The Cottage Smallholder

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Sowing Sweet Peas in January


Photo: Summer border without Sweet Peas

Photo: Summer border without Sweet Peas

“My grandfather always grew Sweet Peas in an arched walk. I visited him a lot as a child and can still remember the smell of them now.” Melanie mused.

This was years ago when I was starting to design the garden here. I could see the scene in my mind’s eye, a little girl in a summer frock suurounded by flowers. Since then I’ve always fancied a walk or even just an arch of sweet smelling Sweat Peas but I’ve not been very lucky with this pretty scented flower. I grow a few each year to scramble amongst the beans and encourage pollination. But a lot of the seeds fail to germinate.

Somehow as they are a flower that is associated strongly with childhood, I imagined like nasturtiums they are easy to sow and grow. Even raised in pots in coddled in the greenhouse 25% of seeds rotted. Years later I suddenly twigged that Melanie’s grandpa was a professional gardener. If he could grow an arched walk there must be some skill involved.

Recently I discovered that sometimes it is advisable to chit them. That means cutting or scraping a bit of the hard coating off the seed to encourage germination on the opposite side to the eye. I decided to investigate further and found this great article on the Thompson and Morgan site Apparently the darker flowers have the hardest seed coating. And it is these that are less likely to germinate without a little help. Thinking back I had very few darker coloured flowers this year – now I know why.

You need to soak the sweet peas in a little tepid water for a few hours. Those with the softer skins will swell and it’s only the seeds that don’t swell that you need to chit.

I let some of my Sweet Peas go to seed and dry in the pods late summer. I collected the seed in the autumn and they have been waiting in an envelope on the kitchen mantelpiece since then. I was planning to sow them in pots in the greenhouse in October but they got forgotten. 

I am going to use Mr Thompson’s method of germinating my seeds in kitchen roll before potting up and putting the pots in the green house. Tomorrow is a flower day in the lunar planting calendar so I will be soaking the seeds then.

So this year I may have a Sweet Pea arch for the very first time.

If you want a chance to win Maria Thun’s The Biodynamic Sowing and Planting Calendar 2010 this is the last day of our Cottage Smallholder competition.

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  1. I love sweet peas but have never been very successful with them; they always seem very wizened and twisted, especially compared to the magnificent ones that grew in my mother’s old garden. Undoubtedly my fault, and I really should try harder, because a large jug of mixed beautifully coloured, delightfully scented flowers is hard to beat.

  2. hi theRE

    It is funny how sweet peas defeat some and overwhelm others

    I am lucky to be part of the second group, to such a degree that when we lived in Bristol, our neighbour – ex landscape gardener for Bristol Council – was quite put out!!

    It is difficult to grow them here in Toulouse though; Peas really dont like the heat!

  3. Hi
    Some great tips there. I will be planting a few varieties but not until later in the year – being in NZ. Like the idea of an archway. Good luck with yours!

  4. Sweet peas are great. They will grow over summer or winter here in South Australia, depending on when you plant them, but I’ve never been bothered to plant them over summer because they take more effort and water to keep alive than I’m willing to put in. But they self-seed and that’s OK 😀

    My Dad taught me to grow peas of all kinds by soaking overnight wrapped in a couple of wet tissues (no more water than the tissues can hold, no more seeds than the tissues can hold) and then sowing them direct. Then you put an old plank over the top and mulch around it. The plank retains moisture, stops the birds from digging up the seeds, and is easy to lift to check whether they’ve germinated or not.

  5. My grandmother saved sweet pea seed every autumn and I don’t think she ever bought more than the initial packet in her life (she might even have been given the original seed because she worked in a nursery in the 1920s). By doing this she created her own particularly fragrant strain – maybe not the biggest flowers but a small bunch scented a room. I’ve had most success with sweet peas by soaking the seeds overnight in a very shallow dish of water (seeds ferment very quickly if they are fully submerged for too long) then sowing them on wet paper towel in a lunchbox, then planting the seeds as soon as a root breaks through the seed coat – that way every pot has a seedling – no wasted compost in seed pots with dead seeds…

  6. TheHappySpinner

    It’s a shame that seed companies don’t give customer much information on how to grow their seeds. But then I guess they want you to buy more of them! As a Germination Specialist, I can tell you Fiona that you are doing exactly the right thing. Seeds in the ‘pea family’ usually need chipping unless it’s been bred out of them and this is often difficult. Another tip carries on from Audrey – peas are thirsty and hungry plants that respond very well to lots of water and lot of food so manure would really help them once they are established.

  7. My Mom planted sweet peas in an old hen run and they were enormous. Try some chicken manure if yours come up.

  8. elrohana

    Crikey, my problem was that I just put the seed in the ground and left it, and every damn one germinated so they took over the patch that was meant for the beans and peas, and then started trying to take over the rest of the allotment. I spnt hours cutting them back, only for them to grow back the following week!

  9. Any of them will germinate if still viable; and the way to test this is in between dampened kitchen roll if you have it. They sould sprout between 7-10 days at about 70F. All sweet peas are self-fertile.It depends upon whether they are “fixed” or not; as they are highly hybridised usually they will revert back to one of the parents if not bred fresh each year; sometimes it can take two to three years. If you like a particular variety, it is best to buy fresh seed each year unless you are growing Cupani, the original one.

  10. I think like peas and beans,sweet peas are usually self fertile so you may only get light coloured flowers if those are the pods you saved.

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