Growing fragrant sweet peas

by Adam Pasco

Ask any seed company to name their Top 10 bestselling flowers and you'll regularly find sweet peas in first place.

Sweet pea flowersAsk any seed company to name their Top 10 bestselling flowers and you'll regularly find sweet peas in first place.

Sweet peas are the gardeners’ favourite for climbing colour and delicious fragrance, bringing a touch of cottage garden nostalgia to town and urban spaces, and as a hardy annuals they are easy to grow from seed. Their popularity has also made them a favourite for cover mounting on Gardeners' World Magazine over the years – you may even be growing our '20th Anniversary Mix' sweet pea that we gave away with our April issue.

Very dry spring weather made it quite a challenge getting sweet peas established this year, and regular watering has been essential. Dryness at the root through summer is one contributory factor to the powdery mildew overcoat that has now infected their foliage in my garden (anyone know any resistant varieties?).

With regular deadheading and watering I'm hoping to keep my sweet peas going a little longer, generating ever-welcome cut flowers.

For me it's also one of the few flowers I actually cut and bring indoors. A tall rosebud vase is perfect for a small bunch, and I position it somewhere I regularly pass during the day so I can pick it up, breathe deeply, and lose myself in its sweet scent.

There has only been one year when I got really obsessed trying to grow the very best sweet peas – just like the show growers. To produce flowers with really long straight stems you need to grow plants as single stemmed cordons. Each plant is only allowed to produce one shoot, and this is given its own tall vertical cane for support. Don't let plants scramble and make their own way to the top, but snip off every tendril you discover (almost a daily job) and attach shoots to canes with special ties, or wire rings. Any tendrils left in place can twist onto flower stalks and bend them, so every one needs removing.

Then, like all peas and beans in the veg plot, sweet peas need a continual supply of moisture – not easy in the East Midlands and other areas that have been so dry. That's why soil preparation is such an important part of gardening. It may sound like I'm a broken record repeating the advice “dig plenty of compost or manure into your soil”, but without this water-holding, sponge-like reserve, water just drains through soil without being locked in.

Show-quality sweet peas, like anything worthy of a top prize, require work and dedication. Unfortunately my life doesn't revolve around my sweet peas, so I'm content with a vase of twisted and short-stemmed alternatives, and these bring me plenty of satisfaction.

What's your favourite sweet pea variety?

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Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2011 at 12:08

I am growing them for the forst time this year. A friend gave me a perennial variety which I have put in a pot. They have germinated but took a long time and I'm not expecting any flowers now this year. I think as you say water was lacking and I will know now for next year

Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2011 at 12:56

I love all scented varieties, especially Charlies Angel, a large sky blue, and Mattucana, a lovely 2 tone dark red and blue. To avoid running out of sweet peas i make a second later sowing which come into flower about now.

Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2011 at 12:58

The old-fashioned "Cupani" is my favourite for scent, Adam. Its flowers are a pretty red and purple mix but the scent knocks you over. They are reputed to be the origin of our present varieties and to have been in this country for 300 years. My freebies from the magazine did well and I had a good variety of colour from them. All fifteen seeds germinated and all plants still giving flowers though shorter stems now. I divided the plants into two and grew them in two big pots up bamboo wigwams. All in all, a much better performance than my one and only sunflower.

Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2011 at 13:59

I've grown a lovely variety this year, 'America'. White and red striped, heavy fragrance, and one clump has gotten huge (about 6ft tall, and very prolific, they need picking daily).

Gardeners' World Web User 08/08/2011 at 17:39

This is my 3rd yr of growing s/pea's, and I love them! I have staggered planting s/pea's this year, and plan to plant seeds later this yr, and experiment by growing them in toilet rolls!. Last yr, I was fortunate, to pick s/pea's into November!

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