Heirloom Gardener Blogs > Digging Around Bowery Beach Farm

Sweet Peas and Me

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One of my absolute favorite varieties, 'Mollie Rilstone'

My mom always said she didn't play favorites between my sister and I, and neither of us ever believed her; each of us thinking the other was getting something that we weren't. Now that I'm older, I know my mother was telling the truth, because that is how it is for me in the garden. With so many flavors and colors to enjoy, how can I have a favorite?

Between large, dinner plate dahlias (which I can wax poetic on for days) and scented geraniums (think of a scratch-n-sniff sticker, but with leaves!), not to mention my kitchen garden—which is filled with a tasty array of tomatoes, carrots and broccoli—I can hardly narrow down the list of "favorites."

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Look at that stem-length, over 12 inches of it! Oh, and let's not forget, that stunning variety 'Nimbus', sure to make any arrangement sing.

That said, each child (or in my case plant) is not without their own uniqueness that must be encouraged and celebrated. For example, there will always be a special place in my heart for the delicate sweet pea. They are like the childhood friend that visited your family's home every summer; you can't wait for them to arrive and feel lost when it's time to say your goodbyes. 

Growing up, my mom always kept a jar of these on the windowsill, their sweet scent welcoming me home on warm summer days, a link between the outside and in, and I've continued the tradition she unknowingly set in motion, growing these deliciously scented plants every year without fail. 

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Soaking my (labeled!) sweet peas overnight in some oh-so-useful canning jars before sowing.

Sweet peas need a good start and really benefit from some ruthless pinching, so a head start is well needed. Typically, I start these at the end of January, or early February, soaking the seeds overnight. The next morning after they've plumped-up I sow them two-to-a-pot and set the trays on a heat mat to help get them germinating. Since sweet peas develop a rather elaborate root system (which we want to encourage!) I've found they do much better if I start them off in the 2.5" square pot I intend to keep them in until transplanting, as opposed to the smaller cells of propagation trays and repotting them later. 

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For branched, bushy sweet peas, you MUST pinch!

Now comes the part that makes many gardeners break out in hives—pinching. Once the plants reach about 6" tall and have 4-6 sets of true leaves, I cut them back to one or two sets of leaves. Yes, I am cutting away lots of leafy green growth. Yes, I promise this won't decimate your plants. This will in fact make your seedlings branch, develop more stems and give you longer flower stems. So this is TOTALLY worth it!

And just to blow your minds ... I do this 3-4 times before setting out!

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These little guys are ready for their first pinch!

Now, before the sweet peas are planted outside in the garden, I harden them off religiously, as sweet peas are very sensitive to temperature fluctuations. On the first day I move them to the front of the greenhouse and open the door. Then the following day I move them to a sheltered spot outside for a few hours, making sure to bring them back inside the greenhouse. Each subsequent day I leave them outside a little longer than the day before, before returning them to the greenhouse. This process takes about 10-14 days. 

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See how much more filled out they are after they've been cut back--I promised I wouldn't lead you astray.

I'm all about gardening organically, so each year I top off my bed with some fresh compost and scratch in bonemeal to promote healthy root systems and growth. Because I love the way intensive planting strategies look—and save space—I plant my sweet pea seedlings 6" apart and weave them into the trellis above. I've used all sorts of materials: nylon netting, wood lattice and chicken wire. Personally I like the chickenwire because it's not distracting once the plants begin blooming, but mostly because it's so much stronger and doesn't sag between the t-posts. Also, I plant on both sides of my free-standing wall trellis to make the most of the space.

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I plant my seedlings deep, and fertilize with some fish emulsion to give them that added boost after planting!

From then on it's mostly watering. I usually give my newly seedlings a dose of fish emulsion to get them excited about growing, but after that it's just regular, deep watering. Try to avoid short, infrequent watering as that's often not enough to reach the deep root system. As the plants take off I add a layer of jute twine every 12" to corral the sweet peas and keep them growing upright.

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An aisle in my sweet pea patch next to the greenhouse.

Once you start seeing blooms it's time to cut, cut, cut! Typically I'm out there cutting stems three times a week. Sweet peas seem to be of "the more you cut, the more you get" plant variety. And don't forget to remove any spent flowers along the way. This prevents the plants from going into seed-starting mode, elongating the bloom period—which is the whole point of growing these sweet-smelling beauties!

My Spencer sweet peas are pretty heat tolerant and are really kicking it into high gear now. So much so that there's plenty for my home and to sell at market, but enough leftovers to share with family and friends! But the best part about growing these tall, elegant plants? Every time I get a whiff, I'm transported back to some of the happiest moments of my childhood.