Sweet peas for New Zealand gardens


Sweet peas have been grown in gardens for more than three hundred years, ever since seeds of the original wild sweet pea were sent from Sicily to England in 1699. English gardeners were intrigued by the flower’s charming fragrance, and the sweet pea was on its way to becoming a garden favourite.

The original sweet pea had small, relatively insignificant, purple/maroon flowers but, once the plant breeders became involved, the colour range and flower size increased steadily. In late 19th century England Henry Eckford bred a grandiflora strain of sweet peas which had big flowers, a wide colour range and a lovely scent.

In 1899 one of Henry Eckford’s sweet peas mutated into a variety with large, wavy petals. This occurred in the garden of Althorp, the country seat of Earl Spencer, and the flowers bred from this strain became known as the Spencer sweet peas.

In recent years New Zealand has become one of the main players in the field of sweet pea breeding, largely because of the work of one man, Dr Keith Hammett. Born and educated in England, Keith migrated to New Zealand in 1967, bringing with him his great love for sweet peas. In subsequent years Keith worked to develop new sweet pea flowers that had the bicoloured characteristic of the original sweet pea. He has also put much effort into attempts to breed the elusive yellow-flowering sweet pea.

A number of Keith’s sweet pea varieties are found in Yates seed range under the banner heading ‘The Hammett Collection’ and the list continues to grow. This year Yates has contemporised its Hammett sweet pea selection by adding three new varieties – Hammett’s Surprise, Sapphire and Blue Butterflies. But one ongoing favourite in the Yates Hammett range is the Original Sweet Pea. Keith has authenticated the genetic material in this variety so that gardeners can once again grow the small flowered, bi-coloured, highly fragrant bloom that was first found in Sicily.

While sweet peas are nowhere near as fashionable as they used to be (Yates 1901 catalogue listed close to 40 varieties), they are still remarkably popular. March and April are the most common months for sowing but, in colder areas, sweet pea seeds can be sown in early spring. Late autumn sowing is best in warmer districts.

Sow sweet pea seeds into well-drained garden soil in a sunny position or raise in pots of Yates Black Magic Seed Raising Mix and transplant seedlings carefully. Sweet peas dislike acid soils, so add some Yates Garden Lime if necessary before sowing. Pinch back growth to encourage branching as the plants develop. Pick the flowers regularly. Watch for mildew on the leaves. Yates Rose Gun can help with mildew control.

Most sweet peas are tall-growing climbers that need to be given the support of a sun-drenched wall, fence or trellis, but there are some smaller varieties that are suited to pots. Bijou reaches about 60cm so is ideally suited to growing on a tripod in a container.


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