Their prettiness, perfume and abundant flowers have made sweet peas popular with gardeners and florists for a long time
Among them is Chris McAleer, the Balbriggan-based organic gardener and former All-Ireland sweet pea champion (yes, there is such a thing) who has also won some acclaim as the breeder who introduced the award-winning variety L. ‘Bridget McAleer’ (named after his wife) into cultivation.
Rather than wait until springtime to sow his sweet pea seeds, as some gardeners do, McAleer is a very firm believer in the benefits of an October sowing, where the reward is far stronger, more vigorous and floriferous plants that come into flower earlier, stay longer in flower and are more tolerant of difficult growing conditions.
“I generally sow seed in the first half of October, after soaking them overnight indoors in a small container of water and then spreading them out on a few sheets of wet kitchen paper to pre-sprout them,” he says.
“Once sprouted, the seed goes into root trainers or pots filled with a mix of spent garden compost and garden soil, which I move straight away to my unheated glasshouse to overwinter.”
Aside from an exceptionally harsh frost (offer some extra protection when temperatures fall below -4 degrees), McAleer agrees that the greatest risk to autumn-sown sweet pea seed comes from mice. Sweet pea seed may be toxic in large quantities to humans in whom it causes a condition known as osteolathyrism, but these rodents love nothing more than to feast on it, so take suitable precautions.
The young seedlings will also require regular watering, enough to maintain steady growth but never to the point where the compost is sodden.
Grown ‘hard’ so that they gradually become accustomed to low winter temperatures, autumn-sown sweet pea plants are surprisingly resilient and can transplanted out into their permanent position in the garden in mid-March or early April, just so long as the soil is not sodden or frozen.
Give them a well-prepared, sunny spot, where the soil is weed-free and has already been enriched with manure, seaweed or pelletted chicken manure. Take precautions against slug damage too and provide sturdy supports for the plants.
All going well, you should be enjoying the sight and smell of your first sweet pea flower by early June.
That is definitely something to look forward to in the dark winter days ahead.
Specialist sweet-pea seed suppliers include Owl’s Acre Sweet Peas (sweetpea-seed.com), Somerset Sweet Peas (somersetsweetpeas.com) and the Northern Irish Cooltonagh Sweet Peas (cooltonagh.co.uk).
Wednesday, October 16th: Wesley House, Leeson Park, Dublin 6 at 8pm: RHSI gala flower arranging demonstration given by international demonstrator James Burnside, as a fundraiser for next June’s WAFA show. For further details, tel: 01-235 3912 or see rhsi.ie