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Growing Sweet Peas. get to know your garden intimately part-14

Updated on July 13, 2015

Sweet Peas



Have you ever noticed that many gardening books, and more so television shows, on gardening, seem assured that the majority of us have unlimited space and that expense is no object. They seem to by pass the small garden and tight budgets like the plague,yet many people fall into this category.

I think it is also true that those of us with small{er} gardens, and have to keep an eye on the purse strings, tend to care and nurture our gardens, because we can ill afford mistakes and losses. This does not mean we can not produce beautiful gardens with a plethora of species,in splendid colour, at little expense with a little know how.

Here we review the growing of Sweet Peas a beautiful species that produces a plethora of fragrant and beautiful flowers during the summer. We need to know from the start that Sweet Peas are easy to grow if some simple rules are Followed. Before we commence with the cultivation of these plants I will commence with a brief history of them.

Sweet pea bloom with Gypsophilla elegans

Originally appeared on Flickr.
Originally appeared on Flickr. | Source

Seed Pod of the Sweet Pea

The seeds of  this member of the Pea and Bean family should never be eaten. They contain some toxic constituents.
The seeds of this member of the Pea and Bean family should never be eaten. They contain some toxic constituents. | Source

What are Sweet Peas ?

Sweet peas are flowering plants of the genus Lathyrus {the Pea and Bean family} Fabaceae formerly the Leguminae. They are native to Sicily ,southern Italy and the Aegan Islands. The annual Sweet pea Lathyrus odoratus is sometimes confused with the everlasting pea L.latifolius which is a perennial plant.

The Sweet Pea has pinnate leaves with two leaflets opposite to each other and a terminal tendril which twines around other plants and structures for support. The pea-like flowers are grown in gardens for their colour which is usually in pastel shades,being white,pink,blue,red,purple or bi-colours. Although they are in the pea and bean family the seeds in the pods should never be eaten for they contain toxic constituents.

Growers and breeders have been tryng to produce the elusive Yellow flower,but so far with out success.


Sweet Pea 'Cupanii '


Sweet Pea 'Painted Lady'

Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Franz Xaver
Originally posted to Flickr uploaded to Commons by Franz Xaver | Source

A little history of the Sweet Pea

The Sweet Pea history dates back to the Island of Sicily some two hundred years ago, and a Monk Father Francesco Cupani {Italian} who found the species Lathyrus odoratus.the wild Sweet Pea. Since those historic times as with all garden flowers they have been bred to give us a plethora of varieties far removed from the poor small blossomed,purple- petalled flower Father Capani was delighted to find,but he could never have realized at the time what an impact his discovery would have on the world of gardening,and that by the twentieth century it should be grown in every garden in the UK and become a favourite in the gardens of America. The National Sweet Pea Society is still going strong today in the UK.

Whether Father Cupani discovered the wild Sweet Pea and exactly where he found it is open to question for it was already mentioned in publications prior to his find. What is not in question that this 'wildling' led to the flowers that rival the rose in popularity being produced today began with his work,all those years ago and we as gardeners owe a great debt of gratitude to him.

It is believed that the Sweet Pea first found its way to Britain in the year 1700. In 1713 Dr.Petiver in a paper read before the Royal Society,said that the seed was sent to Dr,Uvedale,who,in his garden at Enfield,had a number of rare and curious plants from foreign parts. Events moved slowly during the 18th century and it was not until 1730 that Philip Miller {then gardener to the Worshipful Company of gardeners at Chelsea} was led to make an announcement of the Sicilian Sweet Pea.

Apparently the gardeners of the 18 th century saw no potential in the flower and there seems to be no recorded advance in its development or popularity. It was perhaps the dawn of the 19th century when increased attention was given to the Sweet pea. John Mason a seeds-man of Fleet Street London issued a catalogue in which the Sweet pea was mentioned. Mawe's 'Gardener', also published around 1801 throws a little more light on the subject. Three sections of annual flowers occurred there and the Sweet Pea was mentioned in the third section.

In Page's 'Prudomus' published in 1817 six varieties of Sweet Pea were mentioned, White,Scarlet,Purple,Black,striped and 'Painted Lady.', the latter was described as having a scarlet standard with white wings and a keel. It was not until 1860 that Carter another Seeds-man offered nine varieties. Twelve years later twelve varieties were to be had. Mention must also be made of the work accomplished by Mr. W.Atlee Burpee an American florist,among whose triumphs towards the latter end of the 19th century are counted-Aurora,Maid of Honour' Golden Gate, and others famouse at that time.

The dawn of the 20th century witnessed another remarkable development in the Sweet Pea-the introduction by Mr. Silas Cole, of the beautiful Countess Spencer Variety,the first Sweet pea to have a standard {petal} with waved edges. The arrival of this form literally transformed the Sweet pea world,for it proved to be one of the very many 'waved' varieties. However, the standard varieties would also remain popular for many years to come.


A typical cold frame

Plastic Inexpensive self assembly 'Green houses' can be bought today which are great for keeping seedlings protected.


