Nothing makes scents like sweet peas.
These climbing, vining legumes aren’t edible — they’re grown for their flowers, and when I say flowers, think armfuls of colorful, ambrosial bouquets, brightening musty rooms with their indelible, unmatchable scent.
“Sweet peas are everything a flower should be,” said Renee Shepherd, founder of Renee’s Garden seed company in Felton, Calif., near Santa Cruz. “They’re deliciously fragrant, with beautiful colors, and they also attract pollinators, so they’re really worth growing.”
It’s the fragrance, though, that really makes sweet peas a standout. The smell is hard to describe, but once sniffed, it’s unforgettable.
“It’s a delicate sweetness,” says Steve Hampson, horticulturist and sweet pea specialist at Roger’s Gardens in Corona Del Mar.
“It smells like orange blossom with a hint of honey,” Shepherd said. “Perfumers have never been able to hit the right notes. And the scent is never cloying or overwhelming.”
You can make this lovely English garden-type scene a reality in your yard, but you need to act now because fall is prime time for planting this cool-weather flower in Southern California.
Sweet peas have gotten a bad rep as hard to grow because most people try to plant them at the wrong time, such as spring or early summer, Shepherd and Hampson said. These are slow-growing plants that need SoCal’s cool, mild winters to develop the strong root system they’ll use to survive warmer temperatures and produce towering (up to 8 feet tall) spring blooms.
These climbing plants mostly loll around during the winter months, growing just 4 to 6 inches tall, Shepherd said, but when the days start getting longer in March, the plants take off, exploding with growth and blooms for four to six weeks. And the more you cut, the more blooms you’ll get.
Your biggest challenge, Shepherd and Hampson say, will be choosing from the multitude of colors and varieties. Both agree that the dainty violet and white “April in Paris” variety is the most fragrant, but the sky’s the limit when it comes to color and styles. (Interesting side note: The frilly Spencer varieties were developed in the English gardens of Princess Diana’s Spencer family.)
Hampson grows multiple varieties at home in Tustin every year. Roger’s Gardens started selling sweet pea seedlings five years ago, and the program has been so successful that they now offer 27 different varieties, primarily from seed developed by New Zealand plant breeder Keith Hammett. Renee’s Garden sells a wide variety of heirloom and newer varieties of sweet pea seeds, which are available online at reneesgarden.com or at many retail locations, including Roger’s Gardens.
Here are Shepherd’s and Hampson’s tips for growing great sweet peas:
Sweet peas are slow to sprout, taking one to four weeks depending on the temperature, but pre-soaking doesn’t speed germination, Shepherd and Hampson say. Hampson plants seeds directly in the ground or in flats for transplanting when they’re a few inches high. Shepherd hastens germination by nicking the shell of each seed with a nail clipper (watch her video, “How to Start and Grow Sweet Peas” at reneesgarden.com) but says it’s not mandatory. Better to use fresh seed and follow the instructions on your seed packets, Shepherd added.
Think sun, good soil and strong support
Choose a sunny spot for your sweet peas and a sturdy support system. Sow seeds in a moist, loose soil enriched with plenty of organic materials, such as compost. Hampson uses a chain link fence for a long hedge of blooms, as well as a tall metal tripod draped with netting so the flowers’ delicate tendrils can easily take hold. Make sure your netting/support is low enough for the little plants to reach, Shepherd said, or the flowers will just sprawl on the ground.
Containers work too
Breeders have developed varieties especially for growing in containers, but Hampson said he’s successfully grown all kinds of sweet peas in pots big enough to support a strong root system and support stakes (at least 20 inches wide and 16 inches deep). Hampson just swaps out the pots he uses for tomatoes to grow his sweet peas but says to be sure to use fresh soil and a sunny spot. Watch his growing tips at rogersgardens.com/videos/
Slug it out
Sweet peas’ biggest enemies, aside from heat, are snails, slugs and birds. Shepherd recommends covering tender seedlings with strawberry baskets to protect them from birds and dusting around the plants with Sluggo, a nontoxic snail and slug killer.