Six on Saturday

It was time to pot-on the sweet peas this week to give them 6 weeks to establish a good root system before planting out at the end of March. Some people are surprised by me doing this. Most people grow them in a pot and then just plant that out, even though the roots have probably been going round the pot for many weeks trying to find water and nourishment. I think this additional stage is worthwhile to get stronger stocky plants which are well fed and better prepared for life outside when they are hardened off in mid-March. It only took a few days after pinching the tops out for them to start producing side shoots which will result in nice bushy plants with more flowering stems and therefore more flowers.

I sow two seeds into each cell of root trainers and, most of the time, both seeds grow. I don’t soak them or chit them as some recommend, I have never found this necessary if you plant fresh seed in October/November. As soon as they have grown two pairs of leaves I pinch out the top and let them start to produce side shoots. I start pinching out in mid January and by now they have all been pinched out and ready for potting-on.

The root trainers produce really good root systems and I think it is essential to give them plenty of room at this stage. I have tried cardboard toilet roll tubes but they just turn to mush and can only accommodate one seed. You also can’t pot them on unless you put the whole thing into a pot which seems to defeat the object of sowing them in the toilet roll tube in the first place! Root trainers are definitely the best.

The two little plants separate easily without any damage to the roots and are potted up individually in 9cm pots or, my preference which is Sweet Pea bags. Hard to come by these days, I think I bought mine from Roger Parsons many years ago. Like pots, they last for ever. However, I have given so many away over the years to intrigued friends that I now only have 30 left, so I use 9cm pots as well.

They both fit nicely in a mushroom tray for moving them about and watering and provide the same amount of compost and growing room. I don’t add any feed in the compost at this stage, other than what is already provided by the supplier in the bag. I don’t want to encourage too much soft growth before they are ready to go outside.

So there we are, Six on Saturday all about Sweet Peas! Sorry, but there’s not much else going on this week. Lots more next week though, February is weed, feed and mulch time and I have 1000 litres of blended soil conditioner arriving in a dumpy bag on Monday! Valentines Day present for the wife. So romantic!

Have a great weekend


October Sweet Peas!


Yes, it’s true, these sweet peas have been blooming since June and are still going strong 4 months later! Last year I had a hanging basket of Lathyrus odoratus ‘Dwarf Cupid Mix’ which were an interesting novelty but not particularly impressive. I decided not to bother with them this year but they obviously had other ideas. Some of the seed must have dried and dropped beneath where it germinated in April and gradually grew into a pretty old fashioned floribunda reminiscent of ‘Cupani’ or perhaps ‘Matucana’ blue and purple bicolor. Wonderful scent on a shortish sprawling plant which mingled with the delphiniums, dahlias and verbenas. The remarkable thing is I haven’t removed any dead heads but it has continued to flower well which rather flies in the face of the advice to remove all spent flowers before the seedheads appear or the plant will stop flowering! I will leave it to drop it’s seeds at will and see if I get another batch next year.

Big’uns & Little’uns!

Sweet Peas showing difference between cordon and bush

Just taken this photo for my next piece in Garden News and thought I would post it to show the difference between bush grown sweet peas on the left and cordon grown ones on the right. The bush grown ones are grandifloras which have more flowers and a stronger scent and I just let them scramble up pea netting and obelisks in various parts of the garden. They get no attention other than watering, feeding and cutting. The cordons are all frilly Spencer varieties used mainly for competitions and have less scent and less flowers but they are much, much bigger! Some stems are 18″ long and the flowers are at least twice as big as the grandifloras. However, they involve a lot more work and I have been tying them in every day for weeks, nipping out the side shoots, cutting off the tendrils and pinching out the flower buds to force them to put all their energy into making tall strong plants. Fingers crossed for a first time success at the local show next week!

First Sweet Peas!

003I don’t know why, but the first Sweet Peas of the year just make me smile!007

The stems are always longest and strongest on the early ones and these are no exception. Sown on 31 October last year, overwintered in a cold frame and planted out at the end of April, these will be followed by a further 20 plants sown on New Years Day which are now only 2 weeks behind! The March sown seeds were given away and swapped. I hope they get the same pleasure from them that we do.

