Perennials – 6th August 20167th August 2016
Sweet peas on the farm
5th August 2016
This year is the first year I’ve attempted to grow sweet peas on a large scale. Last year was the first time I’d ever grown sweet peas full stop. So I’m definitely new to this game! Having been dressed up by my mummy as a sweet pea for a village fete competition when I was three, they’ve been a consistent favourite of mine for that quintessentially ‘English cottage garden’ vibe. They smell incredible and the tendrils add a touch of wild romanticism to a bouquet. Oh the tendrils! I prefer to cut sweet peas on their main stem, so you get some of those gorgeous telephone wire-y things, and get some of the smaller buds (I’m ruthless enough to sacrifice those baby buds!) Plus, this guarantees long stems. And so I’m a sort of cheat at the age old problem for all who attempt to grow sweet peas – how to get longer stems. This is my trial and error in chasing the longer-stemmed dream…
This year, varieties I’m growing are ‘Charlie’s Angel’ (a sweet pea mix I forget the name of), and four varieties that I grew last year and had saved the seed from (Hero, Romeo & Juliet, Cupani and my grandfathers favourite: Betty Maiden.) They’re one of the easiest things to save seed from; all you need to do is just wait for the pods to form after a flower has finished flowering. Wait for the pod to plump up nicely and then pick it when it turns papery brown. Having said that, Hero wasn’t a huge success and Cupani was by far the most prolific!
I planted in batches (as suggested by the wise Arjuen Heuse in ‘Cut Flower Grower’s Handbook’) starting in spring having missed out on the winter planting, which I’m hoping to do this year and see if that makes any difference to the vigour of vine and bounty of flowers! So yes, started in January and made my last sowing in March.
The sweet peas were planted in just normal modular trays – no fancy root trainers for me – in the greenhouse and then potted on and pinched out. They were put outside into seed cloches (suggested by the witty Ben of Higgledy Garden) after about 3 weeks from planting, where they waited and waited until there was room for them on the field, which ended up being more like early June… probably a bit late for something as hardy as sweet peas. They didn’t complain though!
I made my own sweet-pea frame with some foraged abandoned hazel sticks which made the final product looking like a Viking ship, or the chest bones of a huge whale. Both equally ‘structural’ and ‘artsy’ so that was cool. I tied the stems with twine to the twigs when I could remember and snipped off all other shoots from one seed, leaving just the alpha. They started flowering quickly after being planted. And then I wondered why the stems were all so short. Apparently those beautiful tendrils/telephone wires that help the plant climb and grip are wasted energy that could be used making bigger and longer blooms instead. So I bravely snipped them off and tied the now unstable stems to the hazel twigs more often. Then they turned an unprofessional yellow colour, so I decided to cheat by giving them some miracle grow once a week. The plants have shot up, become very tangled, and finally some of the stems are getting longer! Still not up to my ex-florist-shop expectations though… Perhaps I need to be more ruthless with my tendril culling…
Next and new problem, which takes us up to date, is aphid attack, and those little black ‘pollen beetles’– which apparently don’t actually do any harm. Aphids, however, really do. And lots of my one lovely strong sweet pea shoots are now a bit withered and twisted and gnarled. Same goes for the flowers that are playing house to the little green naughty things. Gnarled and small with faded colour.
So now its time to experiment. I’m going to spray them with the soapy water technique. Adding a few drops of washing up liquid to a water sprayer. If that fails then it’s on to the crushed-in-the-water-sprayer technique. Although sweet peas smelling like roast lamb is not the vibe I’m going for!
Overall, my sweet peas have worked very hard for me, giving me plenty of flowers from June onwards. A few are beginning to slow down and turn papery now, but that could be down to aphid attack, or the very chalky dry soil they’re planted in. Ruthless cutting of side shoots, tendril things, and the occasional tiny weeny flower bud (to make sure the flowers are well spaced apart) did seem to produce longer stems. Feeding once a week with Miracle-grow and watering every day also really helped. Huge amounts of time and effort is certainly required into taming these gorgeous climbing flowers into straight stemmed florist-appropriate friends. But I think both outcomes are equally as beautiful!