January sown Sweet Pea varieties for 2019

With the Christmas and New year festivities behind us our thoughts are turning to the new gardening year.  Sowing sweet peas just after Christmas has become a bit of a tradition and makes you feel that the new year has begun even though the January weather is cold and uninviting.

This year we have decided to create two themes using the following varieties (all available from Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (www.rpsweetpeas.com)).  For us a sweet pea must have a good scent to be worth growing.  We also look for varieties that have a longer flower stem so that they sit well amongst other cottage garden flowers when brought into the house.

Details on how we sow our sweet peas and bring on our plants are also included below.


Pink, red and white selection

Emily (tall grandiflora type – rose pink on a white ground)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Millennium (tall spencer type – crimson)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Zorija Rose (tall grandiflora type – deep rose shades)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Hannah Dale (tall early grandiflora type – purple maroon)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Mollie Rilstone (tall spencer type – cream with a pink edge)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

CCC (tall grandiflora type – white)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Blue and white collection

Blue Danube (tall spencer type – mid-blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Just Jenny (tall spencer type – navy blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

King Size Navy Blue (tall semi-grandiflora type – navy blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Greenfingers (tall grandiflora type – cream with a violet edge)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Adorabel (tall grandiflora type – lavender turning mauve blue)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Dragonfly (tall semi-grandiflora type – cream marked with lavender)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

CCC (tall grandiflora type – white)

Photo credit:  Roger Parsons Sweet Peas (real-time link to http://www.rpsweetpeas.com)

Sowing and growing sweet peas

There seems to be a lot of mystique around sowing sweet peas but we have always found them very easy to grow and need no specialist equipment or seed treatment.  Although in the past we have soaked the seed overnight before sowing we have not found this necessary to get good germination.  Roger Parsons ( www.rpsweetpeas.com ) indicates that soaking or chipping the seed may in fact reduce germination.

We certainly have good success with the following approach:

  • Sow 3 or 4 seeds in January in standard 9cm pots in a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite.
  • Water well and place on the kitchen window sill (this is usually around a constant 18°C-20°C).  Do not water again until the seedlings start to emerge.
  • You will typically see the first seedlings show themselves in about 7-14 days.
  • Once the seedlings have emerged we move them out into a cold, unheated greenhouse.  They are best grown on hard in plenty of light so that they do not get leggy.  If the temperature drops to below -5°C they may need some protection.
  • We keep the seedlings up high on the greenhouse staging so that there is less risk of mice and other rodents getting to them.
  • Once the plants have reached four leaves, pinch out the tops of all the plants so that they bush out.
  • In around mid-March, we harden off for a couple of weeks before planting out into the garden.  We have grown them up canes in the past but this requires a lot of attention to ensure the plants are tied in effectively.  More recently we have found that standard pea and bean netting works particularly well as long as you buy a decent quality that can be used again and again over a number of years.
  • You should create a deep well dug planting trench incorporating lots of well-rotted organic matter into the soil both to hold the moisture and feed the hungry plants through the season.
  • Plant out the whole pot of 3 or 4 plants together without disturbing the roots and water in well.  Each pot should be planted around 12 inches apart and the tendrils gently encouraged to take a grip of the netting.
  • The final stage for us (if we don’t want to have wasted all our hard work) is to run chicken wire around the base of the row to keep the rabbits at bay.

All you need to do now is stand back and watch them grow making sure that you keep them regularly watered and fed with a liquid feed every couple of weeks once they are flowering.   As soon as they start to flower pick them regularly (probably every day).  The more you pick the more flowers you will get!

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Soil blockers – reflections on using them for a season

I have to admit we are sometimes tempted by the odd gadget or two and last year at the Flowers from the Farm conference in Birmingham we were tempted to buy some ‘Soil blockers’.

One of the reasons for purchasing these was an ambition to try and reduce the amount of plastic, particularly plastic pots, we use for propagation. The ‘Soil Blockers’ allow you to create individual blocks of compost which you can sow your seeds into directly.

The Ladbrooke ‘Soil Blockers’ we bought come in three sizes; a ¾ inch mini block, a 2 inch medium block and a 4 inch large block. One very interesting feature is that using a special indent the mini block can be neatly slotted into the medium block and the medium block can be slotted into the large block when you want to transplant your developing plants. We purchased the mini and the medium sized blockers.

Mini Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed
Mini Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed

In theory the air around each block stops the roots of different plants tangling together and they are therefore less prone to damage when you come to plant out in the garden.

Medium Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed
Medium Soil Blocker from underneath showing the shaping that creates the indent for each seed

So how did we get on.

