Sweet peas are reminiscent of everything old fashioned. Perhaps your grandmother grew them, or perhaps you remember their intoxicating smell as a child. There are few flowers that are quite so beautiful. There are few flowers with such a lovely scent. They come in a myriad of colors and hues, and are perfect in a cutting garden.
Although their origin can be found within Sicily’s Mediterranean climate, they were transported to England, where most of the propagation and genetic breeding occurred. They are remarkably easy to grow. Sicily’s winters are in the range of 30 degrees Fahrenheit with warmer daytime temperatures….temperatures that we can easily achieve in WNY. Surprisingly, once germinated and growing they can take temperatures as low as 20 degrees Fahrenheit. An interesting fact is that Sweet peas are remarkably hardy. Sweet peas as old as 30 years that have been kept frozen, have been found to germinate!
I would consider them a “cool” flower in the sense that beginning to grow them now, and planting them out as soon as the soil can be worked will give you a head start on the warm temperatures which will signal their shutting down. Because of their large size, I would consider them a great project for parents to share with their school aged children.
It is not necessary to presprout them in water, as had previously been recommended. Plant them in a general potting mix in six pacts or even better, tall containers that mimic “root trainers” that give the plants room to grow a stout plant with long and robust roots. Any tall, narrow container can become a “root trainer”. An environmentally sound method would be to save toilet paper cardboard roll inserts and use those, but actually any container will do. Taller is better. Germinate seeds in a cool envirnment at about 50-55 degrees. Once germinated, grow them on at the cooler temperature of 40-45 degrees in a sunny area. Try not to let them get tall, thin and leggy; if so, pinch off some of the top growth above a leaf set to redirect the plants energy into growing a branched shorter plant at this initial stage. (If you love the challenge of starting new plants, you can dip that pinched growth in plant hormone, pot them up, cover them with plastic or a humidity dome, and they will root!) Plant out a 3-4 inch tall plant once your soil is workable, 4-6 inches apart. If heavy sustained freezes are forecast, go ahead and cover them with a frost cloth held above the growing plants. I will plant in two parallel rows and erect a plastic netting between the two rows so that the growing tendrils have a place to attach as they climb. Some varieties may reach 5-6 feet! If planting only a few plants consider bamboo poles or similar support. They are generally not browsed by deer, but hungry deer are known to ignore such statements. To keep your sweet peas producing keep them well watered, fertilized, and cut.
Be prepared to cut an abundance of sweet peas to give as gifts and to grace your table. Cut them when at least two of the flowers are open, and place them in water with flower food. Vase life is usually 5-7 days if you change the water every other day, provide a carbohydrate source as flower food, keep them out of direct sunlight, and away from ripening vegetables. The more you cut sweet peas the more they will produce. Their straight stems will be the longest initially, but will shorten as the season continues. To overcome this use small vases, or cut some of the vine along with the stem. The curling, twining vine have such a lovely romantic look.
All good things must come to an end, so expect the sweet peas to slow down and begin to set seed as the heat of summer begins. At that time you can collect your own seed before pulling the vines, and replacing them with another cutting garden flower.
Happy Gardening! Carrie Kling, Windy Acres/Horticulture, A flower farm and grower of specialty cut flowers. www.windyacreshorticulture, 716-628-6007