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Growing Great Sweet Peas

by | Nov 18, 2015

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Sweet Peas Royal Mix

Fragrant sweet peas are undoubtedly the one flower I have grown over the years that creates a stir in folks like no other. Memories come to the surface with just a lift to the nose, ah, the sweet scent of days gone by.

Perhaps it was grandma or mom’s garden that included the rambling vines of annual sweet peas or maybe a neighbor’s fence that couldn’t contain the tumbling vines. Regardless of the origin of this sweet memory– it is a heartwarming feeling that we can grow today.

I have been successful growing sweet peas here in southeastern Virginia in spite of our hot, humid summers and cold winters for many years. In my garden, they begin blooming in May and keep it up right into summer. The steps I’ve listed below were practiced by our grandmothers–this is nothing new. It’s the secret of growing fabulous sweet peas!

When to plant:

  • In the south, southwest, and other areas with hot summers, plant in the fall (fall is 6-8 weeks before your first fall frost.) This is when we plant here in southeastern Virginia zone 7. Fall planting grows amazing sweet peas for those living in winter hardiness zones 7,8, and 9.
  • In a moderate climate where it gets neither too hot or cold (does such a place exists??) plant October through April.
  • In areas with cold winters and also hot summers plant in very early spring (6-8 weeks before your last frost in spring.) Winter hardiness zones 4,5, and 6.

Note: in winter hardiness zone 6, there are gardeners that fall plant sweet peas and use a floating row cover to provide the extra protection they need to survive winter. Fall planting grows a more robust and productive vine.

Where to plant:

Because sweet peas do their best growing in cool conditions you must provide excellent drainage. Cool soil does not dry out as fast as in warm weather and with more frequent rains and snow in winter they can rot with poor drainage.

Sweet peas require full sun with a little afternoon shade appreciated in hot summers. Be generous adding organic composted manure to make rich, well-cultivated soil.  Sweet peas can be grown in containers with a depth of at least 10 inches.

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Top is a single row of sweet pea vines spaced 6″ apart. They were fall planted and this photo is in March. Bottom is an example of a decorative trellis. 

Trellising or not:

Sweet peas benefit from vertical support. A trellis, fence or other structure with an open web for the vine and tendrils to grab onto will work. As the vines grow, help them find their way up the trellis.

I have also grown with great success without support. Plant a single row, lay layers of newspaper down and top with mulch (deep 6-10 inches of leaves is perfect)  for 6 feet out on both sides of the row. This will allow the vines to ramble with little to no weed pressure and to grow into an gorgeous hedgerow.

Starting sweet peas seeds:

Start with fresh seed. Read seed packet instructions on whether or not to soak the seeds before planting. Seeds can be started indoors or planted straight in the garden. Cover the seed with ½ inch of soil. Space vines 6″ apart in a single row. 

For an earlier start,  plant seeds indoors and transplant outdoors when 2-3 weeks old–it is beneficial to prevent the roots from becoming overly rootbound. We start our seeds in the 2 inch soil blocker that prevents rootbound issues. Starting indoors is especially helpful when planting in early spring when the soil is cold.

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Sweet Pea Geranium Pink

Keep the blooms coming:

If you harvest your sweet pea blossoms two to three times weekly they will bloom for a couple of months. Cut the stems at the spot where the stem attaches to the vine for single stems. If you need longer stems, cut a portion of the vine that has several stems and use it. The vine will regrow with more stems.

Sweet peas blossoms will not open anymore once harvested, so the state of the bloom at harvest is what you get. Harvest when ⅔ of the flowers on a stem are open. Flowers normally last 5-7 days in a vase.

Get longer stems

As the season heats up, sweet pea stems naturally begin to shorten. To encourage longer stems at that time, sprinkle bloodmeal alongside the plant, mix it into the soil and water it in.

Enjoy the magic of fragrant sweet peas from your garden!!

Lisa Z

Lisa Mason Ziegler is a commercial cut-flower farmer and owner of The Gardener’s Workshop in Newport News, Virginia; she lectures and writes about organic and sustainable gardening. You can email Lisa at [email protected] , call her at 757-877-7159 or visit her website www.shoptgw.com .

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