By Ted Smith
Last week in Garden Gossip we began a look at one of the most popular flowering plants in the world. Sweet peas have been a mainstay of flower gardens since early Victorian times and have only grown in popularity during the years since. Often considered to be “difficult” plants to grow, with a little knowledge sweet peas can not only be grown fairly easily, but are also marvelously suited to our cooler climate.
Last week we discussed some basics around getting your sweet peas started. There are just a couple more comments that I should toss into that discussion. First, when choosing pots to start your sweet pea seeds in, always opt for pots that are as deep as possible so that your seedlings’ roots experience minimal disturbance when you transplant them outdoors. Second, when your sweet pea seedlings are just a few centimeters tall it can be beneficial to pinch out the growing tip. This encourages your young plants to focus more energy on growing a strong root ball. When the time comes to plant your sweet pea seedlings out into the garden, pinching those tops again is a great idea. The extra root growth that you can attain through doing this will serve to provide you with much stronger plants later in the season when heat and drought tend to stress the cool loving sweet peas.
When you plant your sweet peas in the garden, make sure you give them the deepest and richest soil you can. Planting with an eye to some afternoon shade can also be helpful. Keeping in mind how much sweet peas hate the heat will be critical in attaining the best from these amazing flowers. Also, remember that sweet peas are exceptionally susceptible to fungal attacks so good air flow is always critical.
New sweet pea seedlings do face some challenges in the garden. Many birds adore tender young pea shoots and sweet peas fill that bill admirably. Protection with bird netting or toy snakes will help for the first few days. Once established, sweet peas grow so quickly that birds will no longer be a problem. Slugs, snails and aphids, on the other hand, can be a challenge throughout your plants’ lives. Once your sweet peas are growing quickly they are generally able to outgrow most pest damage so vigilance during their early seedling stage is still the most critical time.
So why exactly are sweet peas such a popular flower? The simple answer is that they offer home gardeners a little bit of everything. The smell from a patch of sweet peas is one of the headiest aromas imaginable. There are few flowers who offer more of an olfactory experience than the sweet pea and this trait is likely also what led sweet peas to be the most popular cut flowers in the early 1900s. In the years since, sweet peas have lost a lot of ground in the cutflower industry but there is no reason why you can’t revive that popularity right in your own home. Not only will sweet peas perfume your entire house, they also come in such a myriad of colours that there is no way you could ever become bored with them on your dining room table. Sweet peas can be found in white, yellow, orange, pink, red, purple, blue, black and every shade and range of colour in between. There is essentially not a colour to be found in the world of flowers that is not also represented in sweet peas.
Growing the proper variety for cut flowers can certainly make your experience more enjoyable. English Spencer is a line of sweet peas that is extremely popular in Britain and offers perhaps the longest and strongest stems for cutting. Stems of this variety can reach thirty centimeters and are also covered with flowers that are amongst the largest in the sweet pea family. Spencers are also listed alongside Painted Lady, Eckford, Flakes, Ripples and Cupani as the most fragrant sweet pea varieties currently available. Tracking down actual varieties in North America can be a little bit of a challenge as we don’t seem to have the same fascination with them as the European market does. A little bit of searching, however, can turn up some real treasures. There are entire nurseries dedicated to sweet peas and many flower seed companies carry selections that include some very old heirlooms. Growing sweet peas is as much of a consuming passion for some enthusiasts as roses or daylilies are for others.
Within the language of flowers sweet peas represent exactly what you would expect. Bliss, pleasure and pleasant farewells are the most common meanings. For my money, sweet peas simply mean that I will have a section of the garden where I can retreat and lose myself in the vibrant colours and gentle aromas while the rest of the world worries on around me.