Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
March, 2009
Regional Report

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Sweet peas, like these 'Velvet Elegance', are beautiful in a vase. (Photo courtesy Renee's Garden.)

The Sweetest Flowers

Sweet peas are among those cherished flowers that evoke another, gentler, less hurried time and place. They are romantic but not in a bold way, rather more discreet. Not surprisingly, they were favorites of the English during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. According to sweet pea expert Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden, their luscious scent combines that of oranges and honey. In colors of lavender, purple, pink, deep red, salmon, and white, sweet peas are an annual plant that flourish in the moderate climate of England or coastal California. For the rest of us, the cool weather of spring is the ideal time to plant and enjoy sweet peas. To be successful, takes a bit of know-how coupled with a smidgen of luck.

A Little History
According to lore, seeds from bi-colored purple sweet peas were gathered from the wild by a monk in Sicily, who sent them to an English schoolmaster in 1699. There they had some modest popularity until the mid-1880s when Scotsman Henry Eckford began breeding sweet peas and selecting for larger flowers with a wide range of colors. These "grandifloras" quickly caught on with both gardeners and florists. In 1901, a natural mutation was found in the gardens of the Earl of Spencer that had even larger, more ruffled flowers. Developed in an even wider range of colors, the Spencer-type sweet peas flourished in the English climate and became all the rage.

Americans attempted to grow the Spencers, but found that in hot climates these long-season varieties didn't grow very well. Plant breeders eventually developed a number of varieties that grow better where we have cold winters, short springs, and hot summers. Among these are the Cuthbertsons, the Royal series, Early Multiflora Giganteas, and the Mammoth series.

Okay, so now sweet peas could be more widely grown, but, sadly, lost their scents. Not always totally, but enough to one wonder what all the fuss was about. Fortunately, some of the older varieties with intense fragrance are still available, including 'Original Cupani', 'Painted Lady', 'Perfume Delight', 'Jewels of Albion', 'Queen of Hearts', and 'Queen of the Night'. Just be aware that these tend to have smaller, simpler flowers than the Spencers.

There are also newer varieties that combine weather tolerance and fragrance with larger, ruffled flowers in a wide range of colors. Some of these include 'North Shore', 'Blue Celeste', 'Renaissance', 'April in Paris', and 'Saltwater Taffy Swirls'.

Growing Tips
For growing sweet peas, choose a site that gets full sun, is protected from wind, and has compost-enriched, well-drained soil. Sweet peas germinate best when the soil temperature is 55 to 65 degrees F, then thrive with temperatures of 70 to 80 degrees F. Plants struggle with temperatures above 85 degrees F. To get a head start in spring, it's helpful to start seeds in a cool spot indoors, then transplanting them when the plants are small. Sweet pea plants readily survive frosts. To speed germination, soak seeds overnight. For those that don't swell up, barely nick the seed coat with fingernail clippers.

In the garden, provide a sturdy trellis structure for the vines. Sweet pea growers often use chicken wire attached to steel fence posts. Whatever method you use, plan on tying the stems up. When the plants are 5 to 6 inches tall, mulch around them and feed with diluted fish emulsion, organic fertilizer, or manure tea three times every two weeks. Sweet peas need to be kept evenly moist. Cut the flowers every few days to keep the plants blooming.

For those who want smaller plants try 'Explorer'. Even smaller and ideal for containers is 'Cupid', with bicolor pink, sweetly scented flowers.

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