There is an extra special something about sweet peas that sets the senses aflame: their exquisite and subtly sensuous fragrance fills the entire body with an uplifting sensation impossible to describe in its entirety.
Putting it briefly: sweet peas knock you for a six!
This being the time to sow these wondrous beauties, let’s take a look at how to make the most of them, before getting down to the nitty-gritty of actually growing them.
Selectively bred up from their wild cousins of yesteryear — a Sicilian monk, named Francis Cupani, is known to have specialised in cultivating sweet peas way back in 1699 — Lathyrus odorata, and the ‘original’ sweet pea cultivar, Cupani, a powerfully fragrant, deep purple and magenta bi-colour, is, naturally, named after him. Although, in truth, no one is sure which country is the plants’ indigenous home.
Wherever their roots were, they now seem to be happy in most countries around the world and certainly deserve pride of place in every Pakistani garden.
Sweet peas — available in various heights and an incredibly diverse range of colours — can be grown directly in the ground, in pots and other assorted containers (as long as there is a drainage hole for excess water), be trained to climb up trellises or other convenient objects or, in the case of some varieties, be encouraged to tumble down from hanging baskets and the like.
An annual species — this means that they are sown, grow, produce their intensely perfumed blooms, make seed, then die, all in a single season — they are at their best grown in rows or blocks of single or mixed colour.
Sweet peas are loved for their scent, asymmetry, early season colour and romantic appeal
A walkway, lined with a trellis of sweet peas on either side, is an enchanting place to wander: the six feet to eight feet tall vines providing a perfumed privacy from which you will be reluctant to escape unless, that is, you are scared of bees, as these important pollinators love them too!
A veranda/balcony edged with sweet peas is another spectacular delight, as is a rockery smothered in masses of the dwarf varieties, the latter also being perfect for pots.
If growing sweet peas solely for pleasure, rather than for show, their cultivation is a fairly simple matter. They can be successfully grown in most soil types as long as a reasonable amount of homemade, organic, compost and old, fully rotted down manure has been mixed in and the soil is well-drained. If being grown in rows, try your best to have these running in a north to south direction to ensure that, at some point in the day, both sides of the row/rows are exposed to ample sunlight.
Sow individual seeds about one inch deep and three inches to four inches apart for a nicely packed, glorious result.
It is preferable, by the way, to erect a suitable trellis or other strong support framework contrived out of canes and twine, before sowing the seeds. To do so at a later stage may well damage the growing plants and destroy their tender, yet brittle, roots.
Sweet peas, once they get going, grow rapidly, their twinning tendrils securely clinging to whatever support has been provided.
Keep them nicely watered, remember that the more blooms you pick, the more they will produce and they will reward you, visually and olfactorily, right from early spring on until temperatures really begin to soar.
If cultivating sweet peas for show — or perhaps you wish to grow ultra-spectacular blooms for private pleasure — soil preparation and plant care is a little more complicated.
In this case, soil should be prepared at least two months in advance of seed sowing. Do this by digging out a planting trench about 18 inches deep and 18 inches wide. Fill the trench with a mix of organic compost/well-rotted manure and then heap the previously extracted soil back over it. Over the next few weeks, the compost/manure/soil will settle into place and you will be left with a slightly raised ridge in which to sow the seed. Sow seed about one inch deep and eight inches to 10 inches apart, thus giving the plants lots of room in which to grow. Provide growing supports prior to sowing the seed. When seedlings are about four inches tall, nip off the central growing tip — this encourages the plant to send out lots of side shoots. Once side shoots are approximately 10 inches tall, remove all except two of them and train these, supporting them with sticks until they begin to climb naturally, on either side of the original main stem. Go over the plants every two or three days, removing any new side shoots that appear and, you are warned, there will be lots!
The two shoots per plant that have been allowed to grow will not produce flowers in profusion, but those that do produce should be of gigantic form.
Perennial varieties of sweet peas do exist and are beautiful too but, sadly, they are unperfumed. These perennial sweet peas — Lathyrus latifolius — are white, pale pink or deep rose in colour and, at least from Lahore northwards, are strong growers which happily self-seed all around. Their flowery profusion makes up for their lack of fragrance to a large degree but, for original sweet pea lovers, there is nothing like the real thing.
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Published in Dawn, EOS, Octoberr 11th, 2020