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Sara Draycott

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The Art of Formal Gardening:Sweet Peas at Wisley by Sabatino Urzo

Posted by Sara Draycott on 10 Oct 2012 at 01:24 PM

Wisley is among the greatest gardens of the world for its extraordinarily diverse plant collection and displays that every year is showing off a carnival of colours, ideas and concepts; undoubtedly it is one of my favourite gardens!


Fig.a Sabatino Urzo

Whilst managing the AGM (Award of Garden Merit) herbaceous and shrubby borders at Wisley I have been inspired to demonstrate a distinct way of growing sweet peas within the four prominent formal borders. Inspiration struck my mind on the way back to England from Sorrento, a small town in Campania, southern Italy to a visit to the breathtaking Amalfi Coast, riding a Vespa and taking in the essence of Mediterranean life, local gastronomy, fashion, design and luxurious villas.


Fig.1 Limonaie, Amalfi Coast

Lemons are the main local agricultural products and are locally selected forms of the Feminello variety. Generally older trees are very tall, sometime 8m (25ft) and require long ladders for picking. Lower branches and ripening fruit are supported on an internal wooden frame. Find out more about the Limonaie or lemon groves here. I absolutely love lemons, but I was more intrigued with their support and how they were growing rather than the plant in itself. In fact this wooden arrangement gave me an idea for how to grow climbers in the AGM Borders at Wisley. As far I was concerned the show needed to last at least five months, and be easy and practical at the same time.


Fig.2,3 Screen construction

But what climber to grow on this frame and why? The idea was to grow something cheerful with a lovely fragrance, and above all, easy and fast growing. Something particularly scented for the summer, and the investigation focused on sweet peas, or botanically talking Lathyrus odoratus, a plant that perhaps I have not emphasized enough in my work. These flowers are surely the most popular annual flower, being especially prized for their colour, scent and late blooming.


Fig.4,5 Sweet peas development

If you look at catalogues, online suppliers, nurseries and garden centres you will probably bump into so many different cultivars available, from high-quality exhibition blooms to those prized for their colour. The ones that I have designated are particularly vigorous, fragrant and resistant to pest and disease such as:
Lathyrus odoratus 'White Supreme' -  Highly scented white flowers
Lathyrus odoratus 'Ballerina Blue' - Scented soft blue flowers
Lathyrus odoratus 'Gwendoline' -  Strongly scented frosted pink effect


Fig. 6 Lathyrus odoratus 'Gwendoline'

After the seed selection and sowing in March the sweet peas started growing in the propagation department and finally trained on a small cane in a 9cm pot. While the spring was progressing, the growing process was too and May was the month when the young plants were ready to be collected and planted in the borders. Like all climbers sweet peas definitely need to be trained up on a frame that allows them to perform throughout the season and the arrangment was made by bamboo cane of 250cm height with 50cm dug into the ground to form a screen shaped as an espalier a metre large on the base and 1.30m on the top.


Fig.7 Lathyrus odoratus 'White Supreme'

Alongside the bamboo canes I also included birch stems in order to create a birch-net to better support the young plants. The final idea was to create a formal feature imitating the rectangular AGM Borders characterising a natural planting scheme of shrubs and herbaceous plants. If you are going to grow sweet peas with a similar screen you might consider including additional plants in front of it such as Geranium sanguineum 'Album', Coreopsis verticillata 'Moonbeam' or Lavandula angustifolia 'Loddon Blue' in order to cover at least 30-40cm of your bamboo frame from the base.


Fig.8 AGM Borders

In order to reduce untidyness remove the leaves from the lowest area when the plant is reaching its peak. Howewer, the show of flowers should last for around four months with 'White Supreme' in good condition until few days ago when the display was removed. Do not forget to use gardening gloves if you manage bamboo canes, and for a long and regular supply of blooms cut flowers frequently, before they produce seeds pods.

Hopefully my blog will encourage you to try new ways of growing plants in a more stylish and elegant way, inspired by the lemon groves of the Amalfi Coast!

Happy gardening, Sabatino Urzo

Useful links
Sweet peas society:
How to grow Sweet Peas:
Sweet peas seeds online


Kea Plum said:

Lovely idea, much nicer than a wigwam.  How many plants would it support do you think?

on 30 Oct 2012 at 09:22 AM

SoHopeful said:

What a super idea - tall plants filling the back of the border without much risk of falling over!  Incidentally, I read in an ancient gardening book about planing sweet peas over a trench, filled with fresh manure - the idea was that the rotting would provide heat over the colder months and aid development - is this technique still practiced and if so does anyone know where can I find details?

on 01 Nov 2012 at 04:49 PM

sabatino said:

Thank you for the comments, much appreciated! - Answering the first question, the structure was developing seven plants growing in a 9 cm pot planted with a distance of 15 cm circa between them. The front as a high-profile area had four plants and the back only three. It worked well thanks the fast growth of the sweet peas that in few weeks have entirely covered the whole screen. You could probably try to growth 4-4, front-back or only 4 in front but think that some of them may die for various reasons. This is also why I have planted few more on the back as well. Good question!

Regarding the second enquiry my grandfather use to growth sweet peas over a trench on his allotment but not sure on how old is this technique or either if is still practiced. You could probably ask the National Sweet Peas Society and their expertise of committee members, try this email address: - they may be able to help you. Thank you for asking!

on 06 Nov 2012 at 08:24 PM