My first serious attempt at growing a ‘proper crop’ was Sweet Peas. I must have been about nine years old at the time, I had heard my Aunt Doris, who was a really good Gardener and Allotment Holder, say that the thing she loved to grow the most was Sweet Peas. That did it. I researched the subject, using what scant information I could gather from various Seed Catalogues. I questioned Aunt Doris on how best to go about the job. I formed a Plan, and off I went.
It worked a treat! All that summer I was able to offer my mother a new vase of sweetly scented flowers every week, and I can see them now, sitting proudly in a cut glass vase on the round brass table we had in the bay window of our sitting room.
There are few more rewarding plants to grow than the Sweet Pea. There life begins at the very start of the year – or even before the very start. In Northern climes it is best to sow in January with a little gently heat to start the process, but in Southern areas they can be sown in November or December. The over riding strategy is to grow them hard. If you are sowing to produce plants for planting out it is best if they are sown one seed in a small pot using John Innes Seed compost. The pot needs to be about 10 centimetres deep by about 7 centimetres in diameter. Some people put two seeds in each pot and then thin out the weaker of the two, but I would prefer to have the odd pot come up as a blank. Push the seeds into the compost to a depth of about three to five centimetres.
You can start your Propagation in a greenhouse or a cold frame, but at all times make sure that there is plenty of ventilation, and only cosset the young seedlings when the weather is really severe. Sweet Pea plants are extremely hardy and actually appreciate a slow, measured germination and development. When the young plants have achieved their first two true leaves, pinch out the growing tip; this will stop the plant becoming tall and weakly and will encourage strong side shoots. If you are going to grow your Sweet Peas as cordons then you will be selecting two strong side shoots to run up the cane support, if you are growing on the ‘hedge system’ on nets then the more strong side shoots you have the better.
Your Sweet Peas can be sown directly into the soil, and this is best done in late February or early March. The pinching out procedure is the same.
Beware of the ;Wee, sleekit, cowrin, timorus beastie,’ Mice are without doubt the greatest threat to Sweet pea plants. I will not recommend any given remedy for getting rid of this fury little pest – I leave the solution of this problem to your own ingenuity and conscience. But please be aware of the danger!
Soil preparation is important, but perhaps no as critical as some would have you believe. Sweet Peas will appreciate a good, fertile well drained soil with reasonable level of nutrients. If the soil is too rich you will encourage a lot of vegetative growth at the expense of flowers. The young plants can be put in their final position as soon weather conditions allow, usually this will be in late March to early April.
Before planting out the your Sweet Pea plants, it is a good idea to put up what ever support you are planning. If you are going to grow your plants as Cordons then single canes are best. Use eight foot stout bamboo canes, one for each plant, placed about forty centimetres apart. Push them into the ground to a depth of least forty five centimetres.
You can either form ’wigwams’ or make a double row and tie the canes to each other at the top with another cane running parallel along the ’V’. Tie this to the canes to create a really ridged structure. If you are going to grow your Sweet Peas as a ’hedge’ then erect a net structure like a very acutely angled tent. Use a wooden structure of uprights made of long stakes driven into the ground. The finished height should be about one hundred and eighty centimetres. Next fix a horizontal bar along the top. The stakes should be about two metres apart. It is a good idea to incorporate some struts to add to the rigidity of the structure – you don’t want a Summer gale wreaking all you hard work. One favourite site for growing Sweet Peas is against a South facing wall or fence; this will lend a lot more rigidity to the supports.
Plant the young Sweet Peas about forty centimetres apart for the ’hedge’ method, or one plant to each cane for the ’cordon’ method. When you put the young plants up to the structure it is advisable to tie in the leading shoot to give it a start in the right direction.
The idea with employing the ’Cordon’ method is to produce flower stems as long as possible, with a flower as large as possible. How this is achieved involves quite a lot of work. The first step is to select two strong side shoots from the base of the plant and the rest of the shoots are removed. Tie in these shoots to the cane, one on either side. I always use raffia to tie Sweet Peas; I find this material strong but gentle. You can also use tying rings, or tube string.
The next move is to let this shoot continue to grow up the cane, tying it in when necessary. As it goes upwards all the side shoots are removed along with all the tendrils. The only growth that is left on the stem are the flower buds, these are left to develop into long stemmed perfect flowers.
The ‘hedge’ method is much less labour intensive. If you are growing them on a net, then all you need to do is gently steer the plants towards the net and let them get on with it. The plants are allowed to flower at will. You will not get the same number of long stemmed, large flowered stems, but you will create a spectacular display of colour!
One the most important things to remember is that you MUST keep picking the flowers. If you stop then they will start to go to seed and that will be that for the rest of the season!
There are countless numbers of varieties of Sweet Peas to choose from – far too many to mention here. Go to your local Garden Centre and peruse their seed displays. The varieties fall mostly into the following categories:
Grandiflora. As the name implies these a large flowered varieties.
Exhibition. As above, but with longer stems.
Old Fashioned. The most highly scented varieties.
Spencer. These varieties have wavy edged petals.
Heritage. Very similar to ’Old Fashioned’
Dwarf. The clue is in the name
Patio. Similar to ’Dwarf’
The only real pest of Sweet Peas – apart from mice – are aphids, mostly green fly. As this is not an edible crop you can use a chemical insecticide to deal with the problem, or if you prefer the organic approach, then why not sow a few Marigolds along the row.
Which ever type and variety you choose, I know you will thoroughly enjoy growing this delightful and rewarding plant.