Gardening: Short and Sweet

PUBLISHED: 12:19 10 October 2013 | UPDATED: 12:23 10 October 2013

Flowering sweet peas.

Flowering sweet peas.


Roddy Llewellyn offers some wisdom on the sweet pea, the quince and the banana plant

A few years ago I was walking down a smart street in Notting Hill and saw a flower seller on the pavement.

From some distance away I could smell the wafting scent of sweet peas so I made a bee-line towards it. Standing tall and proud was a vase of white sweet peas going for a mere £1 a stem. This reminded me why I always grow my own. January is the time to sow sweet peas if you didn’t get round to doing it in the autumn.

Because sweet peas send roots down quite deep it is best to sow them in special long, slender black bags that can be bought in garden centres. Once these bags have been filled with seed compost they need to be placed into a deep tray so that they prop each other up. Seed can be soaked overnight for sowing the next day to soften the seed coat and two to three seeds should be sown in each pouch. Soak the seed compost and keep them at room temperature.

Soon after they have started to produce growth they can be put in a sunny porch or frost-free greenhouse. If they become impossible leggy they can be snipped back, about half-way, before being planted out after the threat of frost is over. During the time when they are growing inside in winter there is a chance that they can be attacked by hungry mice. I have found that if you put them on a table whose top overhangs the legs by, say, 6” (15cm) the mice find it very difficult to access the young plants.

I am choosing plants for my new woodland walk and as I pour through books for inspiration I stumble across a number of plants that I will never entertain again because they have proven themselves too invasive.

The Japanese quince (Chaenomoles speciosa), with those glorious flowers in spring, has an antisocial habit of spreading at an alarming rate and starts to gallop up its neighbours in a very untidy fashion. There’s a variegated version of ground elder sold as a groundcover plant. This ‘different’ plant looks so charming in its little pot at the garden centre but it can, like its greenleaved feral cousin (introduced to this country by the Romans who used to cook it as a cure for gout), spread out of control and prove very difficult to eradicate.

Those low-growing, groundcover bamboos like Arundinaria viridistriata soon become similarly bothersome and should always be contained in some way like mint.

I only mention these plants as I do not want any extra unnecessary maintenance in the future when I may not be as nimble on my feet as I am now.

You may think I’ve gone bananas to talk about bananas in mid-winter but they have become popular ornamental additions to gardens all over the country. I was first made aware of banana plant cultivation in this country when I visited Architectural Plants in West Sussex some 25 years ago. After many attempts at insulating them from the winter cold using everything from plastic drainage pipes filled with straw to chicken wire surrounds stuffed with bracken they now surround them with bales of straw.

That achieves the main aim – to prevent the main stem from collapsing right down to the ground. If indeed a banana plant does lose its main stem it will nearly always produce off-sets from the base the following summer. If you do decide to grow a banana outside you will be sold what is thought to be the hardiest of the bananas – Musa basjoo that originates in southern Japan.

It goes without saying that you should choose the most protected spot you can find for it especially if you live in the country.

Fashion-conscious city dwellers who enjoy milder winters in their microclimates will always have a banana lurking in the corner of the terrace (along with a Melianthus major, of course).

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