I've been thinking about sweet peas.
Actually, it's more of an obsession. I dream about vases filled with richly fragrant, vibrantly colored, delicately frilled sweet peas.
Two year ago, I grew them, hoping to produce a fabulous harvest for our son's wedding rehearsal dinner.
We did enjoy stunning bouquets--a week after the wedding.
Last year, because I was crazed in the greenhouse with growing heirloom vegetable plants to sell at the farmers' market, I planted our garden late.
You can't plant sweet peas late in South Carolina. There's a very narrow window of opportunity in starting the seeds in the greenhouse and nurturing them in the cutting garden. Miss that perfect planting moment, and you'll find yourself with empty vases.
Trust me. I know.
With our short sweet pea season, most southern gardeners might find themselves discouraged after two years of sweet pea challenges. They might opt to skip sweet pea season and sow zinnias earlier or cover the cutting garden in cosmos.
This is the year of the sweet pea. I'm determined to fill the house with their charming blooms and delicious fragrance. This year, I have no stressful deadline to make the growing journey anxiety-ridden. I'm not growing 184 varieties of heirloom tomatoes this spring, which means I can pay attention to our garden and its scheduling needs.
And, my babies are already growing happily in the greenhouse, waiting for freezing temperatures to pass so that they can move to their new home.
This will be the year of sweet pea success.
Of course, like most of my garden adventures, I can't be satisfied with growing one or two varieties. Where's the fun in that? Instead, I'm trialing 25 varieties. Pinks and pale blues. Lavenders and creams. Maroons and mauves. Heirlooms and hybrids. Stripes and flaked.
If only I had more room--and sun--in the cutting garden, I'd grow one of every color, from the antique varieties discovered by a Sicilian monk in 1699 to the Eckford Era blooms of the 1800s and frilled Spencers from the 1900s. I'd grow every modern grandiflora used by my favorite farmer florists, and I'd fill vase after vase with beautiful blooms to share with friends.
Until a generous sponsor gifts me with a farm, however, I'll settle for pampering my current seedlings.
Growing sweet peas can be simple (unless you must meet an absolute deadline. Then the fates will conspire against your blooms, tossing in extra chilly weather and hiding the sun, just to keep you on your toes and prove that no matter how long you've been gardening, Mother Nature is always, always in control.)
In warmer zones (7 and toastier), sweet peas can be directly sown in the garden in fall. I like to micromanage my sweet peas, however, opting to grow them in the greenhouse in February. It's dual purpose: I can make sure to space them well in biodegradable pots to maximize space in our cutting garden--and it also gives me some green therapy, tending the seedlings during the dreary winter days.
Regardless of where you sow your seeds, you'll first want to soak the seeds overnight in water to speed their sprouting. My friend P. Allen Smith recommends soaking the seeds in milk. I'd never heard of the milk trick before, but he says the lactic acid in the milk helps break down the hard exterior of the seed. I love knowing smart gardeners--I learn something new all of the time!
I use biodegradable, three-inch pots for my seedlings. Using a good organic potting soil, I fill the pots 3/4 with soil, place two seeds per pot, then cover with additional soil. The tray of pots is placed on a heat mat in the greenhouse, giving it a little warmth, and after watering, I place a plastic cover over the tray to retain moisture. Right now, the greenhouse is only heated with a small electric space heater. Later, when I'm growing the warm crops, we'll add propane heat. (It's a nightmare to change out our propane tank. It involves hauling it from the greenhouse by the river, loading it into the Prius, driving to get it filled, and reversing the process with the full, much heavier 100-pound tank. There needs to be an easier solution. But we don't do easy.)
One the best sweet pea growers I've seen is the amazing Erin of Floret Flowers. She grows spectacular sweet peas, plus she is incredibly generous with growing advice. She sells seeds on her site, so of course--I ordered from her. Along with my seed order came a beautifully designed card with growing tips. She recommends pinching out the central growing tip when the plant is 4-6 inches, leaving two or three nodes, to encourage strong branching from the base. Like I said--I always learn something new!
Sweet peas feed heavily, so prepare your beds well with good compost and bone meal. Water is essential--they won't produce beautiful blooms without good, consistent irrigation.
Transfer the plants to the garden when the danger of frost has passed. Sweet peas need a strong trellis system for support. (Really, don't skimp on this step. I erected a wimpy trellis the first time I grew sweet peas, and it constantly sagged. Take the time to do it right.)
Plant sweet peas approximately eight inches apart on either side of the trellis. Feed continuously with diluted fish emulsion. (I use Neptune's Harvest--very stinky stuff, but it works incredibly well. Just don't spill it on yourself--or plan to eat seafood for dinner after using it. It's very unappetizing.)
One of the best ways to keep your plants producing all spring is to harvest the blooms continuously. Don't allow the plants to set seed while you still have vases to fill.
Like with most cut flowers, harvest the blooms early in the morning when it's cooler and place them into water immediately. You can spend time creating bouquets later.
For heirloom lovers, sweet peas play the perfect role in the spring garden. Combined with newer hybrids, your bouquets will have the fragrance of the old world combined with the gorgeous, long-lasting creations for the cut flower market.
It's a win-win, don't you think?
So, here's hoping that 2016 is the Year of the Sweet Pea at Garden Delights! I'm hoping to having plenty of photos to share for Floral Fridays this spring. After all, sweet peas are associated with "blissful pleasure," in the language of flowers.
I think we all can benefit from blissful pleasure in our gardens.