Tendrils of Sweet Pea grabbing hold of a wire fence


Growing Sweet Peas

Many of the older garden books assert that deep digging and manure applied is the only way to grow these beautiful flowers. It is true that they like well cultivated soil and adding manure can be beneficial but do not over do it. In these modern days a slow release fertilizer and a liquid foliar feed is equal to the task.

Heavy soil will be better if we prepare it in the Autumn,whilst lighter soils may be prepared in late winter and early spring.Before we commence with the details of planting we must decide on whether we are to buy ready grown plants,a little more expensive than seeds but much less work.

Seeds are relatively cheap and as we are growing them for garden decoration rather than for exhibiting we need not by seeds from specialist seeds-men. Indeed seeds can be sown straight into the ground in early spring where they are to flower and left to their own devices,however, seeds can be sown in the autumn { late September -early November} or in winter {January and February}. This is said to give us stronger plants and earlier flowers.

Should you choose to grow your plants from seed it is better to purchase 'named' varieties. Sow them in a good potting compost one seed to a three inch pot or six seeds in a six inch pot,to avoid over crowding. If you have a cold frame or unheated greenhouse they may be located there. Cover them with glass or even news paper until they have germinated. It is prudent to state at this point that mice will relish eating your seeds so be aware of any disturbance to your compost in the pots.

If we sow our seeds in January/February we may need a little gentle heat to aid germination A sunny window ledge,or a warm airing cuboard will be suffice. Once germination has taken place the source of heat needs to be removed or the plants will become drawn and leggy. Some varieties have seeds with a skin that is very thick and thus take longer to germinate. This can be overcome by soaking the seeds in water overnight. Only sow the Seeds that have swollen. It may well inform of this fact on the seed packet. Some gardeners even rub the seeds on sand paper to break the skin but I would advise against doing this for it has been found it can actually do more harm than good.

Once your seeds have germinated over winter them in a cold frame or cold greenhouse. Now we must take precautions against slugs and snails,as well as mice that will readily eat them. Birds too can be a problem if your pots are outdoors in a sheltered spot. In severe weather cover them with some protection such as garden fleece or newspapers.

When the first four leaves have formed,nip out the top two leaves to encourage them to become bushy. Should the weather become warm/dry we need to keep the compost moist but not saturated.

For the beginner and those of us that find it much more convenient ready grown plants can be readily obtained. There are usually in pots consisting of six to a dozen plants. These need to be tipped out and carefully separated. Sweet Peas are climbing plants which they achieve by means of tendrils which wrap around support in order for the plants to remain upright.,so we must give them some support. This can be achieved by six foot canes tied together at the top to form a pyramidal structure. String or twine can be tied around the outside of the canes at convenient heights up the pyramid,on which the tendrils can take hold.

Whether planted in the ground or in deep pots they require a sunny location. Once the plants are purchased leave them outside in the pots for about a week or so to harden off {get used to the location and weather},before planting out. After this the plants should require no further protection unless they are in a windy exposed situation.

Once the flowering period commences cut your flowers for a vase this will encourage more flowers and will prolong the flowering period. . Always dead head {remove} faded flowers before the seed pods develop unless you you want to save the seeds.

Sweet Pea 'Zillah Harrod'

Taken at Belfast Rose Week 2009
Taken at Belfast Rose Week 2009 | Source

A Look at some varieties.

Lathyrus odoratus 'White Supreme' . 'Windsor' a dark maroon colour. 'Grandma Butt' with deep pink flowers are some of the plethora of varieties recommended bu the national Sweet Pea Society.

For smaller gardens or for those that prefer their plants more compact there are dwarf varieties available. These Sweet peas are non-climbing plants. Lathyrus odoratus' Bijou' is a fast growing annual with oval,divided ,mid -green leaves and large fragrant flowers in shades of pink,red,or blue that occur in summer and early Autumn. The height and spread is only eighteen inches. {45 cm }.

Lathyrus odoratus 'Knee high' is another fast growing annual with oval ,divided leaves and with large fragrant flowers in shades of pink,red,blue or white,that are produced in summer and early autumn. The height and spread is three feet {90 cm}.

Which ever you choose enjoy your Sweet Peas and your garden.


Components of the Sweet pea plant

The Botanical Atlas 1883.
The Botanical Atlas 1883.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      Hi Deb, thank you and they sure would grow well on a trellis or any other kind of support so long as they are in the sun. Best wishes to you.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      A very enjoyable read. These would likely do well on a trellis.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      You are very welcome. Glad it brought back some memories for you. Best wishes to you.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from Lancashire north west England


      You are very welcome. Glad it brought back some memories for you. Best wishes to you.

    • kbdressman profile image


      3 years ago from Harlem, New York

      My parents have sweet peas in their front flower beds and my grandmother had them in her flower beds as well! Thanks for this great article and history on a flower I love, but knew little about! Seeing sweet peas always brings back such sweet memories!


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