"Here are sweet peas, on tiptoe for a flight with wings of gentle flush o'er delicate white."
As my friend Melinda reminds me with a call every September, "It's sweet pea time."
I draw bright-red boxes on my calendar, lest I forget to soak my seeds overnight and rise early the next morning to plant them in long rows along the garden wall.
Winter-flowering varieties produce armloads of blooms from December through summer. The trick is to plant them at the right time.
"Get sweet peas into the ground as early in September as possible," says Pat Welsh, author of "Pat Welsh's Southern California Gardening" (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, $19.95) and "All My Edens: A Gardener's Memoir" (Chronicle, $24.95).
"It's very important to get the right seed," Welsh says.
Among the tall vining varieties, choose only those that read "winter-flowering" or "early flowering" on the packet such as early
'Spencer,' early flowering 'Multiflora' (many flowers per stem) and early 'Mammoth.'
These early season hybrids exhibit rapid growth, reaching only 2 to 4 feet before flowers emerge. Sown in August to early September, they put out their first flush of long-stalked clusters around late December.
Traditional sweet peas are spring-flowering or summer-flowering types sown from seed in October for the next year's bloom. While you may get beautiful leafy blue-green vines through the winter, flowers won't emerge until the days are more than 12 hours long.
" 'Winter Elegance' would be my garden pick for winter flowering because of its reliability," says Howard Bodger, president of Lompoc Valley-based Bodger Seeds, a worldwide supplier of sweet pea seeds since 1925.
Shorter varieties that work well as ground covers are the winter-flowering Snoopea, Supersnoop, Explorer, Jet Set and Knee-Hi.
A compact bush variety, "Bijou," grows to about 3 feet in height. All are ideal in containers and flower beds for those who don't want to bother staking and tying.
"Although most of the super-fragrant, old-fashioned types are not early varieties, with early sweet peas you are growing them at a time of year when the weather is cooler and more moist and you actually detect more fragrance," Welsh says.
Sweet peas are exquisite for cut flower arrangements. The vines possess an exotic beauty when intertwined with other stately flowers.
"Old-fashioned varieties of flowers are becoming popular once again," says Joel Reiten, research manager for Territorial Seeds in Oregon. "It seems people are interested in yesteryear and remembering what Grandmother used to raise in her garden. According to flower designers, sweet peas are the No. 1 choice gaining popularity for winter wedding arrangements."
The hard outer coverings of sweet pea seeds benefit from overnight soaking. Place in a shallow dish filled with warm water, labeling each with its name and color, and leave overnight.
Early the next morning, direct seeds into your prepared beds. If you can't sow them right away, drain the water, place seeds between damp paper towels in a plastic bag and refrigerate. Sow as soon as possible.
Welsh suggests digging a trench for a sweet pea bed, 1 1/2 feet deep and 6 to 8 inches wide. Align it north-south to capture the most sun. Remove soil and fill the trench bottom with one sack of manure per 8 to 10 feet of trench.
Work one-third nitrolized ground bark or compost and a low-nitrogen fertilizer into removed soil. Backfill soil into trench until it's 1 to 2 inches from the top (this allows for easy watering). Soak area with water and let it settle overnight, then direct seed.
Welsh plants her seeds 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart.
Cover the area with 1 inch of potting soil to give seeds the darkness needed to sprout. Firm the soil gently over the seed.
An alternative method is to backfill a trench to a foot below ground level. "Allow the seedlings to sprout," says Bodger, "and when the plants achieve a height of about 6 inches, begin to fill in the trench as the vine grows and reaches above ground level. Now you have 12 inches of vine below the soil where it's cooler. Just what sweet peas like."
Sweet peas should be well-watered until sprouts emerge within 10 to 14 days. When seedlings reach a height of 6 inches, thin to 6 inches apart.
Once established, maintain even soil moisture and give regular monthly feedings with a diluted liquid fertilizer or manure tea just before flower emergence. Mulch to protect against moisture loss, guarantee cool roots and lengthen blooming time.
Sweet Pea Support
Sweet peas climb by means of tendrils. Any of the vining varieties can be grown in-ground or in containers as long as they're well-staked. Methods include pea sticks, hardware cloth, a wigwam of twiggy prunings and trellises.
Train them along a chain-link fence, occasionally directing tendrils upward. Or break with tradition and allow vines to scramble up established shrubs or to spill sensuously unpropped by any supports.
"The easiest way I have found to contain my burgeoning pea vines," Welsh says, "is to simply attach a piece of garden string to a well-anchored post on one end of the bed. Then walk around the bed, starting from the bottom, and continue to bundle the plants as you go."
