and reading about the best characteristics of hundreds of named varieties before choosing six. In March I placed an order, and within days my experiment was under way. 

I sowed the seeds into root trainers, which are good for legumes because they prefer a long root run and minimal root disturbance at transplanting. They germinated after a few days on top of the refrigerator, and I moved them to a windowsill where they quickly etiolated into the palest, most spindly looking seedlings you'd ever seen. Once again my horticultural training had been trumped by that most precious commodity of a Scottish winter: light. It was simply too dark in my house to grow anything. 

I made a tough love decision to chuck the seedlings outside where they'd have the most possible light. A few days of the most cursory hardening off and they were on their own, buffeted and chilled in the gales and hail storms.

I planted them out once their roots had filled the trainers, some in the raised planter and others in grow bags. Because of lack of space and gluttony they're spaced way too close, I know. Then they sat and didn't do much for the ages it took for slightly warmer weather and longer days to arrive. 

But just now I've enjoyed one of my most rewarding gardening experience ever: picking my first sweet peas, grown from seed, in Britain. Just these first few delightfully ruffled blooms have already perfumed my house and lit up my kitchen like living jewels. It's finally summer in Scotland, and I'm even more smitten with sweet peas. 

The varieties above include 'Charlie's Angel,' 'North Shore,' 'Jilly,' 'Senator,' and the pink and red is a mystery lucky dip given to me by a classmate who harvested the seed off someone's student plot last autumn. If I had to guess I'd say it's 'Painted Lady.' Stay tuned for a few more varieties yet to bloom.