It’s fall and now is the perfect time to sow sweet pea seeds in our gardens. I know it’s hard to think of planting seeds for flowers that won’t bloom for another 6 months, but spring flowering bulbs and seeds like to be planted in fall so they can develop strong roots and get established before spring arrives when they produce their buxom blooms. In this case it’s sweet pea seeds, which give the lushest blooms when planted in the fall timeframe.
Despite its lack of wider availability at florists and garden shops here in America, sweet pea flowers will still pop up occasionally at a few specialty florists every spring. It’s hard to miss them if they are available at your florist. With their intense fragrance and vibrant colors, your eye will invariably gravitate towards sweet peas just to get a closer look at these beauties. It is the ultimate cheery cottage flower.
The botanical name for sweet peas is Lathyrus and it is more common and popular in England. For those of you interested, here is a brief history of sweet peas. I have this book titled Discovering Annuals by Graham Rice that gives a great-condensed historical narration of sweet peas and how the seeds and cultivars first became widely available in Europe, before spreading to the rest of the world.
According to author Rice the wild sweet pea Lathyrus Odoratus originated in Malta. I wonder if my Maltese friend Georgina knew this about the charming sweet pea? The seed was sent by a monk by the name of Franciscus Cupani to England in 1699. This was the beginning of sweet pea hybridization. You know what’s interesting about this story? I have been growing the sweet pea Cupani for years for it’s intense fragrance and dark deep purple and magenta color, now I know why it is named Cupani.
By 1800 five colors of sweet peas appeared in England, and towards the end of the 19th century new varieties of sweet peas were developed with larger flowers, better shape, and a wider range of colors. For decades two varieties known as the Grandiflora sweet peas and the Spencer sweet peas were very popular among gardeners.
Then in 1894 another variety of sweet pea was discovered in California. A smaller sweet pea that is more of a dwarf variety and slightly spreading became a favored sweet pea among garden hybridizers. This sweet pea was labeled “Cupid” and is now sold by garden centers as perfect compact sweet peas for window boxes and containers.
Today there are multiple varieties of sweet pea seeds available. Large florist varieties, dwarf window box sweet peas, old-fashioned sweet peas, bi-color sweet peas, and wild sweet peas. No matter which variety you pick you will get a wonderful display of vibrant sweet smelling flowers in spring.
Another fabulous gardening book I have called Grow Your Own Cut Flowers by Sarah Raven has an entire chapter dedicated to growing sweet peas. This book is outstanding. I may have to do a book review on this wonderful gardening book.
I’ve followed Sara’s instructions on growing sweet peas for years and I always get a great spring flower show. Here are her tips for growing the perfect sweet pea flowers for the spring cutting season.
- The best time to plant sweet pea seeds is in the fall. Hence the reason for my post right now. When sown in the fall, sweet peas grow into larger more sturdy plants with strong roots. Flowering will begin earlier in spring too, giving us a longer flowering season before the heat of the summer months takes a toll on theses plants.
- If you sow sweet pea seeds in spring, they tend to suffer from mildew, plants are not very sturdy, plants bloom much later, and will get tiered of flowering within a month especially in warmer climate areas like California.
- Sarah recommends growing sweet pea seeds in seed pots to be transplanted later, but in our mild California weather I sow my seeds directly in the garden soil.
- Put some compost in the soil where you want to plant your seed and then gently press the seed into the soil and water.
- Depending on the temperatures, seed germination can take anywhere from 2-3 weeks to a few months. Check periodically for a sprout to appear. Once the seed sends out a leader shoot look for leaf development. Sometimes leaf development won’t happen till early spring (March-April).
- When the seed develops three to four pairs of leaves, pinch the tip of the shoots reducing the plant to 2 inches. This promotes vigorous side shoots, which produce more flowers, rather than tall shoots that grow long and lanky.
- You can plant sweet pea seeds 3 inches away from an arch, trellis, arbor or fence where you want them to trail.
- As the plants begin to grow taller in March, tie them to the trellis or frame. Don’t let them grow wild and flop around. You get more flowers when they are trailed to a trellis.
- Now it’s just a matter of time before you will see loads of flowers. Start cutting all these flowers to enjoy indoors! The more you cut, the more flowers you will get. Invite your friends to cut bouquets for themselves. You will be surprised at the hundreds and hundreds of blooms you will get. I couldn’t keep up with my sweet pea blooms and had to let them go to seed, this was not a good idea 😞.
- Do not let sweet pea flowers turn into pea-like seedpods! Once seeds form, flowering will stop. Make sure to keep cutting off the seed pods when you see them, this will assure that you get a continual supply of new sweet pea blooms.
- You will get a wonderful sweet pea bounty until early June when temperatures get warmer. At this time sweet pea plants will start turning yellow, dry and mildewy. Now you can let the flowers go to seed and harvest and save them to re-plant later in autumn again.
Sweet Pea seed packets can be found in all nurseries. I like to pick up Renee’s Garden and Botanical Interests brand sweet pea seeds, but you can try any seed packet you like.
For a spectacular spring flowering show and wonderful sweet smelling bouquets in your home, you can’t beat sweet peas in the spring. Try growing sweet peas in your garden.
For more information on sweet peas take a look at these outstanding gardening books, Discovering Annuals by Graham Rice and Grow Your Own Cut Flowers by Sarah Raven.