Sweet on Sweet Peas

I have practiced Rice’s method of soaking for many years and I think it’s great. Floating seeds in too much water can drown the embryo and you don’t want that!

Credit: Sharon Hanna

I have practiced Rice’s method of soaking for many years and I think it’s great. Floating seeds in too much water can drown the embryo and you don’t want that!

Here’s how it’s done: 1) place a small piece of folded paper towel in the bottom of a plastic margarine or cream cheese container with a snug-fitting lid. Place seeds on top. 2) Add a little water, but not so much that water level covers the seed – about halfway is good. 3) Put the lid on, sit in a warm place overnight. 4) Remove seeds which have expanded, and plant them in seed starter mix – about 6 or 8 to a 4-in. pot, ½ in. deep. 5) Seeds that have not taken up water (they’ll be obvious – small and darker in colour) need to be nicked with a sharp blade very lightly, or scratched with sandpaper. 6) Put these stubborn seeds back onto the moist paper towel, seal, and leave overnight again. You might have to repeat the process a few times.

sweetpeas ‘Cupani’ Sweet peas with baby snail

Sweet peas (and some other seeds started early) like bottom heat; they’ll take 7-10 days to emerge. Grow them on in a cool room with very bright light. They should be “evenly moist’” but not wet. Gradually harden off to outside when danger of frost is past, then transplant into a trench or bed well-prepared with organic matter. Here’s how to prepare the bed: on pleasant/mild days, when soil can be worked (i.e. it is not waterlogged and is slightly crumbly) dig a trench or area down about 18 cm (7 in.) deep. Add a 10-cm (4-in.) layer of compost or manure, then top with soil.

sweet peas birdbath Birdbath with ‘Cupani’ sweet peas growing behind it

Seedlings (or seed) can be carefully planted when the soil warms a bit, usually by the end of March on the coast, mid-April in colder zones. Do not take the seedlings apart – remove from the pot, gently opening the contents like you were opening a book – and plunk them in, still attached to each other but in a line. When deciding where to grow sweet peas, keep in mind that red-flowering varieties need some shade from hot afternoon sun, or the petals may scorch or sun-scald – some of the petals turn a whitish-yellow. Consider planting them on the east side of a north-south running fence – they’ll get all the morning light which they love the best! When seedlings reach 10-13 cm (4-5 in.) though you may feel terrible about doing this, you can gently but firmly pinch the top of the shoot back, just a tiny bit – 1 cm. (½ in.) is fine. This will create a multi-stemmed plant which will produce many more flowers! You don’t have to do this. Cupani is a very old variety; flowers are smaller with shorter stems and not as spectacular looking as the large ruffly types, but extremely fragrant – one stem can perfume a room. Try growing them near deep maroon-leaved Redbor kale – they look great together. Did I mention sweet peas like a lot of organic matter? 🙂 Mostly I missed that step, and was happy to get the seed sown, on time, in a more or less straight line. Enter ‘Russian’ composting (dig a deep hole, put the contents of your compost bucket in, cover over). Last season without thinking about it, I planted ‘Mary Lou Heard’ (see below) atop one of those small goldmines of rich soil – not only were the flowers huge, with extraordinarily long stems (14″ inches, even, especially during the first fragrant weeks) but the plants continued to flower all summer, even into fall. The stems and flowers do eventually get smaller, but it’s my experience that sweet peas are great in June….then peter out after 4 – 6 weeks. So, don’t spare the organic matter. ‘Nuff said. Here are some other sweet peas for you to grow and love: ‘Mary Lou Heard’ – large pale lilac-blue, heavily ruffled flowers; long stems, “ambrosial” perfume ‘April in Paris’ – creamy primrose yellow with lilac blush ‘North Shore’ – my friend Wendy’s pick – an RHS winner – navy blue/pale violet bicolor ‘Royal Wedding’ – pure white, deeply fragrant, gorgeously ruffled, long-stemmed ‘Beaujolais’ – deep maroon Hot pink fans will love ‘Lipstick’ and heirloom ‘Queen Alexandra’. If you’re in a blue mood, Baker Creek has a beautiful blend of cerulean hues called ‘Blue Reflections’. Highly recommended. I have had good success with seed from Renee’s Garden (www.reneesgarden.com ), also Baker Creek (www.rareseeds.com.com ) – based in the Ozarks, their catalogue is loaded with info and completely entertaining. Good value, no problems shipping 6-12 small packages to Canada quickly.