sweet pea

Sweet peas Part 2: Variety library

When shopping for sweet peas, or any flowering plants really, I find it very difficult to know just what I’m getting. The quality of plant photography, printing, and computer monitor displays vary so widely that varieties depicted in catalogs or online often bear no resemblance to reality. As I’ve fallen further down the sweet pea wormhole, I find that the only real way to know exactly what a bloom will look like is to grow it myself. This makes color planning a bit hit-and-miss, but the thrill of discovering a variety even more spectacular than its Web presence is worth the inevitable disappointment when some fail to deliver.

I do a lot of research before I order my seeds, and look at as many photos as possible in order to average them out in my mind to what I think I might get. I’ve often wished for more accurate descriptions of varieties and their colors, with photographs that were created to be as true to reality as possible. Having not yet found such a resource, I have decided to start one myself. What follows are images as closely aligned with what I perceive to be how the flowers actually look. As always, your computer monitor may vary, but this may still be helpful in some way. If nothing else this is a record for me of what I have grown, and what I’d grow again.

In 2018 I grew:

  • ‘Piggy Sue’: a pale ivory with peach tones

  • ‘Kingfisher’: supposedly a pale blue but this came up a bright red, pointing to a mistake from the seed supplier

  • ‘Nimbus’: an almost-grey flake with deep purple-red streaks

  • ‘Maloy’: coral orange'

  • ‘Noel Sutton’: solid mid-blue

  • ‘Betty Maiden’: white with purple blue flake'

  • ‘Oban Bay’: very pale blue, almost white

  • ‘Dorothy Ekford’: white

  • ‘Earl Grey’: purple and maroon flake

  • ‘Blackberry’: deep red

  • ‘Hero’: very dark blue

I had a few seeds left over from those I’d randomly collected off student plots my first year studying in Edinburgh. One of them turned out to be a very pretty lavender, which though it was a color I don’t think I would have bought, I ended up loving. Too bad I’ll never know its name!

I was excited to grow a coral orange sweet pea called ‘Maloy,’ which came heavily recommended by Floret. However, the second image perfectly illustrates why I consider ‘Maloy’ to be a failure. It’s just too hard to work into bouquets, especially as my tastes tend toward the cooler sweet pea colors. I was also disappointed with the white, ‘Dorothy Ekford.’ It’s an old-fashioned sweet pea, and thus smaller-flowered than the modern varieties, but it didn’t do much for me.

‘Piggy Sue’ was pretty and blended well into arrangements. The mid-blue ‘Noel Sutton’ was okay—it had nice big flowers but didn’t really get my pulse going. There may be more interesting blues out there. ‘Blackberry’ and ‘Hero’ served their purpose to provide some deeper tones in arrangements, but two sweet peas I grew at work, ‘Windsor,’ and ‘King-Sized Navy Blue’ were better options for those colors.

‘Earl Grey’ and ‘Nimbus’ were similar in that ‘Nimbus’ took on almost sinister tones. I know it is very popular among cut flower growers, but something about it didn’t thrill me. I imagine it could be very beautiful combined with flowers other than sweet peas, and silver foliage such as Senecio cineraria , so I won’t discount it. I liked ‘Earl Grey’ and found it a beefed-up version of ‘Senator,’ my favorite of the sweet peas I grew in Edinburgh, though ‘Earl Grey’ was less deliciously scented.

My favorite of the bunch was ‘Oban Bay,’ which was an ethereal pale blue that bordered on white. I also liked ‘Betty Maiden,’ a variety I first met in the demonstration garden at the Botanics in Edinburgh. It is white with a blue stripe, or “flake.”

In Edinburgh I grew:

  • 'Charlie's Angel’: mid- to pale-blue

  • 'North Shore’: dark and mid-blue bicolor

  • 'Jilly’: lovely ivory

  • ‘Senator’: maroon and purple flake

  • ‘Champagne Bubbles’: ivory and peach

  • ‘Almost Black’: very dark purple

I actually liked all of these and would grow them again, though ‘Champagne Bubbles’ wasn’t as robust as ‘Piggy Sue’ and had similar coloration.

