Sweet Peas have been a favorite flower of mine since I was a kid, but growing up in New York and living in Pennsylvania much of my adult life, I found Sweet Pea growing to be a real challenge. Long, cold winters allowed them to be planted not until early April and by the time they started to flower, the hot, humid weather of an east coast summer usually put an early end to their growth and flowering.
I moved to southern California ten years ago and found to my delight that the climate here with long, mild winters and springs, to be ideal for growing Sweet Peas. Indeed, Sweet Peas grown for seed production became an important commercial crop in California in the early 1900’s where there were several hundred acres devoted to their production around Lompoc near Santa Barbara, because of the favorable climate.
Our modern Sweet Pea has its origins in Sicily where the first one, which had small bi-color purple flowers, was described by the monk, Franciscus Cupani in 1695. Over the next 200 years, natural mutations led to a wide range of colors. A real breakthrough occurred in England in 1901 when the head gardener to the Earl of Spencer showed a bowl of Sweet Peas that had exceptionally large, frilly pink flowers. He named it ‘Countess Spencer’ and ever since then, Sweet Peas with large, frilly flowers have been known as Spencer type.
I have been growing and trialing Sweet Peas annually since moving to California and plant about 40 varieties every year. Although there is a good selection of seed available from U.S. seed companies, I mail order my seed from England where much of the breeding currently occurs. I like to try new varieties but have several favorites that end up in the garden every year. Among these are ‘Just Julia’, a mid-blue; ‘Gwendoline’, a deep pink; ‘Judith Wilkinson’ with intense carmine red flowers; ‘Sir Jimmy Shand’ which is striped and edged with lilac; pink edged ‘Anniversary’; and ‘White Frills’ which is pure white.
I usually sow my seed in late September to get an early start, but seed can be sown as late as February if you live near the coast. I like to start my seed in cell packs similar to the ones in which you buy annuals at garden centers, using a good potting soil. An alternative is to buy plants. The six varieties mentioned above, as well as fourteen other varieties are available as plants, custom grown for Roger’s Gardens in 4” pots and are available through mid-March. I transplant the small plants into the garden after I have mixed a good soil amendment, such as Harvest Supreme, and an organic fertilizer into the soil.
Well grown Sweet Peas can reach a height of six to eight feet and need good support on which they can climb by their tendrils. I have about seventy feet of chain link fence which is ideal. Others I grow in large pots and use seven or eight foot bamboo poles with their twiggy side branches, which I cut from my garden. A good alternative is tall tomato cages. There are dwarf varieties which need little or no support.
I usually start cutting flowers of early varieties, such as the ‘Winter Sunshine’ or ‘Winter Elegance’ series in early January. Standard Spencer type Sweet Peas normally start blooming for me in early to mid-March. Both types normally continue to bloom until about early May in my Tustin garden, but will bloom into early summer if you live near the cooler coast. Be sure to cut Sweet Peas frequently so their fragrant flowers may be enjoyed inside the home. This also keeps them from going to seed which will extend the blooming season.