Sweet peas make glorious garden

ST PATRICK’S Day, March 17, is the traditional day for sowing sweet pea seeds. According to Irish tradition, sweet pea seeds planted by lamplight between sunset the evening before St Patrick’s Day and sunrise that morning, will produce flowers that are more fragrant and larger than seeds planted at any other time.

Interestingly enough, the St Patrick’s Day planting works for us, too, as peas are a cool climate crop and need to be grown here during our winter. But if you missed planting them in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, don’t despair: get them in before Anzac Day and you’ll still enjoy flowers in spring.

The Sweet Pea (Lathyrus odoratus) is a highly scented annual of the Leguminosae family. There are climbers and dwarf forms, and the flowers’ colours vary from white through pinks and crimsons to blues and purples, but not yellow. They are prolific bloomers, and are ever so pretty in the garden and the vase.

The name ‘sweet pea’ is believed to have first been used by the poet Keats, who described them beautifully in the poem I Stood Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill:

‘Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight:

With wings of gentle flush o’er delicate white,

And taper fingers catching at all things,

To bind them all about with tiny rings.’

Sweet peas were very popular in the late 1800s and were an important part of floral arrangements for weddings and dinner parties. Their dried petals were one of the most important ingredients for potpourris. Sweet peas are said to represent blissful pleasure, not a bad thing to have in your garden!

There is absolutely nothing like a fence smothered in sweet peas in spring. If you don’t have a fence or trellis, build a teepee by tying three tall straight sticks or stakes together at the top with some string, or grow ‘Bijou’, a dwarf variety that doesn’t need staking. It only gets about 60cm tall but still produces large flowers on long sturdy stems.

Sweet peas grow readily from seed, or you can purchase punnets of seedlings. They prefer a sunny position, with plenty of organic matter and a sprinkling of lime in the soil.

Of course, if you’re growing them in a pot, use premium potting mix. Sow seeds directly where they are to grow, about 2-4cm deep. Some gardeners like to nick the seed before planting, others soak the seeds overnight, and some simply put the seeds in the ground. Do whatever works for you.

If you are growing a climbing variety, have the support structure in place before you plant, as you may damage the roots if you poke stakes into the ground once your plants are growing.

Because sweet peas are a member of the legume family, they can create nitrogen and ‘fix’ it in the soil. This means that, when the sweet peas are finished, you can plant some nitrogen lovers such as leafy greens in that spot.

Pick the flowers and enjoy them inside, and remove spent flowers to prevent seed pods from forming and slowing down the flowering process. Like other legumes, sweet peas may be affected by fungal diseases such as powdery mildew. To minimise fungal problems, water plants in the morning.

Top  tips

Caterpillars of all kinds are rampant at the moment. If you need to take action, use one of the organic options such as Eco-Neem or Dipel, which will control the caterpillars but will not harm beneficial insects.

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