Sweet Pea Sowing Time

Cathy and I love Sweet Peas and we grow them every year. They seem to like the alkaline clay soil in the front garden and are much admired by passers-by. Our window cleaner also happens to be a champion sweet pea grower and he reckons it is because the place we grow them is where the mixer was when the extensions were done and each day the builders washed it out and the cement soaked into the ground in that spot. I am not sure I totally believe him but it’s a good theory!

We started with a small pot of mixed Grandifloras in 2009 and now grow several different cultivars including Cupani, Matucana and Painted Lady which, as far as I know, are the three oldest varieties.

Lathyrus odoratus 'Painted Lady', Fabaceae, Fa...

Lathyrus odoratus ‘Painted Lady’,  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This year we participated in the Which? Gardening trial of ‘High Scent’ and have just reported back so I shouldn’t reveal the results until they do!

‘High Scent’

I have tried sowing them in autumn and spring and directly in the ground in April, and I have come to the conclusion that it all depends on the weather! In a mild winter and spring autumn sowing probably produces stronger plants and earlier flowers. The earliest I have managed is an overwintered self-sown white Grandiflora in flower on 24th April. However, in severe winters it is a struggle to keep them going, even in an insulated cold frame with fleece over at night. It is definitely better to grow them ‘hard’ but if the compost freezes for too long there are often casualties. It is strongly advisable to pinch out the growing tips when two pairs of leaves have formed, same for the side shoots, to keep the plants compact and bushy.

I have tried all the recommended germination techniques and read all the conflicting advice. There seem to be many contradictions in the ‘best practice’ expounded by the expert growers and it must be very confusing for some novices. Do you soak the seeds overnight in tepid water to soften the hard seed case? Or do you nick them with a knife or nail clippers or sandpaper them to expose the white pith beneath and ease the passage of root and shoot? Or do you, as I now do, just take them straight from the packet and sow them!

‘King Size Navy Blue’

Then there are the containers to sow them in. Should you use a standard 9cm pot, a discarded cardboard toilet roll tube, a root trainer, seed tray or what? Perhaps you should buy the special biodegradable grow pots from J. Arthur Bowers or special deep Sweet Pea Pots marketed so cleverly by Sarah Raven? I have tried them all but, in the end, I have opted for none of them. Instead, I have bought 100 re-usable polythene grow tubes for £5 from Eagle Sweet Peas as they seem to offer the best solution.

Although they will stand up on their own when full of compost, I can get 20 in a standard mushroom tray which keeps them upright and makes them easy to move about.

As the autumn sown seeds are going to be in the tubes for at least 5 months, I mix a little slow release food in the gritty compost.

The window cleaner reckons you should sow them when the clocks go back and plant them out when the clocks go forward. Simple to remember and has worked for him for over 30 years. Three seeds of each variety are now sitting in their grow tubes in the greenhouse and as soon as they germinate they will be transferred outside into the cold frame.  I will sow 3 more of each on New Year’s Day in the propagator, on 1 March in gentle heat if it is still cold, and directly in the ground on 1 May. If two thirds germinate and grow to maturity, bearing in mind how much slugs, snails, mice and birds love the seeds and seedlings, this should provide me with around 160 plants, half for us and half for friends and neighbours and the Horticultural Society Plant Sale in May. I am hoping to avoid the usual glut of flowers in June and July and prolong the season to provide cut flowers from mid-May to mid-September.

According to Mr Fothergill’s, 2013 is the year of the Sweet Pea and they have released a new variety in conjunction with the RHS called Chelsea Centenary to celebrate.

My 20 selected varieties for next year are as follows:

  1. Cupani
  2. Matucana
  3. Painted Lady
  4. Grandiflora purple/pink
  5. Grandiflora red
  6. King Size Navy Blue
  7. Cathy
  8. Heirloom mixed
  9. Alan Titchmarsh
  10. Apricot Sprite
  11. High Scent
  12. Singing the Blues
  13. Henry Eckford
  14. Ensign
  15. Air Warden
  16. Beaujolais Purple
  17. Noel Sutton
  18. Royal Family
  19. Mrs R Bolton
  20. Lathyrus chloranthus

Lathyrus chloranthus is a species variety and unique as it is the only ‘yellow’ sweet pea known to exist. It is a bit of a novelty and has little or no scent but I thought I would grow it simply for the colour which is really an acid green rather than yellow.