Garden Q&A: Sweet peas lovely to look at
Q: I'd like to grow flowering sweet peas in my garden this year, but I am unsure how to do it. I understand that they are notoriously fussy, but their fragrance is phenomenal and I'd like to give them a try. What is the best way to grow them?
A: Sweet peas ( Lathyrus odoratus) are a beautiful flowering vine with fragrant flowers ranging in color from white and pink, to purple, red and near blue. They are an old-fashioned flower with a very sweet fragrance, and growing them lends a cottage-y, romantic feel to the garden.
Close relatives of edible pea varieties, sweet peas, in many ways, can be grown in the same fashion. Sweet peas (and their edible cousins) prefer cooler soil and air temperatures. Because of this, seeds should be started in late March through April directly in the garden. Most peas do not like to be transplanted, so plant the seeds in their intended spot if possible and don't plan on moving them later (some people do start them indoors in peat pots and plant them into the garden pot and all to avoid possible transplant shock).
Choose a well-drained, sunny site and add a few shovelfuls of compost or well-aged manure to the planting area. Seeds are planted to a depth of 1⁄2 inch. For faster and more reliable germination, you can presoak the seeds in lukewarm water for several hours before planting, or you can nick the seed coat with a metal file.
To ensure a good population, you may want to sow a few seeds every two weeks throughout early spring. This will not only ensure the proper planting time but will help create a scattered bloom time and harvest. Sweet peas make a terrific cut flower.
Since sweet pea vines can grow upwards of 5 feet tall (though a few non-climbing varieties do exist), you'll need a trellising system for support. You can use an arbor, a fence, a tee-pee, netting, or you can simply insert several branched twigs nearby for the pea tendrils to grab onto.
Do be aware that since sweet peas prefer cooler temperatures they will stop blooming when summer's heat arrives. Interplanting them with a later flowering vine (such as scarlet runner beans, morning glories or corkscrew vine) will keep the garden in constant bloom until fall's first frost.
It also is important to note that, unlike their edible cousins, the seeds of flowering sweet peas are poisonous and should never be consumed. Eating large quantities of them can lead to convulsions and even paralysis.
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Grow Organic” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.
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