Rx for Sweet Peas
* "Plants that lag in their growth or at a foot-and-a-half begin to show signs of leaf yellowing, indicate they're starving for nitrogen," Reiten says. "We apply a tablespoon of calcium nitrate [found in garden centers] around their roots, a quick fix for winter-growing plants in need of a boost."
Too much nitrogen, however, can result in excess vegetation and flower retardation.
* Maintain even soil moisture with good air circulation around the plants. To avoid mildew, don't overhead water. Instead, water at the plant's base. If mildew does appear, dust with a little sulfur.
* As a hedge against birds and mice, cover with bird netting or aviary wire until plants are at least 6 inches tall. Set out bait or handpick snails and slugs late in the evening when they come out to dine.
* Avoid growing in the same site year after year to combat fusarium wilt, which will cause the roots to turn black and die.
Gather blossoms early in the morning hours while the dew still clings to petals. This will help ensure the vibrancy of their delicate colors and perfume than if picked in the sunshine. If you can't collect them by 10 a.m., wait until late afternoon or early evening.
Harvest when one flower is fully open and another is just beginning to emerge. Each flower lasts only two to three days, but buds will continue to open along the stem, providing a long vase life.
"Sweet peas benefit from having their faded and spent flowers picked regularly," says Beth Benjamin of Renee's Gardens in Felton, "encouraging them to bloom in great abundance." The right way to pick sweet peas, says Bodger, is to get down where the stem of the flower joins the vine. With your thumb and forefinger, bend the stem opposite to the way it's growing. It will pop off--you don't need to cut it."
If left on the vine, faded flowers result in seed pod formation (the plant's life cycle is finished), resulting in short-stalked flowers and eventual cessation of bloom.
At the end of the growing season, allow flowers to go to seed, leaving them on the vine to dry. Harvest and store for planting the following year.
"Never store garden seeds outdoor in potting sheds," says Renee Shepherd, former owner of Shepherd's Garden Seeds and now working with Benjamin. "They suffer when exposed to dampness and do better when stored in the house where the air is drier."
A Cautionary Note
Children should be warned that sweet peas from colorful and enchanting blossoms are different from the small white flowers of edible garden peas. The seeds and plant parts of sweet peas are poisonous if ingested.
"Sweet pea flowers should never be used as garnish around the edges of plates," cautions Shepherd, "or any method that comes in direct contact with food."
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All About Sweet Peas
Sweet peas: Botanical name, Lathyrus odoratus, translates as "fragrant peas." These pretty-faced Sicilian natives were first discovered by an Italian monk and introduced into California by migrating Easterners. Below are winter-flowering varieties available by seed from mail-order companies and specialty nurseries.
Tall Vining Selections
'Winter Elegance'--Ruffled, fragrant honey-scented flowers (multifloras) come in a pastel palette of individual colors: shell pink, deep rose, lavender, pure white and creamy salmon, or mixed.
Wintering-flowering--Large, lush flowers on long stems come mixed or in a profusion of individual shades, including pink, scarlet, white, lavender and deep blue.
Early 'Mammoth'--Exquisite, large ruffled blossoms come in pink, rose, carmine, salmon, lilac and white with beautiful curling tendrils. This strain was developed for its exceptionally long stems, strength and quick-climbing vines.
Early-flowering 'Multiflora'--A variety popular in Japan and Australia. Available mixed or in separate colors.
Container and Bedding Varieties
Explorer--A former winner of the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Merit, this bush-type is bred to be tendril free and reaches a height of 2 1/2 feet. Beautiful in borders, its large, bright blossoms come in mid-blue, navy, pale and rose pink, crimson, scarlet, purple and white.
Supersnoop--This bushy plant is a prolific bloomer with good fragrance. Blooms come in red, pink, rose, lavender and white. "Snoopea" forms a dense mat, reaching a flowering height of 15 to 18 inches.
Knee-Hi Mix--Grows to 2 1/2 feet with five or more large flowers on stems long enough for cutting. Scented petals range from soft pastels to deep jeweled tones. Great in containers. Needs little or no support.
Jetset--These 2- to 3-foot-tall bushy plants flower in a wide range of rich pastel colors.
Bijou--Very showy, this bush-type blossoms on 5- to 7-inch stems in mixed and single colors, including scarlet. Mildly scented.
Sources * Botanical Interests, 1634 N. 63rd St., Boulder, CO 80301 (303) 449-2671; Renee's Gardens, 389 Zayante Road, Felton, CA 950l8 (888) 880-7228; Territorial Seed Co., P.O. Box 157 Cottage Grove, OR 97424 (541) 942-9547