Sow sweet peas in autumn for early flowers

Sow sweet peas in October or November and you’ll have flowers from May to August next year. You can sow them in spring for a later start and finish to flowering, but autumn sown sweet peas are little trouble and one thing less to do at the start of the growing year. Sweet peas first came to the U.K in 1699 when Father Francis Cuppani sent seed from Sicily and you can still buy a variety called Cuppani, which is closely related to the original wild flowers and is strongly scented with small flowers. The Victorians loved sweet peas and selective breeding resulted in the vast array of colours and forms available today. Most notably were sweet peas known as ‘Spencer’ varieties, which were bred by the head gardener of the Spencer family at Althorp. These are characterised by being highly scented, with long stems, frilly edged petals and large flowers. There are now hundreds of varieties in nearly every colour you can think of, except for the as yet elusive, yellow sweet pea.

Sowing sweet peas is easy and although old gardening books suggest you need to pre-soak the seed overnight or ‘chip’ seed (i.e. make a cut in the seed coat with a sharp knife) they germinate perfectly well sown straight from the packet. Sow seed either singly into root trainer pots or two to a pot in 9cm pots, soak the compost well before you put the seed in. Push seeds in to a depth of about 2cm then cover the top of the pot with a thin layer of dry compost and don’t water again until you see signs of germination. Cover the pots with a plastic bag, or propagator lid or even newspaper, to keep the moisture in until you see the first shoots appearing, then remove the covering. Sweet peas don’t need hot conditions to germinate so can be grown in a cold frame or unheated greenhouse or just on a windowsill, the ideal daytime temperature is around 15C. Once the seedlings are growing they are reasonable hardy so will be happy in a light cool place providing its frost free. Once the plants have 3 or more sets of leaves and are 4-5 inches high, pinch out the growing tip just above the next set of leaves and this will encourage the plants to create more side shoots and bush out to make stronger plants. Plant the overwintered seedlings out in April in a sunny spot in good fertile soil with either netting or canes for them to grow up, tying them onto the support until they start to entwine. Keep them well watered and when they are flowering keep cutting the flowers and stop seed pods forming and they’ll continue to flower for months.