Growing Sweet Peas

A cottage garden favorite

Sweet peas

One of the prettiest old-fashioned flowers has to be the sweet pea. Growing on an annual climbing vine from 5 to 8 feet high with a plant diameter of up to three feet, few early spring flowers are its equal for scent or delicacy. As cut flowers, the sweet pea is peerless and the more you cut, the more flowers it's likely to produce.

Dwarf varieties are much shorter and make nice container plants.

Sweet peas are notable for their wide range of colors and color combinations. There are blues, purples, magentas, pinks, ivories, and whites with every hue in between. There are, however, no true yellows yet.

The sweet pea is a cool-season plant that requires care and attention. If you live in climates where summer temperatures regularly top 80–85 degrees, you'll need to plant early. They prefer a cool, deep rich soil and produces best when the ground has been thoroughly prepared. Sweet peas like plenty of sun and regular watering. They grow well into the summer until the heat finally gets them. In temperate climates, you can keep them going with plenty of water and mulching. Hot dry wind and scanty water will efficiently dispatch them.

Prepare the soil and supports

If possible, prepare trenches in the fall or late winter. The trench should be two feet deep and well amended with manure in the bottom and compost on top. Mound it well to compensate for settling. The goal is to create a rich bed with good drainage.

Sweet peas require some type of sturdy support as they grow. Supports of string or wire should be installed before planting.

Sowing seed

Sweet peas can be started indoors before transplanting, or directly sown.

Starting plants indoors can give them a jump start before transplanting in April. Keep in mind though, that they need diligent hardening off over several weeks to acclimate them to outdoor temperatures before planting.

You may find that a little judicious warmth applied during germination helps, but make sure you remove the heat source afterwards to prevent them becoming too leggy. Germination takes place at about 60 degrees. Backing the temperature off young plants forces more compact growth.

Also, the hard seed coats should be pricked with a sharp knife on the side opposite the eye to facilitate germination. Some people like to soak their seed for a day or so before planting to germinate. When transplanting, space seedlings about six inches apart.

To direct sow, try sowing your sweet peas in the late fall, then mulch to protect over the winter. When the soil begins to warm after the first of the year, your peas will get a quick start. Alternatively, plant them as early as possible in late winter or early spring depending on your location. Traditionally, sweet peas were sown on Good Friday.

Cultivation

Once your young seedlings have developed their second set of true leaves, pinch out the top two leaves to force branching for a stockier habit. Young plants are also extremely attractive to slugs, so prepare your method of attack before you transplant. Don't over water your young transplants.

As they grow, mulch your sweet peas well with straw or leaf mould to retain water. As long as they are well watered and deadheaded, peas will produce into summer. Putting in a soaker hose can provide consistent moisture that will keep them happy longer.

Sweet peas are susceptible to red spider mites, but can be sprayed with water daily and dusted with sulphur every few weeks to keep the mites down. Slugs and aphids are other major nuisances. Control them biologically by creating some kind of slug barrier and using lacewings and ladybugs.

Fertilize with an organic fish emulsion every month. Tomato food also works well. Like lentils and regular garden peas, they are a legume and fix nitrogen from the air. They need balanced potassium and magnesium for healthy growth. Don't over fertilize, otherwise you'll have beautiful foliage and scanty blooms.

Cut your sweet peas often to maintain their vigor throughout the growing season. This prevents formation of seed pods and ensures that the plant puts its energy into flower production.

As they grow tie them to the supports you created before planting.


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