Gardening: Welcome, autumn and hello, sweet pea
I HOPE I'm not imagining it, but I think there is a hint of autumn in the air. And that's exciting for those of us who like to grow things. Already the camellias are budding, the spring-flowering bulbs have arrived at the nursery, and we are starting to think about pansies, violas, broccoli and kale. Oh, happy days.
But first things first. And the first job for the autumn is to plant some sweet peas. In Australia, St Patrick's Day is the traditional day for sowing sweet pea seeds. But really, any time through March and April is okay. If you leave it too late, the flowering may be cut short if we have a hot spell in spring.
The sweet pea (lathyrus odoratus) is an annual, a member of the leguminosae family. There are climbers and dwarf forms, and the flower colours vary from white and cream through pinks and crimsons to blues and purples, but not yellow. They bloom prolifically, and make a lovely cut flower. Many varieties have a delightful fragrance, too. All of the varieties that we grow today have been bred from the same parent seeds, which were sent by a Sicilian monk, Franciscus Cupani, to colleagues in Amsterdam and England in 1699. Seeds of this beautifully scented purple/maroon bicolour form, called Cupani, are still widely available.
The climbing forms of sweet peas can grow up to two metres tall, so they need some support. If you don't have a fence or trellis, build a teepee by tying at least three tall straight sticks or stakes together at the top with some string. 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. There are also dwarf varieties that don't need support, but still produce large flowers on long, sturdy stems.
Sweet peas are easy to grow from seed. They prefer a sunny position, with plenty of organic matter and a sprinkling of lime or dolomite in the soil. Use premium potting mix if they are in a pot. Sow seeds directly where they are to grow, about 2-4cm deep. Pea seeds won't germinate readily in water-logged soil, so plant into moist soil and then don't water them again until the shoots emerge. Once the shoots are about 5-8cm tall, pinch out the tops to encourage side shoots, which will mean more flowers.
Flowering should begin about 12-14 weeks after planting. It's important to keep picking the flowers and removing any seed pods to encourage more blooms to form.
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