Ode to the Sweet Pea

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. – John Keats

Decking a table with beautiful produce is one of life’s sweetest pleasures, and although food is often beautiful enough alone to make a masterpiece of your dining table, I am in the throes of a long and intense love affair with flowers. The feminist, socialist in me believes that “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.” Therefore, flowers for everyone and everywhere; flowers when cooking, flowers when eating, and even flowers for consuming (edible varieties only of course).

The sweetpea is the first flower I grew from seed. They are a confidence giver; they encourage and assure- and once they germinate, with just a little bit of love they will reach for the sky.

They are generous creatues, producing abundantly- so much so that it can be hard to keep up with them; once they start to party they’ll flower you under the table every day and if you sow successional, you’ll have their blooms to cut until they finally pass out as the colder autumn light sets in.

They can all at once be modern and throwback, demure and ostentatious; whether it’s just a stem in a bud vase by the bed, mixed into a little posey, or in lavish abundance in a bouquet on the kitchen table, they always put on a glorious show. Dish them out to neighbours and you’ll still have a fresh batch for yourself the next day, heck, you can dish them out to everyone and still have plenty for yourself.


With their soft, flouncy frills, and heady perfume in every shade of pale, they are aptly named sweet. However, there are more racy characters in blood and claret red, and those with somber humours in inky purples and blues.

I’m amassing a list of ones to have in the garden next year and with so many varieties to chose from, where oh where to begin? Let’s start at the very beginning, that’s a very good place to start; the first sweet peas in Britain were sent over by a Sicilian monk, Brother Cupani, in 1699. He found a wild sweetpea growing near his monastery with maroon and violet petals and a honeyed fragrance. There is a cultivar called ‘Cupani’ or ‘Matucana’ which is a direct relative of the original Sweet pea, which of course I am eager to try. Another I’m drawn to is the seductive glamour of the ‘Almost Black’ variety. Which will make an altogether more dramatic pairing than the soft pastel pallete this year.

The only thing that really make a sweet pea sulk is disturbing it’s carefully curated roots, which poses a slight conundrum when potting up seedlings. I’ve seen people have all sorts of methods of madness to foil this idiosyncratic personality trait; toilet rolls, guttering, root trainers, all of which apparently work wonders. However mine did just fine with plain old sowing, potting up and planting out. I made sure to be delicate and speak softly to them, as one would a disgruntled baby aghast at the idea of bed time. They’re hungry things so feed them lots to get them away and dig a cavernous enough bed to nestle them in, bedecked with a climbing frame of sticks to play with as they grow.

Autumn is the time to get ahead with sowing, however if your thoughts are too preoccupied before Christmas, why not ask for seeds for your present this year, and sow them in The New Year. My aim is to start the sowing of next years plants as the final flowers fade from the current year; that way I always have sweet peas on the go somewhere, which I find deeply satisfying. You don’t even need land to grow them in, a deep pot with some upright sticks works just fine. Pop them by your front door, your terrace, your office, even the street if you must- they will, I guarantee, make your life a little sweeter.

  • Pop some seeds in a tray a few inches apart just below the surface of some good compost, a keep somewhere warm until they germinate.
  • Pot them up into deep pots, with delicacy, when four true leaves appear.
  • Move them somewhere cool and light, but frost free. This will encourage a good root system to grow.
  • Pinch out. Snip the top of the plant down to lower leaves to encourage bushy growth and more flowers. This is optional.
  • I plant them out in the ground just before the final frost dates. They can handle a bit of a cold snap, but not a hard frost. If you’ve planted out and a hard frost is forecast, you can always give them some horticultural fleece as a duvet for the night. When you’ve chosen where they’ll live, give them plenty of depth in their final position; gently place the roots down into the hole and fill it in, give them a good water in and a feed with a little vocal encouragement and they’ll do you proud. They like their roots to be kept quite cool and moist, so keep watering and feeding at the summer rolls on. Hopefully you’ll be picking sweetness right through til August.

2 thoughts on “Ode to the Sweet Pea

Leave a Reply