Botanical name: Lathyrus odoratus
Plant type: Flower
Sun exposure: Full Sun
Soil type: Loamy
Soil pH: Alkaline/Basic
Sweet peas enchant us with their fragile, seductive fragrance and make great bouquets. These pea-like flowers grow in many lovely colors and are suitable for an annual border, a woodland garden, and a trellis or arch.
Cultivated sweet peas go back at least 300 years. In their native Sicily, these ornamental peas have weak stems and intense orange-jasmine-honey scent. Modern hybrids are stronger-stalked and have larger blooms.
Growing sweet peas is akin to making piecrust. Some people have the knack, others don't. Sweet peas are quite hardy, growing from large, easy-to-handle pea-like seeds. Still, they're a bit tricky because they are slow to germinate. It's worth experimenting with different seeds each year.
- Choose a well-drained site. Alkaline soil is best; sprinkle some powdered lime on the surface if your soil tends to be acidic.
- Sweet peas are happiest with their heads in the sun and their roots deep in cool, moist soil. When possible, plant low-growing annuals in front of them to shade their roots.
- Early sowing is one of the secrets with sweet peas. In Zone 7 or colder, plant them in very late winter to early spring as soon as the soil is dry enough to work.
- In the coldest parts of the country, get a jump on the season by starting sweet peas indoors in six-packs or Jiffy pots. Harden seedlings off for at least a week, and then set them out into the garden when the soil can be worked.
- If you garden in Zones 8, 9, or 10, plant sweet peas in the late fall so they can develop and bloom in late winter and early spring. Sown in August, they'll bloom in December.
- Prepare a rich soil by mixing in generous amounts of compost and well-rotted manure.
- Before planting, soak the seeds in water for 24 hours. Then nick the seeds with a nail file before planting to speed sprouting.
- To plant, turn the soil over to a depth of 2 feet. Dig a trench about 4 inches deep, make holes with a pencil, drop in the seeds, and press down on the soil to firm it and shut out any light.
- Once planted, germination can take 7 to 15 days, depending on the soil temperature.
- As seedlings emerge and grow, gradually fill in the trench. Hoe more soil up to them.
- Sweet peas prefer cool days and nights and will start to fade when temperatures go above 65 degrees F.
- Except for the bush types, sweet peas are real climbers. Give them at least 6 feet of good support. Some varieties may climb to 9 or 1 feet. If you don't have a fence or trellis, provide brush or chicken wire.
- When plants become established, mulch well to keep the soil cool and moist.
- To encourage bushy growth, pinch off the tops when plants are 6 inches tall.
- Slugs and snails may attack young growth.
- Pythium root rot, powdery mildew, rust, gray mold, and various leaf spots are common.
- 'April in Paris' is a fragrant modern variety with large creamy-yellow blossoms and lilac shading.
- The deliciously scented 'America' is an heirloom, dating to 1896. Its petals unfurl to show stunning wavy red and white stripes.
- Breeders now often varieties with old-fashioned perfume as well as heat resistance. Look for heirlooms like the 'Old Spice' collection from Sicily. This strain blooms in shades of white, cream, pink, lavender, and purple.
Wit & Wisdom
- The sweet pea is essential member of a late-Victorian garden. Victorians loved sweet peas for their coor diversity and fragrance.
- Gather the flowers in the morning when the dew is still on them. This is when their scent is the sweetest.
"The odor of the sweet pea is so offensive to flies that it will drive them out of a sick-room, though not in the slightest degree disagreeable to the patient."
–A tip from The 1899 Old Farmer's Almanac
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