Creating the compost blocks works very well. Each block comes neatly out of the blocker and has a small dibble (technical term!) in the top to allow you to place your seed in. The down side is that loading the blocker with damp compost can be a rather messy business. We tend to start sowing early in the season to give our plants a good head start. Because it is cold and miserable outside we often work in the snug kitchen sowing seeds and pricking out. It is quite easy to sow seeds indoors with dry compost in small seed trays which you can carefully water but really not practical using large buckets of damp wet compost and a soil blocker. Really a job for the greenhouse only.

Compost blocks
Moist compost blocks in standard seed tray ready to receive the seeds

Being able to sow individual seeds in separate blocks made good use of expensive F1 seed in particular and the seeds did seem to germinate very well.

One seed (in this case garden peas) is placed in each indent ready for germination
One seed (in this case garden peas) is placed in each indent ready for germination
Indent filled with fine vermiculite to cover the seed keep the soil and seed moist
Indent filled with fine vermiculite to cover the seed keep the soil and seed moist

Our main problems began to emerge once the plants had started to grow. We found it quite difficult to keep the blocks moist enough. This was particularly the case for the smallest mini blocks. Watering from above tended to break down the compost blocks we had carefully created so the only satisfactory way to keep them adequately moist was to place the trays in a shallow bath of water and leave them to soak. This worked well but was extremely time consuming and was not really practical for the large number of seed trays we have to deal with each year.

The idea of being able to slot a mini block into the larger medium block also appealed but we found this to be very time consuming and we soon lost patience with this approach.

Over time we stopped using the mini block and sowed our seeds directly into the medium block. When the plants were large enough we either planted the blocks directly out into the garden or potted them up into larger plastic pots as appropriate. The roots held the blocks together very well and we did find them extremely easy to plant out or pot up at speed.

We found that some plants thrive better than others in the blocks – probably because we were struggling to keep them all watered well in the greenhouse and polytunnels as the weather warmed up. I was quite surprised to find that the medium blocks worked very well for podding peas for the vegetable garden. Because I loose a lot of seeds to mice and voles if I sow directly into the ground I have for a number of years started my peas off in modules and then planted these into the ground when they are big enough to look after themselves. Sowing individual seeds into the medium blocks created strong robust plants which then grew away wonderfully well when planted out. There was little or no disturbance to the roots and I think they appreciated this.

The fact that we have brought the ‘Soil blockers’ out to use again for a second year I think shows they are a valuable addition to our gardening equipment. I don’t think they actually saved us much time or reduce the number of pots we use but for some plants they worked very well indeed. In reality we use our plastic pots again and again, year after year. The watering was a real problem and so I suspect we will only use the ‘Soil Blockers’ this year for seedlings that really hate root disturbance and worked well with this approach.

Further information

Ladbrooke Soil Blockers are available from www.soilblockers.com

Man cannot live by flowers alone – time to start sowing the Broad Beans

Believe it or not our life is not all about colourful flowers!  The vegetable garden also plays an important part in our enjoyment, getting us out in the fresh air and harvesting what we grow.  As it is now the 6 March and the sun is out it seemed perfect for sowing the first broad beans of the year.

Each year we tend to grow a mix of old favourites that we know will do well in our soil and we also have fun trying out some new varieties.

This year we are growing three (descriptions by Marshalls Seeds):

  • The Sutton – “perfect for small or exposed gardens on account of the bushy, compact plants which grow to a manageable 35-45cm (15-18in) tall.
  • Masterpiece Green Longpod – “a reliable and popular long pod Broad Bean variety with up to 6 or 7 flavoursome beans per pod  … excellent for freezing and have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit for its great qualities.
  • Scabiola Verde –  “vigorous spring-sown, longpod variety of broad bean that produces pods up to a whopping 40cm (16in) in length with up to 10 beans per pod.

Although you can plant direct into the ground we always have much more success by sowing in pots in the greenhouse and planting out when the soil is warmer and the new plants are more robust.  We have more luck in staying on top of the mice and voles this way.

We plant two seeds to each 3 inch pot filled with a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite.   When the seedlings emerge I remove the weakest one and let the other grow away strongly.  I hate to end up with some pots with nothing growing in them.

Broad Beans are sown in 3 inch pots with a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite
Broad Beans are sown in 3 inch pots with a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite

The trays of pots are watered well, covered with cling film and placed in a cold greenhouse to germinate.  I cover the trays with cling film so that I do not have to worry about watering again until the seedlings emerge.  The seedlings are uncovered immediately the shoots break the surface.

The strong plants will be planted out in neat (very satisfying) double rows in April/May. The beauty of growing in pots is that you get complete rows with no gaps.

As the summer moves on the bees will come and the beans will form usually cropping from around May until August depending on when they have been sown.  For me the beans are best picked young and eaten fresh.

