The Somerset Sweet Pea Co
The Importance of Autumn sown Sweet Peas
I have heard it so many times at Sweet Pea Shows, Exhibitions, or Demonstrations ”How do you get such long stems and large flowers” Well there is no secret or mystery its just a matter of applying some basic horticultural principles.
- Most importantly Autumn sowing of seed.
- A good quality source of seed or Autumn grown plants.
- Soil cultivation.
- A little care and attention.
To produce best results there’s nothing like Autumn sowing, this does entail some additional care of the plants during winter, but Autumn sown plants flower earlier, have longer stems, larger flowers and flower for a longer period. Good results can be achieved with spring sown, however they are not the same and do not achieve tip top quality. Almost unrecognisable as Sweet Peas, these freaks are Autumn sow Sweet Peas and will go on to produce far superior blooms.
Spencer Sweet Peas (The type we are dealing with) are a type of day length plant. This means the flowering period is governed by the length of day light. If you sow your peas in early November, they will make slow, steady growth during winter (particularly the roots) and after planting out, until late May early June when, give a week or two, flowering will commence
So if you sow your peas in early March (spring sown) once germination has taken place growth will be rapid, and by mid June when the plants start to flower, they are doing so without the advantage of having maximised their root system.
These are generally the Sweet Peas purchased from garden centres during April. At Somerset Sweet Peas all our Sweet Pea plants are sown during November/December and are grown hard, outside in cold frames to exhibition quality.
Cordon grown, similar to tomatoes. With this method all side shoots and tendrils are removed and the plant is ringed at intervals to hold in position. This makes the plant concentrate its efforts on producing large stems and flowers. This method is generally used by Exhibitors and is labour intensive however the results are remarkable.
Bush, sometimes known as clump cultivation, is when a whole pot full or several plants planted separately, are allowed to grow up a structure independently with an occasional tying in should it be required. With this method the flowers are early and the first flush have large stems and flowers. However if not picked regularly the length of stem or Spike soon deteriorates but the sight and smell of a clump in full bloom is something special.
Autumn sowing of Sweet Peas used to be carried out in early October in the north of England, and mid October in the south. However due to global warming, sowing now takes place during early to mid November. There are many myths surrounding the sowing of Sweet Pea seeds, its this simple soak the seeds over night and in the morning check to see if the seeds have swollen if any haven’t they need to be chitted once chitted return the seeds for a further 4-5 hours this will allow the seeds to imbibe and start the growing process giving even germination, and a uniform emergence. At Somerset Sweet Peas we recommend you sow the seeds initially in half trays of 1/4inch (5mm) sieved” J Innes Loam base seed compost” or a soiless compost, perlite or vermiculite. Fill the tray to within one 1 inch (25mm) of the top, position the seeds 1 inch (25mm) apart, then with a fine rose watering can water the seeds and compost thoroughly. Repeat several times. Then cover the seeds with compost to the top of the tray but do not water. Add a few slug pellets.
Sweet Pea seedlings at the ideal stage for transplanting. At this time of year depending on the weather, a little heat may be required say about 15c-18c for a uniform germination. However once the seedlings have emerged they must be transferred to the outside or a cold frame immediately (this is very important) to stop the seeds becoming leggy or Etiolated.
From now on the seedlings must be grown hard with no undue coddling.
Once the seedlings have grown to about 1″1\2 inches (36mm) high with the leaves unopened this is the best time to transplant. Five plants to a 6 inch (150mm) pot. Fill the pots with 1/4 inch (5mm) sieved” J Innes No1 loam based compost”. Make a hole with a pencil, tease out the seedlings and before transplanting into the pencil hole just nip off the tap root at the bottom. This will encourage a strong secondary root structure and plants will be easily transplanted in the spring when the tap root, if allowed to develop, can reach 2 feet (600mm). When transplanting is complete tap the pot to settle the soil and add slug bait.
