There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about sweet peas: for some they are a beloved bloom of a grandmother’s or grew abundantly in a neighbour’s garden, and their use in vintage-themed wedding flowers has meant this unassuming, delicate blossom has become fashionable once again. Whether displayed in clusters tied together with ribbon, or handfuls of frilly petals sprinkled amongst glasses as you dine al fresco, sweet peas are one of life’s little luxuries and notoriously difficult to buy. Despite flowering abundantly during summer, sweet peas are expensive to import and short lived once picked, so have a noted absence from florists’ buckets and bouquets. Despite their scarcity in the shops, sweet peas are simple to grow and flower prolifically, meaning you can fill your home and garden with their intoxicating scent throughout the summer.
Rumour has it that sweet peas are best planted on the 9th of January, and although this will produce flowers earlier, late frosts and lack of heat can kill the young plants. Sweet peas like fertile, well-drained soil and should be initially planted from February to March, ideally in a deep pot to give the roots room to spread. Soak the seeds in water before planting to allow them to swell which aids growth. Convention decrees that the leader shoot should be ‘pinched out’ in order to give the other shoots a chance. However one strong plant will produce as many flowers as half a dozen weak ones, so this is left to personal preference. Most growers will not plant out their sweet peas until mid-April as cold, waterlogged ground will wreak havoc on their delicate stature. Sweet peas are best planted against a wall and will scramble up anything they can get their tendrils on, so ensure young plants are well-supported until they gain strength.
Caring for Sweet Peas
After planting out, leave them for around six weeks to settle. The plants should have grown to around 30 centimetres tall by then and will need tying in every week or so. This season’s sweet peas are likely to bloom late June given the unprecedented cold weather that’s blighted much of the country, but the average flowering time is late May onwards. Once in bloom, prune regularly as flowering will be curtailed if the plants are allowed to set seed. Sweet peas bloom prolifically, so if you like your house filled with freshly cut flowers, then these are certainly the plants for you.
TOP TIP: Always water sweet peas early in the morning or late evening to minimise bud drop and scorching, and feed with a weak solution of plant food during flowering.
Their charming names such as ‘Royal Wedding’, ‘Violent Queen’ and ‘April in Paris’ only add to their enviable reputation. Although Sweet peas actually get their name from the pod-like cocoon that appears once the profusion of blooms have disappeared. The seeds can then be kept and sown directly into the soil during the next planting season. Though delicate in appearance, sweet peas are actually hardy plants that like to have their heads in full sun whenever possible. They continue to be a favourite amongst gardeners due to the height, colour and fragrance benefits they bring to a border.
Slugs, snails and mice are particularly fond of sweet peas, so take precautions regularly. Bad weather and late frosts can affect the plants, so additional fleecing protection may be necessary to avoid the dreaded bud drop period. Too much heat and too little light will lead to weak, leggy seedlings and impact on the plant’s hardy nature. There are a number of insects to watch out for, such as aphids and pollen beetles, which spread disease and leave petals speckled and unsightly. Although there is no chemical control for pollen beetles, gardeners are advised to place the affected flowers in dark room with a light source at one end if possible, to attract the beetles away from the plant.
Best In Show
- Chelsea Centenary. Chosen by the RHS in honour of the Chelsea Flower Show 2013, this pale lavender coloured variety is beautifully scented and produces five or six florets per stem.
- April in Paris. These intensely scented white blooms are a favourite amongst brides and produce sumptuous flowers.
- Gwendoline. A larger flowered variety which produces deliciously frosted pink flowers with a strong scent.
- Royal Wedding. The Royal Wedding sweet pea variety lives up to expectations. Creamy buds open to the purest white, with beautifully scented, gently waved blooms.
- Painted Lady. No sweet pea collection is complete with a cluster of Painted Lady. Bi-coloured flowers of deep pink and white make an eye-catching border display early in the season.