Published February 2005

Do you have a fence that looks dull and drab each summer?  A large open area that could stand a trellis and something bright climbing up its sides?  If the answer to either is “Yes”, then you might consider growing some sweet peas this spring.  Sweet peas are unique among flowers in that they offer not only vivid colors, but a lovely fragrance, and blooms that last a long time.

Place your nostrils in a cluster and you’ll find a captivating blend of honey and orange, then stand back and (depending on what you planted) let your eyes feast on crimson reds, navy blues, pastel lavenders, pinks and purest white.  If all of this isn’t enough, they make long lasting cut flowers, too.  Lots of reasons to plant sweet peas.

The history of sweet peas is more than a little vague.  The first written record of their presence appeared in 1695 when Francisco Cupaini, a member of the Order of St. Francis, noted seeing them in Sicily.  He passed on the seeds  to an Amsterdam botanist in 1699 who published an article on them in 1701.  English gardeners welcomed the new plants with open arms, and by 1901 they could be seen here and there in America. 

Lots of garden folk start their sweet peas from seed because it’s very easy to do so.  They like a site with full to partial sun and deep, rich, moist, but well drained soil.  Sweet peas are most successful when they’re started at times with cooler temperatures.  They need about 50 days of cool temperatures (under 60 degrees), so sow them outdoors as soon as the soil can be worked, up to six weeks before the last frost date. 

Plant those seeds in holes about two inches deep and drop two to four seeds in each hole with holes spaced about four to six inches apart.  Water thoroughly unless Mother Nature does it for you and keep the seeds moist until they sprout, usually after about 10 to 21 days.  Once they’re growing, continue to water regularly to promote strong, healthy growth.  When they’re three to four inches high, thin them out, leaving the most vigorous looking plants four to six inches apart.  Nothing to it.

It doesn’t pay to over-fertilize sweet peas.  Do so and you’ll get very deep green leaves but few blossoms.  A balanced 20-20-20 slow release fertilizer blended into the soil at planting time works fine, and a good mulch, especially one with composted manure will help retain soil moisture and provide steady nutrients.

Some people like to get a jump on the season by sowing seeds indoors six to eight weeks ahead of normal planting.  Grow them in peat pots or four inch plastic pots filled with a commercial seed starting mix, using 2-3 seeds per pot and pushing each down an inch or so into the mix.  Cover with mix, water, and place the pots in a cool, dark place, keeping an eye out for new shoots to emerge. 

Then bring the plants out into the light, and keep them in a cool place that’s less than 55 degrees.  Once they have two sets of leaves, thin to one plant per pot, and transplant into the garden about a month before the last frost date, as soon as the soil is workable.

Remember, if you’re going to train them up a trellis, have the trellis in place before you plant to keep placement from damaging new roots.  And remember too, that you needn’t always use a trellis or fence.  Bird netting between two posts works, as does a bamboo teepee, brush stakes, and string or fishing line hung from the top of a split rain fence.  Let your imagination be your guide.

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