Growing sweet peas

by James Alexander-Sinclair

The sweet pea is a British favourite; not quite as popular as the rose but definitely up there in the top five.

Pink sweet pea flowerThe sweet pea is a British favourite; not quite as popular as the rose but definitely up there in the top five. However, while there are numerous songs and poems about roses, the poets and wandering minstrels have been a bit sluggish when it comes to the sweet pea.

The best I can find is a cowboy song that was a hit in 1966 "Sweet pea / Apple of my eye /  Don't know when and I don't know why". Nice but not exactly horticulturally relevant.*

Anyway, sweet peas are flowering now. Lathyrus odoratus is the Latin and they have the most divine scent. The secret is to grow the long-stemmed Spencer varieties and to keep on picking them: pretty much every day. If you stop and let them start seeding then they will flower much less vigorously.

But, I don't want to talk about them, but instead about the less well-known and less appreciated perennial sweet pea, Lathyrus latifolius. In a village near here it has colonised the sunny side of an old hedge, where it scrambles through the undergrowth and spills down a grassy bank. The flowers are strong purple and pink and it is a wonderful sight. I wish I had a photograph but driving while taking plant portraits tends to be frowned upon by the constabulary in these parts. It is easy to grow, needing only sunshine and if happy will self-seed prolifically so you will have lots to give away to deserving friends. It also works well in more domestic situations and can easily be persuaded to climb a fence or a garden arch.

Even better you do not have to go through all the heartache of having your precious seedlings devoured by mice every year. **

The major disadvantage? It has virtually no discernible scent.

* Oops. I have missed the obvious "Here are the sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight. With wings of gentle flusho’er delicate White, And taper fingers catching at all things. To bind them all about with tiny rings." John Keats. I found it on the Sweet Pea Society website, along with lots of other useful stuff.

** You will detect a slight note of bitterness in the final sentence, which is directly related to my personal experiences of growing annual sweet peas.

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Gardeners' World Web User 20/06/2011 at 17:33

Just picked by first bunch this year, the scent is heavenly (went with CAROL KLEINS recommendation) but ugh! the little black bugs, I drowned them in the sink,does anybody have a cure?

Gardeners' World Web User 20/06/2011 at 17:53

Hi Chrisk, put the flowers in a dark place with one light source, they will head out to the light and no black bugs! For more see my blog on

Gardeners' World Web User 20/06/2011 at 18:04

How strange...I have been thinking of growing perennial sweet peas as a hedge since I saw them at the botanic gardens in Bath the other week, but Ive been too scared to admit it in front of you non-edible lovers...I didnt know if it would be likewalking into a bar for the first time, looking along the line of drinks and ordering a Babycham

Gardeners' World Web User 20/06/2011 at 18:15

My garden becomes a vision of pink and purple once the perennial sweet peas are in flower. They scramble up through my hawthorn tree which is beautiful in blossom and berry but needs clothing in between. Similarly with cotoneaster. It scrambles through the bamboo as ground cover and is so floriferous I can have big bunches in the kitchen. But I am growing myGW freebie seeds in pots and can't wait to smell the flowers. It won't be long as they have reached the top of their cane wigwam.

Gardeners' World Web User 21/06/2011 at 04:11

I've obviously done something wrong here. I planted my sweet pea seeds at the end of March, in loo rolls, hardened them off and planted out about a month ago. They look ok and there's lots of growth, but they're only about a foot tall and not even the sniff of a bud, never mind flowers. Have I had it? I'm in Prague and the weather's been wet and warm in equal measure.

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