The king of sweet-pea growing

Jim Givens with his sweet peas
Jim Givens with his sweet peas

Mention sweet peas in conversation with flower show exhibitors and it’s not long before the name Jimmy Givens crops up.

He grows several other flowers and vegetables for competition of course, but excels in cultivating this beautifully fragrant, yet potentially difficult annual.

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Gwendoline

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Gwendoline

When other growers have been complaining about the difficult weather and bud-drop, Jim has turned up with a bunch for every lady on our monthly walk.

You’d think that living in the Cheviot foothills would hinder gardening excellence, and he does complain of much more severe frosts than we experience at the coast, but it does not show in his July garden.

When I visited him last week to check on progress, there was no doubt, weather permitting, that he will give his rivals a run for their money this year.

His sweet peas were over six feet tall, robust and bristling with long flowering stems bearing red, white, pink and lavender flowers.

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'New Blue

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'New Blue

On such occasions the word ‘wow’ seems inadequate, but I mouthed it anyway.

Most gardeners would be delighted with the progress of such a crop, but Jim pointed out minor faults as we walked under the net and down the long rows of plants. Among the thousands of leaves there were one or two at the base of otherwise healthy plants suffering from leaf scorch, which you or I would simply remove, but Jim insists they will be treated with a dressing of magnesium sulphate, as last year, and green up again in no time.

‘Why the complete cover with fine mesh netting?’ I wondered out loud. Surely the bird problem can’t be that bad? They’re more interested in the strawberries, raspberries and other soft fruits at present.

But Jim explained that by mid July the pollen beetles start to migrate from the fields of oilseed rape flowers to those of sweet peas which they love.

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Dark Passion

Tom Pattinson gardening pics'Dark Passion

They settle in the keel parts of blooms and certain birds go for quick access to this easy food source. According to Jim, the blue tits, willow warblers and sparrows are the biggest culprits.

Exhibiting sweet-pea flowers with pollen beetles in the keel is accepted at shows, because very little can be done about it.

However, Jim does try to minimise the effect by picking a bunch early and placing it in a dark environment with only one distant chink of light they can be attracted towards. Occasionally it works!

The thermometer recorded 26 Celsius as we walked among Jim’s plants, not bad for mid-morning, but he was concerned about them flagging slightly in the heat and intended to hose them down.

He’d visited the National Sweet Pea Championships at Harlow Carr two days earlier, and had not been impressed by the standard, also noting that some top growers had been visibly absent. He is certainly up to speed with the sweet-pea world, and his approach reflects this.

Jim grows 400 plants, comprising 16 varieties, 25 of each, and what a sight it is when they’re covered in bloom as last week.

His present favourites for show purposes are: Gwendoline (rose pink-white), Valerie Harrod (orange pink), Millennium (crimson), Naomi Nazareth (pale blue) and Ida King (lavender).

His two main suppliers of seed are Roger Parsons – – and Phillip Kerton at

Sweet-pea growing is steeped in tradition. Seeds were always sown in autumn the year before flowering to gain sturdy plants with a good root system, and a deep, deep trench had to be dug at the same time and filled with farmyard manure.

But as Jim pointed out, that is for those who wish to catch the early shows.

His exhibiting season does not begin until the end of July so the seeds are started in moderate heat under glass at the end of January. They are grown on as cool as possible in pots after germination then transferred to a cold frame.

He aims to plant out by the third week in April, but this year it was delayed until the end of the month. This gives him plants that flower just in time for the mid July exhibitions onwards.

Having gone down the road of digging deep trenches in the past, Jim now sees it as unnecessary. This is borne out by his present plants and the flowers they support. He does turn the intended growing area over with spade or rotavator, and some form of organic material is applied, but even before that he sends samples of soil off to be professionally analysed, and follows any advice given to the letter.

In preparation for the current display, he added lime, nitro-chalk, hoof and horn, superphosphate, sulphate of potash, and applied the mix at 5 ozs per square yard as instructed.

Jim has also started feeding with Chempak number 8 at half strength on a weekly basis. The reason, he explained, is that constant watering does little for the intensity of flower colour, but regular feeding maintains the vivid appearance.

Growing sweet peas to perfection is labour-intensive. Pinching out the centres of young plants to encourage a sturdy replacement shoot is only the beginning. Once they’re tied to a cane the process of removing side shoots and tendrils begins, and continues throughout the year.

When plants reach the top of their canes the layering process is called for. This involves gently untying every one and laying it flat along the row, then tying the tip to a distant cane which it is destined to ascend. Last week, Jim was desperate for me to take whatever photographs I needed so he could get on with picking every flower in sight (there were hundreds) and layer his plants.

He was as confident as he could be given our topsy-turvy weather, that there would be plenty of new blooms to choose from for an exhibition ten days hence. Who was I to doubt him?

PICTURED: Sweet peas, from top, Gwendoline, New Blue and Dark Passion.