Sweet Peas, Part 1
Updated: Feb 5
Sweet peas are a sentimental favorite for everyone who buys our flowers. The colors are pure and lovely, but it’s the fragrance that people love. They’re not terribly hard to grow, so if you want to try them in your own yard, I’ll tell you how.
Fall is the time to plant sweet peas if you live in California. Planting in October through December will give you flowers in April and May. Sweet peas don’t like heat, so they won’t keep blooming through the summer, but they can stand light frost so it’s safe to get them started in winter in temperate climate zones.
Choose a sunny spot in the garden and make sure it has deep, rich soil. Add some compost if your soli is heavy clay. Sweet peas send down deep roots and they like nutrient-rich soil. I hate to tell you this, but you’re gonna need to put up a trellis too, because sweet peas are tall, clingy vines that they can’t stand up on their own. I used to grow them on a chain link fence, but now I have a framework of rabbit mesh on a copper pipe framework. Don made that for me years ago and it stays in place all year. You can use something simpler—maybe a pre-made trellis or a roll of netting stretched between posts—but you need something.
Buying seeds is the next step. At your local nursery you’ll probably find mixed packets, labeled ‘Chiffon Elegance’ or ‘Spencer Ruffled’ and similar names. These are fine if you’re new to growing sweet peas, but once you’ve been sucked into their charming world, you’ll want to find individual varieties. If you’re lucky you may see the individual varieties ‘April in Paris’ or ‘Lipstick’ at your nursery; both used to be offered by Renee’s Garden Seeds, a California company. I recommend both; the former is the most divine fragrance in the sweet pea world and the latter is a beautiful color and grows well. Swallowtail Seeds, another California company, sells ‘Henry Eckford,’ ‘Mollie Rilestone’ and a few others. In the last few years, the flower farm Floret has become a wonderful source for sweet pea seeds. The owner, Erin Benzakein, has taken on the task of reviving sweet pea seed production in the US. Check out her website and plan to order early—these sell out fast.
To start your seeds, I recommend the wet paper towel method. Place seeds on a paper towel, spaced about a half inch apart in a row, down the middle of the towel lengthwise. Spray lightly with water then fold half of the paper towel over the seeds. Spray again then fold the other half over the seeds and fold the ends inward so the seeds are now enclosed. Spray once more if needed—you want the paper towel to be wet but not dripping. Slip the whole thing into a plastic bag or Ziploc, then tie or zip up the bag to keep moisture in. Keep it at rom temperature for 2-6 days, until the seeds begin to split and show tiny threads of emerging root. Check the seeds each day and spray with water if needed; the paper towel should always be saturated.
When you see the seeds starting to show tiny threads of roots or stem, it’s time to plant them outside. Plant them about ½ “ deep and 3” apart. Cover with soil, water them, then add snail bait. Slugs and snails absolutely love sweet pea seedlings! I’ve lost more sweet peas to these pests than I care to count, so I use a lot of Sluggo, a non-toxic snail bait containing iron phosphate. Please don’t use metaldehyde-based snail bait—it’s toxic to pets. I’ve found that once the plants grow two or three sets of leaves and are about four inches tall, they’re not much damaged by snails or any other pests.
As I wrote this post I realized that there was a lot to say about sweet peas, so I divided the info into two parts. Next up is growing, harvesting and sources of more information in case you get hooked.