For a spectacular sweet pea show next spring, sow the seeds now
The sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) first arrived in England from Sicily in 1699 and has been bred continuously since then.
In the language of flowers, the sweet pea symbolises blissful or delicate pleasure, which arises from the tradition of giving posies as gifts.
The sweet pea was so popular in the early 1900s that it became the symbol of Edwardian England.
Over the centuries, hundreds of cultivars have poured onto the market. While there are fewer cultivars today, the old-fashioned sweet pea will always be available.
It also has a proud place in the history of science, as it was one of the main plants used by Gregor Mendel (1822-84) in experiments that led to the development of his genetic theory.
While there is more to the sweet pea than its looks and perfume, not all varieties are fragrant, so check the packet before purchasing.
In the garden
Most sweet pea cultivars reach 2-3m in height and they need support in the form of a tripod, wire mesh fence or trellis. Dwarf cultivars are available for pots, window boxes or garden beds.
SOW seeds directly where they are to grow in damp soil. Don’t keep seeds overly wet during the germination period, as overwatering is the most common cause of seed failure.
WATER every couple of days after the seedlings have emerged.
POSITION in a sunny spot that is sheltered from strong winds.
SOIL should be full of organic matter and well drained. If it’s slightly acidic, apply dolomite or lime.
MULCH around seedlings with lucerne hay or sugar cane.
FEED as the flowers start developing with a complete soluble fertiliser.
PICK the flowers frequently, as sweet peas are similar to pansies in that the more you pick, the more you get.
You can also grow tall cultivars in a large pot supported by a tripod.
To grow sweet peas in containers, use a quality potting mix. Position 2m high bamboo stakes about 50mm apart and 100mm from the edge of the pot, leaving enough room to plant the seeds or seedlings.
Draw them together at the top and tie with string, then plant one sweet pea at the base of each stake.
Sowing the seeds
Traditionally, sweet peas were sown on 17 March, which is St Patrick’s Day, when the Irish somehow found time to plant them during their celebrations.
It was claimed that sweet peas sown on that day produced larger, more fragrant blooms.
But don’t fret if you miss the date, as they can be sown until the end of autumn.
You can sow seeds in spring in cold areas, but buy seeds now while they are readily available.