During the growing on period I cannot stress the importance of growing the plants hard (do not put in the green house). Seedlings must be put outside in an open frame without the lights, and should only be protected in cases of severe frost -4 and below. The frame should be positioned in an open aspect, full sun if possible and not in a dark dingy alley. Wire mesh protection against mice is a good idea and some cover should be given if snow is forecast, as this can break the stems, if it is of any depth.
Sweet Peas transplanted with ease (note simple pencil hole).
A word about the frames, high walled frames are of no use to sweet pea cultivation, the ideal is 12inches (300mm) high at the back sloping down to 8inches (200mm) at the front, 4 feet (1200mm) in length and 2 feet (600mm) wide with removable lights and 10mm chicken mesh frames. These days the lights are rarely used except for extreme frost and cold, but can be replaced with the framed mesh for mice protection. Position is critical south facing with full sun if possible .
This may all seem a little complicated, however if you are only growing a few pots there is no reason why you cannot just leave on the patio providing:
- Sheltered from Northerly and Easterly winds
Mice and slug protection (cat, slug pellets)
Protection in extreme weather (move to a cold green house only if extreme weather persists.)
About the beginning of January the plants should be removed from the frames and inspected to see if any side shoots are forming at the leaf axis, (these side shoots will go on to form the main stem and flower), if not the plants should be stopped. This means pinching out the main shoot at the top, if side shoots are breaking then the plants can be left unstopped. However whilst the pots are out of the frame take the time to fluff up the surface of the soil, and top up soil in the pot. This is also a good time to renew slug bait.
Firstly we must take into consideration the site position, full sun is best, however if growing less seriously just for cutting try to ensure a fair period of sun . Wind protection from the East and North if possible especially after planting out. It does not matter when you carry out soil preparation on light soil but do not leave it to the last minute as bad weather could delay you, and in turn planting out, it’s important to plant out at the end of February.
Light to Medium Soil
If you are going to grow clump fashion just dig the top spit out of a square yard/metre and put to one side then add a barrow full of well rotted compost, manure, or any organic matter you can lay your hands on. Add a good handful of blood fish and bone, then dig in to the bottom spit. Turn over a few times breaking up any large clumps of soil as you go, return the top spit and let the weather have it. Simple as that.
Heavy soil is hard work whatever you are growing, however we can employ a few tricks to improve the growing conditions. Firstly digging heavy soils should be carried out as early as possible, ideally during September/October, this allows the soil plenty of weathering. Preparation is the same for light soil but add half a bag of sharp sand with the organic matter in the bottom spit, and if possible import a little top soil and add to the top spit. Leave the soil rough and allow it to be weathered with the additional materials added. This will raise the soil above the surrounding area and will assist with drainage and the soil will warm quicker in the spring.
Autumn grown plants are best out at the end of February. The seedlings, if grown hard should be 4-5inches (100mm -125mm) in length with one, two maybe three side shoots about 1/4inch (5mm) long depending on how the winter has been.
With day length growing longer, growth will be rapid and if you are not careful the roots will be difficult to separate when transplanting. Do not be frightened about the cold, properly grown plants are always ready. However the following considerations should guide and not the calendar. The weather should be favourable dry and mild, planting in the cold is perfectly acceptable providing that frost is not in the ground. Give the plants a good soaking a few days before planting.
If growing clump fashion, it’s perfectly acceptable to knock out a pot of seedlings and plant out as they are, without teasing the root ball apart. However though more time consuming, but a better method with superior results, tease the root ball apart, separate the seedlings and plant 7inches (175mm) apart.
The ideal planting method is using a boarder spade (ladies spade) creating a 45 degree angle then spreading the roots across the angle, the soil should be level with the lowest shoot. Next you need to erect some support. I personally don’t like wigwams as they suppress the natural growing habit, but if that’s all you have its fine, good results can still be achieved. However a superior method if available is tall bushy pea sticks about 6feet (1200mm) high (hazel, pussy willow) cut during the winter and pushed around the transplanted seedlings and tied in at the top. Additionally position some small twigs around the seedlings for initial support (DO NOT FORGET SLUG BAIT).At Somerset Sweet Peas we sell manufactured circular wire supports that remove the hard work and can be used for twenty or so years, also useful for runner beans and peas.