Garden Gossip

with Ted Smith

The transition to spring is fully underway. We have survived another winter and there is unlikely to be a gardener amongst us who isn’t already dreaming of their gardens to be in the months ahead. At this time of year it is easy to get overly enthusiastic and to allow our eagerness for summer to begin dictating some poor choices. We all want flowers and we want them as quickly as possible. Because of this, many of us sacrifice great numbers of warm weather plants to less than ideal growing conditions. It is important to remain cognizant of the fluctuating temperatures and the potential for cold damage on more tender plants. The really prudent thing to do is to consciously focus on flowers that not only have the ability to withstand some chilly weather, but actually enjoy going out to the garden a little earlier than others. If we have plants with these hardy traits ready to go when the warm days of late spring insist that we begin moving plants out of the house or greenhouse, then odds are better that we will have enough restraint to keep our more delicate friends safely tucked away until the nights also become warm. With all this in mind I’d like to use today’s Garden Gossip column to look at a cool weather loving flower that was a huge mainstay of classic Victorian gardens. Our topic for today is one of the most popular flowering plants in the world and one which can be found anywhere there are gardeners.

The sweet pea (Lathyrus spp.) is a versatile plant that grows in a wide range of sizes and colours. To make things even more interesting, sweet peas are available in both annual and perennial varieties. While the origins of annual and perennial sweet peas differ, the general information regarding growing and caring for them is essentially the same.

Sweet peas are a vine. Healthy vines should be able to reach between two and three meters long in our climate. If planted closely together, some sweet pea varieties have the ability to support each other and grow in a somewhat vertical manner. Grown as single specimens, sweet peas sprawl across the garden and function as a colourful and fragrant ground cover. When planted anywhere near something that may be climbed, sweet peas will. They love fences and arbours as well as walls that are irregular enough to offer a grip to their rapidly growing tendrils.

If you have decided that you would like to grow sweet peas, your biggest decision may be whether to go with the annual variety (Lathyrus odoratus) or the perennial version (Lathyrus latifolius). While it is nice to plug flowering sweet pea vines into different locations each year, it is also nice to be able to plant them once and know that they will come up reliably in the same spot for years to come. Once all is considered, I like to include both options in my gardens. Whichever way you decide to go, you also have two options for starting. Sweet pea seeds can be direct seeded in early spring while the soil is still fairly cool. Anytime you would be comfortable planting edible peas, you can also plant sweet peas. The other option is to start sweet peas in peat pots at this time of year and then plant them out in another six or eight weeks. Using transplants ensures that you will be able to enjoy your ultra-fragrant sweet pea blossoms for a much longer period of time. Sometimes seed started in the garden produces plants that are just getting ready to bloom as the weather becomes hotter; weather that they actually thrive in.

Starting seeds indoors is not difficult. I use peat pots so that the roots won’t need to be disturbed at planting time. Thoughts differ on whether or not sweet pea seeds should be soaked for 24 hours before planting but I skip this step. Some experts recommend slightly nicking the hard seed coat with a file or nail clippers. I skip this step as well. I prefer to plant the seeds about a centimeter deep in high quality seed starting mix and keeping them evenly moist at room temperature. They may take a while to germinate but they generally do. Once the seeds have sprouted they need bright light but no additional heat. Sweet peas benefit from good airflow, both as seedlings and mature plants, as they are prone to fungal attacks. Sweet peas can be very heavy feeders. As seedlings I like to regularly give them a very dilute organic liquid fertilizer such as seaweed emulsion or fish emulsion. Once they are in the garden they can have full strength feedings of organic fertilizer. While nitrogen is beneficial at the start, it should be cut way back when your sweet peas are ready to bloom or you may end up growing kilometers of lovely green vines with little or no flowers to show for your efforts.

As usual, this discussion has proven to be greater than a single column can accommodate. If I have your attention, come back next week and we’ll wrap up our look at this incredible flower.