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Fragrant, Colourful and Easy Sweet Peas

Sweet peas are an easy annual from seed because you can direct seed them into the garden.

Sweet peas are an easy annual from seed because you can direct seed them into the garden.

The Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is one of the most attractive, highly scented and prolific of all the annuals. The flowers vary in colour — red, blue, lavender and pink and white. Depending on the cultivar, they can be solid colours, bicolours or streaked.

Sweet peas will provide you with masses of cut flowers for at least six weeks in spring and early summer, and that is enough compensation for any trouble they might be. Few early spring flowers are its equal for scent or delicacy.

The first Sweet Pea flower variety appeared in Britain in 1730, sent by an Italian monk Fransiscus Cupani. It was a small-flowered wild variety which bore little resemblance to the Sweet Peas of today.

English gardeners have always known the appeal of sweet peas, calling them the queen of annuals. Their fragrance is an appealing mix of honey and orange blossom — and their ruffled flowers look like colourful butterflies.

GROWING SWEET PEAS

Sweet peas are an easy annual from seed because you can direct seed them into the garden.

They grow best in full to partial sun and in deep, rich, loamy, moist, but well-drained soil, and should be sown or planted out during cooler seasons.

Before sowing seeds, add plenty of organic matter (compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mould, or humus) to enrich the soil and make it easier to work.

Plant seeds in holes that are about 5cm deep. Space holes about four to six inches apart and sow two to four seeds per hole. Water thoroughly and keep soil moist until seeds have sprouted. You should see germination in about 10 to 21 days.

Some varieties have hard coats and may be more difficult to germinate. You could try soaking the seed overnight before sowing (and only sow those that have swollen) or nick the seed’s hard coat by gently rubbing against some sandpaper, on the side away from the ‘eye’ or scar on the seed. However, most people find that this is not necessary and there is a belief that soaking causes undue stress and weakens the plants.

Once the seedlings are growing, water regularly to promote good growth. When the seedlings are 7,5 to 10cm high, thin them out, and leave the most vigorous-looking plants growing four to six inches apart.

Once you have thinned, mulch around the plants with a 10 to 15cm layer of organic mulch to keep the roots cool and the soil moist.

The plants, being vines, require support to flourish and flower. Supports of string or wire should be installed before planting. I use convenient trellis netting. Dwarf varieties are much shorter and make nice container plants.

Encourage the small plants to cling to the support by tying in at first and spreading out the shoots over the support. If your plants are particularly bushy you may have to remove some shoots to prevent overcrowding.

For gardeners in warmer climates, I recommend the heat-tolerant ‘April in Paris’, the Cuthbertson varieties, and the grandiflora types.

PLANT CARE

Make sure your plants do not suffer from lack of water but remember not to water during the hottest part of the day. Extra feeding probably will not be necessary if your soil was well prepared.

Sweet peas are susceptible to red spider mites, but can be sprayed with water daily and dusted with sulphur every few weeks to keep the mites down. Slugs and aphids are other major nuisances. Control them biologically by creating some kind of slug barrier (crushed eggshell spread around the base of each plant works) and using lacewings and ladybugs.

Enjoy the flowers which should start to appear from late winter (in temperate areas) to mid or late spring in colder areas. The flowers should be cut every few days to encourage continuing bloom, a certain delight!

Although Sweet Peas are close family members of garden peas, they are not edible and are actually moderately toxic to humans and animals, so keep those pretty bouquets out of reach of small children and pets.