I have to say it is an extremely pleasant activity just sitting in the evening sun with a glass of wine, quietly podding the beans ready for supper.  I am looking forward to it already!

Further information

Scientific name:  Vicia faba

Family: Fabaceae

Origin:  Western Asia  (ref:  Kew Science)

 

To sow or not to sow? When is the right time to sow seeds for the flower garden?

At this time of year the spring sunshine is beginning to shine and you just want to get out in the fresh air and garden. But when is the right time to sow seeds to achieve that wonderful show of garden flowers throughout the year?

For us, sowing for this year began last June around the summer solstice. In mid-June we sow our biennials. These are plants that develop in the first year, grow on to develop good root systems and survive outside in the winter weather with few problems. Biennials will give a good early show of colour when they flower the following year. There are some wonderful flowers for cutting and fragrance in this group which include the foxgloves, Hesperis (sweet rocket), some Campanulas, wallflowers and of course Sweet William. Our biennials are ready for planting out into the flower garden by September so that they develop strong root systems to allow them to over winter.

Sweet William
Sweet William
Wallflower 'Blood Red'
Wallflower ‘Blood Red’

Our second sowing period is around the autumn equinox. By mid-September we like to have sown our hardy annuals. Hardy annuals are tough enough to over winter so that they are already decent sized plants by the spring. This gives you a head start and results in much earlier flowering. The aim is to sow your hardy annuals late enough so that they don’t try to flower before the winter but earlier enough that the plants are large enough to survive the cold. We tend to over winter most of our hardy annuals under glass but some can grow on outside quite happily. The hardy annuals we grow include the likes of Nigella, larkspur, cornflowers, corncockle, feverfew, Ridolflia and some annual Scabious. Antirrhinums and Bupleurum may not be considered hardy annuals but we find that they do over winter in an unheated greenhouse if you are lucky.

Nigella damascena
Nigella damascena
Larkspur 'Braveheart'
Larkspur ‘Braveheart’
Cornflower 'Blue Diadem'
Cornflower ‘Blue Diadem’

Our first sowing of half hardy and tender annuals is usually complete by the spring equinox. We get many annuals started indoors in the heat and grow them on under lights until they can be moved out into the greenhouse and polytunnels. These will not find their way out into the garden until after all risk of frost has passed. The list we grow is too long to include here but some of our favourites include Cosmos, Salvias, Amaranthus, Ageratum, Didiscus, Rubeckias, Malope and many many more.

Pictures of the flowers we grow can be found on our Pinterest Boards in the monthly flower libraries. After the spring equinox we will sow further batches to ensure that we get a good succession of both hardy and half hardy annuals. It is possible to sow directly into the ground when the ground warms up but we find we have too many failures that way. Instead we grow in trays and modules and plant out when the weather is kinder and the plants are well established.

Ageratum 'Blue Horizon'
Ageratum ‘Blue Horizon’
Didiscus
Didiscus
Rudbeckia
Rudbeckia

It is fair to say therefore that sowing does not really begin in the spring but instead in mid-summer and we find the summer solstice and autumn and spring equinox a good way to plan our year.

Sweet Peas (Lathyrus odoratus)

For us, January is the time to start sowing Sweet Peas.  They are quintessential cottage garden plants with their delicate frilly petals and delicious scent.  In our view a Sweet Pea is not worth growing if it does not have a good scent.

As a flower Sweet Peas evoke such memories for both us and our customers.  They remind me so much of visiting my Nan on the Kent coast where the blooms would be picked fresh from the garden, simply arranged in a vase and the scent allowed to permeate throughout the rooms of the house.  Equally we have found that our customers have also loved them over the years.  When we used to run a Country Market stall simple bunches of Sweet Peas would always be the first to go.

Sowing and growing sweet peas

There seems to be a lot of mystique around sowing sweet peas but we have always found them very easy to grow and needing no specialist equipment or seed treatment.  Although in the past we have soaked the seed overnight before sowing we have not found this necessary to get good germination.  Roger Parsons ( www.rpsweetpeas.com ) indicates that soaking or chipping the seed may in fact reduce germination.