I now have my seeds for this year’s sowing, so stay tuned to find out what I will grow and how these new varieties stack up against the ones pictured in this post.

Sweet peas Part 1: Sowing and growing

The longer days are quickly returning, and my thoughts now turn to what I will grow in 2019. I’ve started placing seed orders, and with each envelope that appears through the mail slot I get more excited by the possibilities ahead.

An especially important package arrived last week with my sweet pea (Lathyrus odoratus) seeds from Roger Parsons. Since moving to Britain I have become a bit obsessed by sweet peas, most likely because they were impossible to grow well in my native Virginia climate. It just got too hot, too fast for them in the spring.

When I was living in Edinburgh I grew my first sweet peas supported by jute netting attached to the front of my house. They didn’t have much root run in their raised planter, but I got decent-enough blooms that I was hooked. They were so intricate and sensual with their ruffled flowers and evocative scent. They seemed the antithesis of zinnias, cosmos, and all the other bold, scentless hot-climate flowers I’d grown in Virginia. I slept with sweet pea posies on my nightstand that summer, and knew I’d grow sweet peas as long as I lived in Britain.

Last year—my first in Kent—I sowed my sweet pea seeds on Feb. 27 into root trainers. I didn’t knick, soak, or otherwise adulterate the seeds before sowing, though I do know one expert who germinates all his seed on damp paper towels before sowing to avoid any root trainer cells coming up blind. As is best practice, I labeled my cells with date and variety before sowing. My seeds germinated in the airing cupboard by March and then they went right outside into the cold frame. When each seedling had four true leaves I pinched off the top to encourage lateral branching.

When it was finally dry enough to work the soil I created a new bed in a section of my lawn that over winter stood pretty boggy and wet. Once the new bed, which was 16 feet long, was cut in I dumped a few bags of compost and manure into it along with handfuls of fish, blood, and bone. I heaped the soil up to create a somewhat drier planting bed and then cut some eight-foot poles in the forest, pounded them in, and strung jute netting between them.

The seedlings dragged along during our long, cold spring (as we all did) until I finally planted them out on April 22. I covered them with fleece for a week or so to discourage the pigeons. Each day I’d check them and patiently encourage the tiny tendrils to grasp the lowest strings of the netting. It always takes a while for them to get their roots going, during which time they don’t look like they are going to do much. But as the temperatures warm and they get established they soon shoot up. From then there is no holding them back as they stretch to the sky.

I watered them regularly, gave them a weekly feed of Tomorite and had my first blooms by mid-June when the stems were a bit more than half-way up their supports.

In another month, they had reached the top of their supports and were flowering so profusely that each dead-heading and harvesting session, which I did religiously to keep them blooming, took up to an hour. I drowned in blooms, harvesting fistfuls at a time and running out of vases in the house to hold them all. I felt so rich.

We had an atypically hot and dry summer last year, and I think the moisture-holding qualities of their location actually worked in the sweet peas’ favor. They kept blooming pretty well into August, when the constant baking and the lack of any more room to grow started to brown them out. They revived a bit in cooler temperatures, leading to me believe that without such extreme weather they would have happily grown all summer, but by then I was so tired of tending them that I thanked them for their service and cleared the bed.

In all, the 2018 sweet peas were a great success, and there isn’t much I’d change about their cultivation other than to grow fewer plants of each variety so that I have more flexibility with my arrangements. I do dream about having even more space to grow them, though that may be a mixed blessing given how time-intensive it is to keep them deadheaded so they don’t run to seed at the expense of flowers. I’ve ordered my 2019 line-up, which I will introduce soon, and in the next post I’ll share the varieties I’ve grown and my thoughts on each.

More sweet peas

With careful tending, weekly high-potash feeds, and constant de-tendriling, my sweet peas continue to pump out the blooms. I couldn't be more thrilled with my variety selection. My goal, in addition to growing highly scented varieties, was to select six that could be combined in multiple ways to give me different-looking arrangements within a limited palette. 

