Gardening : The Sweet Pea Smell of Success

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Knowing from the start their stint under the sun will be short, annuals waste no energy on reserves. They burst into bloom almost as soon as they break ground. Then they just keep going--pumping out blossoms full steam, nonstop for the rest of their brief existence.

Annuals are veritable flower factories, says Brad Allen, owner of Fleur Jardin, a landscape maintenance and design firm in Newport Beach. And it would be a shame not to take advantage of their unparalleled productivity, he says.

"No matter how enamored of perennials you've become--and I love them as much as the next person--you ought to leave some room in your garden for annuals," Allen says. "Nothing comes close to producing as much color for as long a time. Annuals lend an exuberance to the garden perennials just can't match."

You could wait until they appear in pony packs and flats at your local nursery to add spring annuals to your garden. Or you could do what Allen does and get a jump on the season by germinating them from seed right now.

There are a number of annuals that are easy and fun to grow from seed, but if you're a novice at germination, start with sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus), he suggests. "They're the easiest, most rewarding annuals to germinate I know."

The ease comes from the pea-size seeds (L. odoratus is a legume), which are large enough for even the most fumble-fingered gardener to handle. Young children can manage them, too.

"Planting sweet peas is a great gardening project to share with your children," Allen says. "I remember helping my mother plant them from the time I was 6."

The reward comes from the spectacular blooms--large, upright, crisp-looking flowers in shades of pink, blue, purple and white with a distinctively fresh fragrance. "They're one of my Top 10--no, make that Top Five--favorite flowers," Allen says.

L. odoratus blooms make excellent cut flowers, too. "One bouquet will perfume an entire room," Allen claims. Another bonus is the more flowers you cut, the more the plant produces.

"As long as you fool annuals into thinking their work's not done by not letting them produce seeds, they'll keep on putting out flowers," he says.

Sweet peas are like a perfect hostess, adds Joyce Spiller, a Costa Mesa gardener who plants them every year. "They just keep saying, 'Help yourself. Take some more.' "

Standard sweet peas are vining and need support. Allen uses inexpensive string netting. "At the end of the season, you take the whole thing down and throw it away," he says. "It's all biodegradable."

Spiller had a white-painted trellis built for her sweet peas. "When they cover it, I have a tea party on the lawn," she says. "By then the whole yard smells divine."

Fritz Steinbach of Huntington Beach plants traditional sweet peas along his chain-link fence every year, and he also puts in "Knee-Hi' varieties in his parkway. The short, bushy L. odoratus blooms as prolifically as the vines, he says. "I cut up to 15 bouquets a day for neighbors and friends when they're blooming without making a dent," he says.

The sooner you get your sweet peas in the ground, the longer you'll have to enjoy them, Allen says.

"The main thing about sweet peas is they don't like it hot," he says. "So the sooner you start, the better. If you plant seeds in September, by Christmas they'll be beginning to show color. They'll be in full glory by the end of January, and they'll continue to bloom until it warms up."

Allen plants sweet peas from seed primarily to extend their season. Other annuals he germinates for different reasons.

He grows snapdragons and calendulas from seed, for instance, because he prefers the taller varieties, and they are rarely available in nurseries in anything other than seed form.

"Growers like short, compact annuals because they look great in flats and are easy to ship," he explains. "But compactness isn't always desirable in the garden. Maybe you want a cottagey look--floppy and more casual--instead.

"I think snapdragons and calendula are much more interesting when they're taller--plant lobelia and alyssum if compactness is what you want--but you can't find these varieties in most nurseries except in seed."

Snapdragons and calendula germinate easily, Allen says, and are both good choices for novice gardeners.

Economy is another reason to grow annuals from seed. Spiller tried growing "Giant Imperial" stock from seed the first time because she wanted a forest of it. "And you can get an awful lot of seedlings from a $1 packet," she says.

Now she does it because it's fun. "Stock have been extremely easy and satisfying to germinate," she says.

Adding an element of surprise to your garden may be the ultimate reason to plant annuals from seed, though. When you plant flowers from flats, you see what you're getting. When you plant seeds, you're never quite sure.

For instance, Allen's sweet pea crop last year resulted in one plant that produced creamy yellow blossoms with magenta picotee edges.

"That's a very unusual color for a sweet pea, so naturally I let that plant produce all the seed it wanted," he says. "I saved it all to plant this year. Maybe I'll get more of that color from this year's crop."

Steinbach seems to have figured out how to get the maximum surprise out of spring annual seeds. Every fall he fills up a plastic flour shaker he found at a garage sale with a variety of seeds. "Larkspur, delphiniums, Oriental poppies, scarlet and blue flax, wildflower seeds--always--columbine, coneflowers and anything else I've collected from my own garden," he lists. "Maybe $10 worth of seed max."

He sprinkles it all out, rakes it in a bit, and stands back and waits for winter rainfall and regular irrigation to do the rest.

"It's a great way to get a cottage garden look without a lot of work," Steinbach adds.

Put in a half dozen or so of the bigger, bushier salvias (such as Cleveland, pineapple and Mexican sage), he suggests, and fill the spaces in between with a confetti of annual seeds.

"Add water and 'Voila!' " he says. "Instant cottage garden, California-style. It's like magic."

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