Life Gardens

Thursday 26 April 2018

Diarmuid Gavin: Scents and sensibility - get ahead by planting sweet pea now

Get a head start on your flowers for next year by planting your sweet pea seeds now

Sweet pea flowers
Sweet pea flowers
Sweet peas growing in a garden

With summer having just drawn to a close I'm out in the garden removing the withering remnants of many flowering plants. It's always sad when the sweet pea stop flowering, but on the plus side, they've left me with lots of seeds to ensure I have more next year.

Sweet peas are one of the easiest and most rewarding annuals to grow. Their scent is wonderful, and bunches cut and placed in water have a great job of disguising the not-so-nice scent of our dogs in the house, so it's no surprise that sweet peas rank among the nation's favourite flower.

The secret is early preparation, deciding on a place to grow them and understanding the conditions they need. This Queen of Annuals has such an extensive and pretty colour palette, the most gorgeous fragrance and delicate blooms that seem to keep on going as long as you keep picking them. October is a great time to sow sweet pea seeds if you want a head start on flowers for next year. Autumnal sowings will give earlier blooms, but you can plant in situ next spring as well.

So, what do you need to do? There are various schools of thought which recommend treating the seed before sowing, to speed up germination. This includes soaking overnight (but this carries a risk of rotting) or nicking them with a penknife. I don't think either is necessary, as sweet pea germinate easily enough in the right circumstances. They need a temperature of about 15 degrees centigrade to do so and take about a fortnight. Starting them off in warm but cooling soil means that they germinate, settle in but don't put on too much growth this side of next spring. But when the soil warms up again, they are raring to go, with a real advance on any you put in the ground in spring as seeds, or later, as young plants.

Start by soaking for 12 hours in water and then spreading on damp paper towels to pre-sprout. Ideally, you will then plant them in a seed compost mix in root trainers - which are longer than usual pots - to allow good root development. A good trick if you want to avoid disturbing the roots next spring when you go to plant them outdoors, is to plant in biodegradable pots that will disintegrate in the soil.

A handy household version of this is a loo roll or kitchen roll cut in two which you can sit in trays. One seed per three-inch pot is sufficient, and cover the seed with about half an inch of growing medium. Water with a fine hose, cover with a sheet of glass or plastic and leave to germinate. Check that they don't dry out but take care never to overwater. Once germinated, move to a cold frame or greenhouse for the winter. In spring, you can plant in position, picking a sunny, sheltered part of the garden and plant into a well-prepared, humus-rich, fertile soil and provide support in the form of canes or trellis.

Slugs and snails love the young lush growth, so ensure that you use the precautions of your choice to prevent an attack.

Maybe the hardest bit will be choosing which variety to plant.

Sweet peas were first sent to England by a Franciscan monk, Cupani, who had discovered them in Sicily in the late 17th century. You can still get Cupani seed which is thought to be the most primitive form of sweet pea - a purple standard (the upright petal) and blue wings. At the end of the 19th century, Henry Eckford started breeding them in Wem, Shropshire and his achievements are what we now know as old-fashioned or grandiflora sweet pea, renowned for their beautiful fragrance. Lathryus odorata 'Henry Eckford' is an unusual orange variety while L 'Dorothy Eckford' is an RHS award-winning white one. Wem in Shropshire celebrate his link with their town with an annual sweet pea festival in July.

In the early 20th century, much larger, frillier blooms were bred on the Althorp estate, seat of Earl of Spencer (and ancestral home of Princess Diana), and it is these Spencer varieties which so many of us grow today. Nowadays, even the smallest of spaces can have room for sweet pea - with the development of dwarf varieties which perform extremely well in containers and hanging baskets, or even as a bit of ground cover in a border.

Sweet peas are easy to look after. As they grow, simply make sure that you tie them in every couple of feet and pinch out side branches. Regular deadheading and also harvesting the beautiful flowers for use as cut flowers inside will help stimulate the production of fresh blooms.


As it’s seed collecting - and for some, precise sowing - time, why not order your sweet pea seeds from the Irish Seed Savers Association?

Its primary objective is the conservation of Ireland’s very special and threatened plant genetic resources. Its wonderful work focuses on the preservation of heritage varieties from all over the world that are suitable for Ireland’s unique growing conditions.

With seed gathering in season, it’s a great time of the year to visit its eight-hectare site, complete with organic seed garden, orchards and woodlands. The centre includes a purpose-built educational facility and small shop and café, where the organisation offers a wide range of workshops, on subjects such as organic gardening, bee keeping, making the most of your polytunnel, cheese-making, creating an orchard, and many more.

Irish Seed Savers Association is open Tuesday-Saturday, 9.30am-4.30pm. Irish Seed Savers Association, Capparoe, Scarriff, County Clare, Ireland.; tel: (061) 921856

Irish Independent

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