SWEET PEAS | Happiness & the scent of summer
The world doesn't just need love, it also needs more sweet peas!
At least, I think so.
And it seems like it’s not just me. In England, there’s an entire society devoted to them: “National Sweet Pea Society”. Now that’s what I call dedication!
Photo: Flora Press/Visions
So let me tell you a little about these beauties. True to their name, sweet peas are closely related to the vegetables we see on our plates. Don’t let that stray your imagination to a plate full of bright green ‘balls’ (or if you’re in the UK: Fish & Chips and mushy peas). This version is much prettier and smells divine.
Just picture this: you’re taking a stroll through your summer garden, positively enveloped by the sweetest, most alluring scent of the lightest summer breeze. Those heady, carefree days of lazing in a lounger and al fresco dinners. Are you with me?
Oddly, it took a few years for sweet peas to really win me over. I have no idea why, but for some reason, they just weren't on my radar. And (same as with dahlias), now I fall in love with them a little more every year. Finding new varieties has become a little bit of an obsession.
The wonderful Erewhon (for more details and to buy seeds, click here)
Photo: Flora Press/Garden Photo World/Georgianna Lane
COLOURFUL FENCES AND FRAGRANT FLOWERBEDS
Sweet peas are annual, lusciously flowering climbers that add a touch of romance and effortlessness to your garden. And they make lovely little summer bouquets – for your lunch table, as a little present or just because…
They come in all kinds of colours and shades: bright white, beautiful blush, pretty pink, red, dark red and bold blue (along with a delicate pastel-blue-ish shade). There's also a dramatic purple and the incredible “Almost Black” – true to her name, she’s almost black.
Photo: Flora Press/Garden Photo World/Georgianna Lane
Photos: Janina Laszlo
Love these? You can find them all right HERE.
Their dainty flowers can ‘zhoozh’ up an unattractive wire fence or anything else you’d rather hide. Or plant them in pots to spruce up any balcony or terrace.
They flower from June until well into autumn and, depending on variety, can grow up to two meters (6’5) tall. Climbers will need a little support, but that doesn’t have to be difficult (or expensive). You can use anything from branches, string, wire or whatever else you have in your shed. They look particularly pretty when they poke their lovely little heads through a fence, especially (of course) a natural wooden fence or something like a white picket fence.
Raised bed by Die Stadtgärtner.
Before we dive into the “how to”, a quick note about growing sweet peas.
According to the National Sweet Pea Society: “It was originally intended that this section should be headed "How to Grow", but since there are so many opinions from different people, many of them contradictory, it is considered that there is no "right" way and so what follows is more properly considered to be hints." I.Love.The.Brits.
So, this is what works for me.
Growing your sweet peas inside has the advantage that you can start nice and early in the year. You can even start in early autumn if you protect them with something like a fleece over the winter months. Beware of especially harsh frost, though. Something like a greenhouse would be perfect.
Use tall pots right from the start. Sweet peas quickly develop very deep roots and they'll appreciate being able to stretch their long legs.
Really important: soak the seeds overnight before you plant them. It will soften the seed pods and they will germinate more quickly and reliably.
They need light (ideally a grow light) and a little loving encouragement from time to time.
Never let your seeds dry out.
After the final frost, you can move your seedlings outside. Spend a few days getting them acclimatised to the cooler temperatures: put them outside during the day and bring them back in at night before you then plant them out.
Last year was really mild here so my sweet peas have been living outside since the beginning of April. If an unexpected frost catches you by surprise, cover the flower bed seedlings with a fleece or, if they’re in pots, bring them inside overnight.
If all of the above sounds like too much of a kerfuffle, you can plant your sweet peas straight outside in your flower beds. The perfect time is April and May.
As mentioned above, it's really important to soak your seeds in water overnight.
Prepare the soil in your flower bed or pot (more on that in the "Location & Maintenance" chapter below) and push the seeds down to a depth of around 1.5cm (0.6"). Then water well.
You can also use seedling pots first and then move the seedlings into your flower bed later.
You'll usually start to see the first little sweet peas sticking their heads out after five to ten days.
After some trial and error (as is every gardener’s wont), I still prefer to pre-grow my sweet peas inside. But: as soon as they start to peak out of the soil, they get moved outside.
If you've grown your seedlings straight outside, spread them out when they’re about 10cm (4”) tall so that there's a distance of 20 – 30cm between each one.
If you live in a milder climate, there are recommendations to sow your sweet peas in September or October. That way, they'll flower up to six weeks earlier the following year and for a longer period. If you have access to a greenhouse, you should definitely consider this. They need to be kept cool but not too cold. They can tolerate a teeeeeny bit of frost, but, for me, where I live (Southern Germany), it's way too much of a risk.
If you want your sweet peas to grow all lush and bushy, pinch off the tip of the plant just above the second or third pair of leaves. This will encourage more growth from the side shoots. I don't pinch out all my sweet peas. I like to leave a few to just grow naturally and I'm always curious to see how much of a difference it makes.
(Update: truth be told, I didn’t see a huuuuge difference last year).
LOCATION AND MAINTENANCE
When it comes to location, sweet peas love sunshine, but they'll tolerate partial shade if they really have to.
Avoid exposure to strong winds (a sheltered spot is recommended) as well as waterlogging.
Some people say you have to be careful with the extra strong midday sun, but that’s never been a problem for me.
If you want to make your sweet peas happy, mix some compost in with your soil when you plant your seeds. They will thank you by producing lots and lots and lots of flowers.
When they’re about 10cm (4”) tall, use some nutrient-rich soil and add it at the bottom of the stem (picture a little volcano at the base of the plant). It will make them form new roots, which in turn means they can absorb more nutrients and water.
Speaking of nutrients: if you fertilize them regularly, they’ll reward you with even more of an abundance of flowers.
They also need lots of water. An irrigation system is a good idea. If you don’t have an automatic watering system, especially during dry spells, make sure they don’t dry out – even if that means more trips with the watering can or hose.
Cut lots and lots of flowers for your summery lunch table or a vase on your desk (cutting them first thing in the morning is best). The more you cut, the more flowers your sweet peas will produce.
Ideally, don't let them go to seed or they'll stop flowering quite as enthusiastically. Or in sweet pea speak: "Well, that's my job done for the year. I've distributed my seeds, no need to grow any more flowers."
BROAD-LEAVED EVERLASTING PEA (Lathyrus latifolius)
Feel like growing flowers from scratch every year is too much time-consuming faff? Take a look at the broad-leaved everlasting pea. She's just as enchanting but she's a perennial. The only drawback is that she isn't scented, but the process for growing her (them) is fairly similar.
Photo: Janina Laszlo
I had to snort a little when I found this statement by the "National Sweet Pea Society": "Germination can take anything between two weeks and two years, so be patient." Mine only took about two weeks, so I guess I'm feeling rather lucky right now.
Click here to check out the National Sweet Pea Society.