The fruit and vegetable garden is about much more than merely growing food to feed the body. At the risk of sounding overly poetic and/or pretentious, it’s also a place to feed the mind, spirit and soul!
Think about it for a moment: Why do we grow our own produce? Is it to save money, to ensure it’s grown in a safe and earth-friendly way, or simply to offer ourselves a welcome distraction from the noise and flurry of modern life? For most of us it’s a combination of all the above.
Communing with Mother Nature and immersing ourselves in the sights, sounds and smells of her bounty is what it’s all about, which is why I always grow a wigwam of sweet peas in among my food crops. You may not be able to eat sweet peas, but they’ll feed you in so many other ways.
Growing Sweet Peas in the Vegetable Garden
I’m not alone in growing sweet peas in my vegetable garden, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why. First and foremost is their sweet scent – a delicious perfume that rivals even granny’s soap collection! Then there’s the myriad of colours, from pastel tones reminiscent of bygone cottage gardens to bold, eye-popping shades that deliver their colour with a punch.
Bees love sweet peas. I have spent many a gardening tea break just watching in absorbed fascination as these industrious pollinators move from bloom to bloom, oblivious to my presence.
Sweet peas are also a welcome source of near-limitless posies. How nice to turn up at a friends house with a bunch of sweet peas. Or how about gracing the dining room table with a floriferous vase of these beauties – an ocular feast fit for all occasions!
How to Sow Sweet Peas in Autumn
Sweet peas can be started off in the autumn in most temperate regions of the world – USDA zones eight and above or the southern half of the UK, for example. In colder regions consider waiting until the second half of winter, when germination can be coaxed along with a little added warmth and the end of cold weather is within sight.
If it’s really cold where you grow – the sort of penetrating, continental winters that freeze the ground solid for months at a time – wait until spring. While autumn sowing gives a head start and hence early flowering, spring-sown sweet peas will still yield fistfuls of blooming stems by summer.
Sowing itself is straightforward. Sow into pots of quality compost, setting one seed to each 7cm (3in) pot or several seeds into a 15cm (6in) pot. Seeds sown in autumn need to be kept protected, so place the pots into a cold frame or greenhouse. Cover the pots with newspaper until the seedlings emerge.
Seeds sown in late winter will likely need a little additional heat to help them pop up. Once they have germinated, remove the heat source to encourage the plants to grow stout and sturdy rather than tall and leggy.
Spring-sown sweet peas can be started off in pots if the soil isn’t quite ready, or direct sown where they are to grow, as soon as conditions allow. Avoid cold, wet soil at all cost – you don’t want your seeds to rot.
Some gardeners recommend soaking the seeds overnight in order to speed up germination. Others suggest nicking the hard seed coat with sandpaper to help moisture penetrate. I have found sweet peas germinate just fine without this intervention, but if you have difficulties you could try either method.
Growing Sweet Peas
Autumn-sown sweet peas should be kept in their cold frame or greenhouse to overwinter. While you don’t want to mollycoddle seedlings too much (cool temperatures will keep plants stocky and sturdy) they won’t appreciate being repeatedly frozen, so add extra protection in frosty weather. Cold frames can have layers of sacking/burlap or bubble wrap laid over the lights, for example.
Encourage plants to bush out by nipping out the top two leaves as soon as plants have grown four leaves. This stimulates new side shoots, which means more stems and, ultimately, more flowers! Watch out for the usual suspects: slugs, snails and mice have a penchant for foliage and seeds respectively.
You can plant out your pot-raised sweet peas as soon as the weather has warmed up and soil conditions allow. Pick a sunny site and plant into moist, rich soil. Plant the seedlings 20-30cm (8-12in) apart against supports such as pea netting, or trellis. The absolutely best effect, however, comes from growing up rustic wigwams – the sort made from hazel poles tied at the top with string.
Initially you may need to encourage sweet peas up their supports by tying them in with string. Once they have found their feet they will pull themselves up with their twining tendrils.
The golden rule with sweet peas, like many prolific flowerers, is to keep on picking! Snip off faded blooms and remove any seedpods you find and your sweet peas will continue to produce a steady stream of flowers for cutting to enjoy at home or give away – sweet rewards indeed for your diligence.