In the arrangement above you can see 'Charlie's Angel,' the blue/lavender; 'North Shore,' the darker bicolored purple; 'Senator,' the purple and maroon flake; 'Almost Black,' peeking out the right side; the creamy white 'Jilly,' and over on the left just a hint of the pale pink 'Champagne Bubbles.' The bright fuchsia bloom in the center is a student plot mystery plant, but it's a happy and welcome surprise. 


Grow British sweet peas from seed: Life list accomplishment

There were many challenges to gardening at my home in Virginia: marauding insects (occasionally of the poisonous kind), drought, strong storms, unimproved red clay soil, and the ever-present possibility of coming up with a fistful of copperhead whilst reaching in to pick the cucumbers. This made growing most anything an exercise in self-education and perseverance. Though I had relative success with some plants, a gardening holy grail evaded me: Lathyrus odoratus, the sweet pea. 

I hadn't ever seen sweet peas grown really well anywhere in my travels around the U.S., but they filled the pages of my British gardening magazines and completely beguiled me. I always thought of sweet peas as one of those quintessentially British plants, and my suspicions were confirmed the more I read. The cool and damp climate seemed to suit them, and they are perfect plants for fussing over in hope of attaining large blooms and long, straight stems so desired on the show bench. All the months of nurturing, cordoning, tying in, pinching, and de-tendriling seemed to epitomize British horticulture. 

I did try to grow sweet peas once at home, but my attempt yielded a weak and weedy plant that pushed out one pathetically tiny and virus-mottled bloom before withering. I assumed that with the too-hot, too-fast Virginia climate and the unavailability of most of the really good British strains (and the amazing varieties bred by Dr. Keith Hammett, a Brit in New Zealand), sweet peas were destined to be plants I'd never grow. And that this defeat came before I'd even yet seen--let alone smelled--a proper sweet pea was doubly galling. 

And then I got the chance to study horticulture in Britain, and one of the first things I wanted to do was take advantage of the otherwise ghastly climate to finally grow sweet peas. Last year I bought two small pots of 'Spencer Mix' and stuck them--in June--into the raised planter beside my front door.

I trained the vines up jute netting affixed to the house, watered them once a week with diluted tomato food, and picked enough posies to scent my house until autumn. Unlike me, the sweet peas seemed to love the miserably cold and grey summer, and they lifted my mood. Despite the garish combination of colors in the mix, I was totally hooked. 

This year I wanted to do one better, and actually start my peas from seed. That led me down a rabbit hole of research, as I struggled to choose a few varieties that I could grow in my limited space. I spent the long winter nights with whisky and Pinterest, playing with color combinations and reading about the best characteristics of hundreds of named varieties before choosing six. In March I placed an order, and within days my experiment was under way. 

I sowed the seeds into root trainers, which are good for legumes because they prefer a long root run and minimal root disturbance at transplanting. They germinated after a few days on top of the refrigerator, and I moved them to a windowsill where they quickly etiolated into the palest, most spindly looking seedlings you'd ever seen. Once again my horticultural training had been trumped by that most precious commodity of a Scottish winter: light. It was simply too dark in my house to grow anything. 

I made a tough love decision to chuck the seedlings outside where they'd have the most possible light. A few days of the most cursory hardening off and they were on their own, buffeted and chilled in the gales and hail storms.

I planted them out once their roots had filled the trainers, some in the raised planter and others in grow bags. Because of lack of space and gluttony they're spaced way too close, I know. Then they sat and didn't do much for the ages it took for slightly warmer weather and longer days to arrive. 

But just now I've enjoyed one of my most rewarding gardening experience ever: picking my first sweet peas, grown from seed, in Britain. Just these first few delightfully ruffled blooms have already perfumed my house and lit up my kitchen like living jewels. It's finally summer in Scotland, and I'm even more smitten with sweet peas. 

The varieties above include 'Charlie's Angel,' 'North Shore,' 'Jilly,' 'Senator,' and the pink and red is a mystery lucky dip given to me by a classmate who harvested the seed off someone's student plot last autumn. If I had to guess I'd say it's 'Painted Lady.' Stay tuned for a few more varieties yet to bloom.