Written by Susan B.
It is believed that a monk who lived on the Italian island of Sicily was the first person to discover sweet peas. He found them growing in the wild there at least 300 years ago and sent them to a schoolmaster in England. The earliest sweet peas were bi-colored maroon and purple flowers. But their most striking and arguably, most appealing characteristic is their tantalizing fragrance. The earliest sweet peas were found on an island whose climate is remarkably similar to what we experience in Southern California. That makes them an ideal flowering plant to grow here.
Historical Information About Sweet Peas
The earliest sweet peas that were introduced into England were only mildly popular. By the start of the 19th century, only six sweet pea color combinations were available. By the mid-1880s, Henry Eckford, a Scottish horticulturist, hybridized selected sweet pea varieties. His efforts produced new cultivars with much larger flowers and a vast array of different color combinations. His latest creations were considered ‘grandifloras’ because of their size. They found success in the commercial cut flower industry and the horticultural exhibition world.
By 1901, a new sweet pea variety was discovered in the gardens of the Earl of Spencer (the Spencer family from Princess Diana’s family descended). After that, that cultivar was known as the ‘Spencer Sweet Pea.’ The Spencer cultivars aren’t ideal for places where summers are hot because they are considered “late bloomers.” By the time Spencers are ready to bloom, it’s already too hot in Southern California, so they’re not a suitable variety to grow in our area.
Growers in the United States developed new sweet pea cultivars better suited to growth in various places throughout the country. But they also wanted their hybrids to appeal to British gardeners because the demand for sweet peas was huge in the UK. So they developed varieties to export to England.
American seed growers eventually learned that sweet peas grow best in mild climates, like the Southern California Coast areas. Lompoc, California, became the hub of sweet pea production for commercial sales in the United States. That location is so windy that bees cannot cross-pollinate plants, so the seeds that growers harvest from plants are true to the parent plants.
Growing Sweet Peas
Large sweet pea seeds resemble the seeds of edible peas. They do best in cool weather places that get a considerable amount of moisture. In our area, USDA hardiness zones 9 and 10, plant sweet peas in late fall to enjoy late winter and early spring blooms. You can sow the seeds as late as January or February, resulting in later flowers. Sweet peas grow best in moist soil where the roots can stay cool but where the stems and buds can reach for the sun. A planting site that gets full sun is ideal if you plant low-growing annuals in front of the sweet peas in garden beds to provide a shade umbrella for their roots. Or, as an alternative, use ground covers to protect the roots and keep the soil moister.
Look for a planting site that gets full sun. Make sure the soil gets excellent drainage there. Before planting your seeds, dig two feet deep into the ground to loosen compacted soil. Then add well-rotted compost and aged manure to the area. Mix it in thoroughly to improve the soil quality. Organic matter creates an environment that can support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the soil.
After amending the soil, dig a long trench that is four inches deep. Use a bamboo stake or other sterile pointed garden tool to poke holes at equal intervals across the length of the trench. You will plant your seeds in each of the holes. If you are planting sweet pea varieties that grow in a vine-like habit or grow very tall, put your stakes or trellis system in the ground before planting the seeds. Do it before you plant to avoid any potential injury you may inflict on newly germinated seedlings. Drop a seed into each of the holes you poked in the long trench. Cover the holes as you go, and pat the soil down firmly to prevent any daylight from getting into the hole where you placed the seed. Sweet peas prefer alkaline soil. If your soil pH is acidic, lightly sprinkle pulverized lime onto the soil surface after you’ve watered the newly planted seeds and before you mulch the growing area.
Tips to Help You Grow Sweet Peas More Successfully
If you’re like us, and you’ve always assumed that you should soak pea seeds (and other hard-shelled seeds), you’ve bought into a myth that isn’t true.
The Los Angeles Times published a story about Sweet Pea myths just over 20 years ago. In that story, Robert Smaus, the Times Garden Editor, wrote that Renee Shepherd, the owner of Renee’s Garden Seeds, explained that soaking sweet pea seeds is unnecessary because it won’t speed up germination.
However, she did explain that Southern California gardeners can nick their sweet pea seeds to speed up sprouting. Use nail clippers to nick the seed. A toenail clipper may give you more control because of its size. Your goal in nicking seeds is to remove a small piece of the hard shell with your nail clippers.
Sweet peas thrive in cool weather. They need the mild, cool winter, and wetter weather to develop strong root systems that can support their tall stems. Throughout the winter, plants grow so slowly that they may only reach 4-to-6-inches in height. But starting in March, just when days get longer, their growth explodes. For about four to six weeks, they grow fast and explode with blooming flowers. The key to getting the most blooms from your sweet peas is cutting the long stems of blooming flowers off the plants often.
Sweet peas are not especially difficult to grow, as long as you give them the conditions they need to grow in. That’s why it’s best to plant them in our Southern California area in late fall when the days grow shorter, temperatures get cooler, and we enter a rainy season. The rain is vital to ensuring the development of roots so the plants can establish themselves. One of the best bonuses of growing Sweet Peas is the fact that they’ll give you an abundance of cut flowers to place throughout your house. You’ll enjoy their delightful fragrance both in your home and outside in your garden. Come into one of our stores to check out our inventory of Sweet Pea seeds. Our garden experts can help you choose cultivars and find amendments you can use to improve the quality of your garden soil.
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