four things I’ve learnt about sweet peas

Sweet pea season is in full swing here. Every room in the house has a fistful stuffed into any vase, jar or bottle we can find.

sweet peas, cottage garden blogHere are a few things I’ve accidentally learnt about the scented scramblers this year.

1. soak the seeds, then forget about them for a few days

We’re overrun with lavender Lady Grisel Hamilton and pale pink Nelly Viner. I only sowed one pack of each but they had the best germination rate of all the varieties we’ve grown.

Lady Grisel Hamilton sweet pea, cottage garden blog

we’re picking armfuls of pale lavender Lady Grisel Hamilton

The secret? I popped the seeds into water one Friday night, intending to sow them the next afternoon. But my daughter had swimming, then we met up with one of her buddies… I finally remembered them on the Monday morning, and found them looking fat and bloated. They were swiftly transferred to damp kitchen towel and when I got round to planting them the following weekend most of them were sprouting.

We had a 100% success rate with these – they all grew into strong, healthy plants. Usually I’m lucky if 50% germinate and survive long enough to be planted out.

2. winter-sown sweet peas are tough as old boots

Semi-disaster struck in April when a passing wild rabbit feasted on the seedlings from our first sowing last November. They looked like they might be goners but I planted them out anyway and they’ve recovered well enough. Their roots were far more established than the ones we sowed later, so I think they could have survived almost anything.

3. pinch the tips out for a bushy plant, let them be for longer-stemmed flowers

My neglect of Nelly Viner and Lady Grisel Hamilton continued once they were growing. Instead of pinching out their tips – as I thought you were supposed to – I let them grow long and leggy. They tangled so much that I had to spend ten minutes teasing them apart before planting them out. But they’ve gone on to produce  long, strong-stemmed flowers that are perfect for picking.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

long, straight stems

According to Gardeners World this is the best way to grow sweet peas for the vase – and if you can be bothered to pinch out their side shoots they’ll be even better.

4. don’t plant them in a wigwam

Our daughter’s sweet pea castle was only meant to be a bit of fun. But it’s become one of the loveliest features of the garden this summer.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

the sweet pea castle

However, the ones we planted in smaller wigwams are top-heavy and so congested that the flower stems grow twisted and misshapen as they try to find their way towards the light.

It turns out some sweet pea experts don’t favour the traditional wigwam method either – I found this advice from Bunny Guinness in The Telegraph’s online gardening pages:

…the wigwam shapes generally advocated are not ideal. All the growth generated from the bottom ends up concentrated at a thin area at the top. Stakes with a coarse netting (such as pig), set into the ground in a circle (perhaps 500mm/20in wide and 1.2m/4ft high) are better; or use bushy twigs of hazel or birch as pea sticks – anything with long stubble to cling on to.

So it seems that most of the so-called rules of sweet pea growing are there to be broken. I’m beginning to wonder if most gardeners make it up as they go along, just like we do.

sweet peas, cottage garden blog

the castle in action



sweet peas – a winter sowing

sweet pea tubes gardening blogI wasn’t going to bother with a winter sowing of sweet peas. Last year most of my first batch were gobbled by mice and I’m not convinced the ones that made it did better than those sowed in the spring.

But as the days get colder and darker, it lifts the spirits to plan for next summer. On Sunday, M and I tore open three of the six packets of seed I ordered from Easton Walled Gardens and made a start.

Sweet peas love to grow nice long roots, so we’ve been saving loo rolls and kitchen rolls for them. The added bonus is that the cardboard should just disintegrate when we plant them out, meaning we won’t need to disturb them too much.

When it came to filling the tubes with compost, M struggled with their open-ends. So I took the frugal option for my seeds and let her have some biodegradable fibre pots.sweet peas gardening blog

Each packet had at least one seed more than the 15 we were expecting, perhaps they add extra for the inevitable rodent robbers. It was just as well since M dropped hers and a few rolled under the shed floor. I suspect there is a mouse or three living down there, so I hope it won’t trigger them to go sweet pea hunting.

sweet pea tray gardening blog

M is having a pink phase, so she claimed Miss Wilmott for the biodegradable pots. I sowed Dorothy Eckford and Lord Nelson in loo rolls, which in hindsight seems a little disrespectful.

When we were done, we gave them a drink and left them in the cold greenhouse to germinate. I suppose I could have set a mouse trap next to them, but I didn’t have the heart to. We can always grow more in the spring.

This Q&A from Easton Walled Gardens has some good sweet pea growing advice. I didn’t come across it until after we sowed ours, but if they haven’t been devoured by mice yet, I’ll move them to the porch which is just as cold but hopefully a little more mouse-proof than the greenhouse.