We certainly have good success with the following approach:

  • Sow 3 or 4 seeds in January in standard 9cm pots of a mix of multi-purpose compost and perlite.
  • Water well and place on the kitchen window sill (this is usually around a constant 18°C-20°C).  Do not water again until the seedlings start to emerge.
  • You will typically see the first seedlings show themselves in about 7-14 days.
  • Once the seedlings have emerged we move them out into a cold, unheated greenhouse.  They are best grown on hard in plenty of light so that they do not get leggy.  If the temperature drops to below -5°C they may need some protection.
  • We keep the seedlings up high on the greenhouse staging so that there is less risk of mice and other rodents getting to them.
  • Once the plants have reached four leaves, pinch out the tops of all the plants so that they bush out.
  • In around mid-March, we harden off for a couple of weeks before planting out into the garden.  We have grown them up canes in the past but this requires a lot of attention to ensure the plants are tied in effectively.  More recently we have found that standard pea and bean netting works particularly well as long as you buy a decent quality that can be used again and again over a number of years.
  • You should create a deep well dug planting trench incorporating lots of well-rotted organic matter into the soil both to hold the moisture and feed the hungry plants through the season.
  • Plant out the whole pot of 3 or 4 plants together without disturbing the roots and water in well.  Each pot should be planted around 12 inches apart and the tendrils gently encouraged to take a grip of the netting.
  • The final stage for us (if we don’t want to have wasted all our hard work) it to run chicken wire around the base of the row to keep the rabbits at bay.

All you need to do now is stand back and watch them grow making sure that you keep them regularly watered and fed with a liquid feed every couple of weeks once they are flowering.   As soon as they start to flower pick them regularly (probably every day).  The more you pick the more flowers you will get.

It is possible to succession sow into March/April if you want to extend the flowering season.

Sweet Peas ready to pick
Sweet Peas growing vigorously and ready for picking in the Honey Pot Flowers garden

Varieties to grow

There are so many varieties to choose from that it is often difficult to know where to start if you have not grown them before.  Actually half the fun is experimenting with new varieties each year to see what you like.  For us, although colour and a long stem length are important, a sweet pea is not worth growing if it does not have a decent scent.

Roger Parsons offers a wide range and groups them into the following types:

Spencer & Summer Multiflora varieties  – the best types for exhibition and for cutting for the house.

Old Fashioned, Grandiflora & Semi-grandiflora varieties  – the best types for scent and garden decoration.

Early-flowering varieties –  for Winter and Spring flowers, including Early Multiflora type for cut flower production

Dwarf and Semi-dwarf varieties – for garden decoration when shorter plants are required

Very helpfully an indication of scent strength is also offered against each variety.

Varieties that we grew in 2017

  • Albutt blue (Pale whitish blue – Semi Grandiflora)
  • Cathy (Creamy white – Semi Grandiflora)
  • CCC (White  – Modern Grandiflora)
  • Jilly (Creamy white – Spencer)
  • John Gray (Pale pink  – Spencer)
  • Judith Wilkinson (Bold bright pink – Spencer)
  • Yvette Ann (Salmon pink – Spencer)
  • Just Julia (Mid blue – Spencer)
  • Naomi Nazareth (Pale blue – Spencer)
  • Matuccana (Dark red and blue – Modern Grandiflora)
  • Adorabel (Lavender/mauve – Modern Grandiflora)
  • Solitude (Lavender – Spencer)
  • Almost Black (Dark maroon – Modern Grandiflora)

Rather than buy costly new seed every year we allowed some plants to go to seed.  This was collected and stored in paper envelopes over the winter and we will be sowing these in the next few days.

Pale blue sweet peas with lime green Alchemilla
Pale blue sweet peas with lime green Alchemilla

Cutting, conditioning and arranging with Sweet Peas

It is fair to say that the vase life of sweet peas is rather shorter than many cottage garden flowers.  Having said that you will have so many to cut that you can easily provide the house with a constant supply of fresh, fragrant blooms for day after day throughout the summer.

For the longest vase life pick early in the morning when only the first bud on the flower is open.  Be careful not to bruise the delicate blooms.  Condition well for at least 2 hours and overnight if possible in deep clear water.  Refresh your vase water every 24 hours.    Some growers treat the flowers with Silver Nitrate to extend vase life but we have not tried this technique.

For us, it is the very fleeting nature of Sweet Peas that gives them their charm.  In arrangements exploit this simple charm creating uncluttered arrangements with delicate fillers like the lime green flowers of Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s mantle).

Most of all position your arrangements in the house so that you can to breathe in and enjoy that wonderful fragrance.

Further details

Hardy climbing annual

Origin:  Sicily, Cyprus, southern Italy and the Aegean Islands (ref: Wikipedia)

Latin name:  Lathyrus odoratus

Family: Papilionaceae (ref: RHS) – legumes, peas and beans family

Height:  6-8 feet

Flowering period:  Late spring to summer

Cut flowers:  Yes but have limited vase life.


2018 progress update

4 Jan 2018 – seeds sown

18 Jan 2018 – seeds germinated

23 Jan 2018 – seedlings moved to cold greenhouse to grow on in cool, light conditions

14 March 2018 – tips pinched out and staked

New Sweet Pea plants with the tips taken out and staked to stop tangling and possible damage (14 March 2018)
New Sweet Pea plants with the tips taken out and staked to stop tangling and possible damage (14 March 2018)