Sweet peas are top of my desert island plant list. I love them for their soft papery flowers, pretty pastel shades, and that stunning scent. Summer just wouldn’t be right without them. Here are The Chatty Gardener’s, aka Mandy Bradshaw’s, excellent tips for growing healthy, prolific and beautifully fragranced sweet peas from seed in your garden.
The scent of a sweet pea
They’re easy to grow from seed and I raise dozens of plants each year – old favourites along with just a few new varieties added to the mix. It gives a much better choice than buying plants from a nursery and means I can choose my own colour combinations.
Among my favourites are ‘Little Red Riding Hood’, which has pretty pink and white flowers, and Lathyrus odoratus ‘Cupani’, which dates back to the 17th century. Its violet and maroon flowers may be tiny but little else has the same strong scent. If it’s scent you’re after, take care not to confuse the annual sweet pea, Lathyrus odoratus, with the perennial pea, Lathyrus latifolius, which has a pretty flower but no fragrance.
Sowing for success
Surprisingly, despite their delicate appearance, sweet peas are tough, and autumn-sown plants will come through winter with ease and just a little care.
I prefer to start mine in January or early February, as life is too busy to keep an eye on them in the run-up to Christmas. It also gives me something to sow in the dark days of winter. Seeing new shoots is guaranteed to lift my mood.
Warmth and light
Sweet peas have a long root system so a deep pot is needed. Root Trainers are ideal, or, if you’re cutting down on plastic, try the cardboard inner tubes from toilet rolls. The advantage of using them is that the whole thing is planted – the cardboard will break down as the plant grows – so there’s no root disturbance.
Use a good quality compost and plant a couple of seeds per pot. Some gardeners pre-germinate the seeds on damp kitchen paper but I’ve never bothered and germination is fine. Make sure you label them clearly!
I use a heated propagator to get them off to a good start but a sunny windowsill would do, just pop the pots into a polythene bag, or cover with a piece of glass. Uncover them when the first shoots appear.
Once the plants are about an inch high, I get them out into cold frames to toughen them up a little and free up space in the greenhouse. Just make sure they get good light to stop them getting leggy.
Top tips for successful sweet peas
- Pinching out the growing tip when there are two pairs of true leaves will give you bushier plants and, ultimately, more flowers.
- Make sure you harden plants off gradually before planting them out towards the end of April, or once the ground has warmed up a bit.
- It pays to get the soil right before you plant out. Sweet peas are both hungry and thirsty so improving the nutrients and water-retention of your ground will mean a better performance.
- As well as adding homemade compost to the planting hole, I put a thick layer of newspaper, which is then watered well. This then acts as a ‘sump’ – important on my thin, sandy soil.
- Plants can be grown up netting stretched between bamboo poles or on wigwams. If you don’t have space in the borders, try plants in a large container on a patio and there are even trailing varieties suitable for a hanging basket. Mine are grown on obelisks in the vegetable garden where they’re easy to pick, add colour and bring in pollinators.
- Once the plants are in, protect them against slugs and snails until they get established and then feed and water regularly and keep picking! The plants will stop producing flowers if seeds are allowed to set.
So, make sure you check your plants every day and fill your home with their scent. After all, it wouldn’t be summer without vases of sweet peas.
About the author:
Cotswold-based, Garden Media Guild member, Mandy Bradshaw is also known as the Chatty Gardener. Passionate about gardening and writing, her beginnings are in football reporting for her primary school, and Mesembryanthemum planting with her mother. Winner of the ‘Garden Journalist of the Year’ in the 2018 Property Press Awards, she writes for not only her own blog but also newspapers, magazines and other sites.