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Resurrecting a Fine Fall Tradition : Age-Old Methods of Growing Sweet Peas Are Modernized With a Few New Tricks

<i> Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine. </i>

Part of the fun of growing anything is in the timing. My mother was never much of a gardener, but she feels challenged every year to bring calendulas into bloom before Christmas. Nearly everyone takes delight in discussing whether this fruit or that is early or late and just this year I realized that my peaches were ripening during the one week I am traditionally camping in Yosemite Valley, a case of poor timing.

An example of good timing is the almost forgotten tradition of planting sweet peas in early September. If you haven’t tried this you should. While the results are not guaranteed, chances are you will have flowers in time for the holidays, a time when little else can be coaxed into bloom (other than calendulas). At the very least the sweet peas will be the first to welcome spring.

There was a time when sweet peas were just about all that you planted in California in the fall. “Comparatively few annuals are grown in California. Pansies, sweet peas and mignonette, practically make up the sum” is how the section on growing annuals in 1904 edition of Gardening in California begins. “Sweet peas are a particular pride of California...few flowers breathe out a more delightful perfume, few have greater variations of color, and few are more attractive in the garden or more delightful in the room than sweet peas. They fit in almost anywhere and they fill in almost any place--they keep well, are easy to grow and easy to keep.” That is from the classic (1923) California Garden Flowers by Edward J. Wickson.

All of this contrasts oddly with the fact that so few are grown in California today, but I suspect that part of the problem is in the timing--they are started too late and run into trouble with Southern California’s hot, late-spring weather. The other problem is that they cannot simply be planted from a quart pot and walked away from, and that’s what most people want from a plant today. Which is too bad because they are missing one of the great garden adventures--watching a small, hard seed grow into a tall, billowy vine that covers itself with what must be the most delightful of cut flowers.

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For that reason, it is hard to generate much enthusiasm for the short, bush varieties. If you are going to grow sweet peas, go for the tall vining kinds that have flowers on properly long stems.

You will of course need a support of some kind for the wiry tendrils to cling to. The simplest to construct uses tall netting made just for sweet peas. Staple the top to the eaves of your roof and the bottom to a board nailed to stakes in the ground. They will easily grow as tall as the roof planted at this time of the year as anyone can attest to who remembers grandmother’s garage being a wall of sweet peas. The advantage to inexpensive netting is that when the peas are finished you can roll up the whole tangled affair and set it on the curb with the trash.

If the netting looks too much like you are in the cut flower business, try the traditional English tepee. It’s cottage garden charm comes from using simple sticks, pruned from plants in the garden. Just make sure they are tall enough. Six feet is barely adequate. You can set this rustic affair right in the center of a flower bed. Like the netting, it too can be bundled up and set out on garbage day--you do not want to try untangling sweet peas from their support.

There is a traditional way to plant sweet peas, atop a carefully prepared and amended trench, that is worth knowing if not following exactly. Here is how it was described in The Santa Barbara Gardener of 1934:

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“To get the best results from Sweet Peas a trench should be dug 12 to 18 inches deep and about a foot wide; fill it about two-thirds full of well rotted manure, cover with a little soil and tramp it down firmly; give it a good soaking and then fill up the trench with soil to which has been added a little bone meal; again firm the soil and give it another watering and let it stand for a week.

“When you are ready for planting, rake the surface smooth and plant the seeds in a row two inches deep and about two inches apart, and remember that the soil should be firm and only moderately moist. Sweet peas should not be planted in loose or wet soil. It will help the germination of some of the varieties with hard seeds if the seeds are soaked in water for a couple of hours before planting.

“If the soil has been properly prepared no more water will be required until the plants are up about an inch or two.”

This is the traditional method and it still works though you have to modify it a little for modern times. For one, you will have a devil of a time finding well-rotted manure and steer manure is no substitute.

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But the similarities in this and a hundred or so similar recipes found in other musty garden books suggest that these are the essential ingredients for successful sweet peas:

The soil must be dug deeply, deeper than the average spade will reach in one try. If you are planting sweet peas in a row, by all means dig a trench and partake in the tradition (though to really look the part you should be wearing a tie and rubber boots that come up to your knees).

There must be fertilizer near the bottom of the hole. I have added a modern twist to this regimen by using a slow-release fertilizer (Osmocote) in the bottom of the hole or trench, instead of bone meal.

The soil that goes back in the hole must be amended. I use Gromulch, which is mostly organic matter but with some fertilizer value as well, a good substitute for manure in any garden recipe.

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The soil must already be damp when you sow the seed.

This last point is especially interesting. My grandfather and his contemporaries always planted large seed in soil that had been thoroughly watered several days in advance. He didn’t water after planting, but waited until the seed had sprouted. The moisture stored in the soil was just enough to germinate the seed without it becoming so wet that it rots. You’ll find the temptation to water what looks to be dry soil, hard to resist after several days of worrying over it, but be strong. If you give in and water, the seed will probably rot. Try this with other large seed as well, though small seed germinates best watered frequently.

As the seedlings emerge form the soil, be prepared to defend them from birds. The same article in The Santa Barbara Gardener added this all-too-true observation: “We once saw a list of suggestions for those bird lovers who wished to make their gardens attractive to birds and were surprised that young sweet pea shoots were not included for they are truly a favorite with birds.” Bird netting propped up on short stakes will do the trick but don’t let the vines become entangled in it as they grow.

With a proper support standing by there is not much else to do until January, except to water weekly. But in January, make a bold note on your calendar to pick off every single flower as it fades (or before, if they are destined for a vase). If you don’t pick off the old flowers, the plant will begin to set seed, drop leaves and immediately stop making new flowers and a flowering season that could have lasted months will be over in a matter of days.

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So fallen from favor are sweet peas that their entry in most seed catalogues could easily be overlooked. The list following The Santa Barbara Gardener article contained some 30 varieties. But there are two seed companies doing their best to keep a goodly selection of sweet pea varieties in their catalogues. The English firm of Thompson and Morgan (their American address is P.O. Box 1308, Jackson, N.J. 08527) offers three full pages of sweet peas and The Country Garden (Route 2, Box 455A, Crivitz, Wis. 54114) offers 33 varieties or mixes. Many of these are sold as separate colors. These should fill the garden of even a sweet pea zealot, and fill many vases.


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