Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
January, 2007
Regional Report

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A seed-starting system called Rootrainers is a good choice for starting sweet peas indoors.

Sweet Pea Dreams

Although I'm still trying to recover from last year's growing season, an early December e-mail from a mail-order gardening company managed to catch my attention and awaken my gardening spirit. The company had a special offer for sweet pea seeds, a seed-starting contraption, and a book on sweet peas. Sweet peas were among my family's favorite flowers, and I suppose it struck a sentimental chord at the holidays.

But then, sweet peas are sentimental. There's something very old-fashioned and romantic about them, most obviously having to do with that incredible spicy-sweet fragrance. Sweet peas offer other reasons for their appeal, too. There's an incredible range of colors, and, when all conditions are right, plants bloom for a long time and the cut flowers make great little bouquets. Possibly the only caveat is that plants do tend to become bedraggled with the heat of summer, so where you grow them in the garden requires a bit of forethought.

My maternal grandfather, who died when I was very young, was said to start his sweet peas in mid-February. I have to admit that any year I've grown sweet peas, starting at that early date is somehow a bit optimistic, even if winters do seem to be warmer than ever. Although I don't know the details of his gardening practices, I've discovered in my research that starting sweet peas "with protection" at that time, then planting outdoors about a month before the last frost ensures plenty of blooms before hot weather hits.

With that in mind, now is the time to pore over catalogs and Web sites, with their various directions for growing sweet peas and the assortment of new and old, short and tall varieties available. If you've had varying success growing them in the past, be brave and try again. These tips should help you fill your garden with the incredible fragrance and beauty of sweet peas this year.

Helpful Hints
1. Before planting seeds, nick the hard seed coat with a nail clipper, knife, nail file, or triangular wood file.

2. Sweet peas do best when started in a deep pot, and the roots should be disturbed as little as possible when transplanting. A seed-starting system called Rootrainers is my preferred choice, as it is deeper than most seed-starting systems and splits apart easily to allow plants to be removed easily for planting. They rest in a hanging tray, which air prunes the roots, resulting in a well-branched root ball. Although expensive, they are washable and reusable.

3. Grow seedlings in a cool, bright location, such as in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame.

4. After the first several true leaves have formed, pinch out the top to induce branching.

5. Decide now where you want to grow sweet peas. The best site is sunny and not too windy. When the timing is appropriate, dig the soil deeply (at least 12 inches deep), enrich it with composted manure, and mulch it.

6. Slugs and birds both delight in baby sweet pea plants, so protect transplants with netting and slug control.

7. Most sweet peas grow at least 5 to 6 feet tall but some can reach up to 8 to 10 feet. Make plans for providing a trellis or other support system.

8. Consider the dwarf types of sweet peas for windowboxes and containers, but be forewarned, the fragrance of these varies.

9. Keep sweet pea plants well-watered but not soggy. Consider the use of a drip hose under mulch.

10. The fragrance varies greatly among varieties, so read up on varieties before choosing your favorites.

11. To keep sweet peas blooming, cut them regularly. Cut flowers last up to a week.

12. Sweet peas do best with regular feedings. Use a tomato fertilizer or manure tea.

13. Show how literate you are by telling friends that sweet peas got their name from Keats:

"Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight,
With wings of gentle flush, o'er delicate white
And taper fingers catching at all things
To bind them all about with tiny rings."

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