Each season, I like to try something new. Something I’ve never planted before and have limited knowledge about growing: I enjoy the challenge and exhilaration of trying a new variety. I love the learning process, from the research before planting to the harvesting and enjoyment (if I’m lucky enough to get that far). Often, I’ll plant several new plant varieties in the same season to keep me on my toes. It makes the garden exciting from season to season. And who knows? I might discover a new favorite. As my first-year farming flowers, this season is full of new variety trials; ranunculus, anemones, tulips, and sweet peas, to name a few. I’ve spotlighted my experience with all the others, and now it’s the sweet pea’s turn.
In January, I signed up for The Farmhouse Flower Farm’s ‘Sweet Pea School,’ an online Zoom class about growing sweet peas. I took a copious amount of notes and, after pouring over them, was confident enough to sow my first sweet pea seeds. Sweet peas come in over 100 species, so choosing which to grow can be daunting. In the end, I started with five varieties: Erewhon, Mermaid’s Dream, April in Paris, High Scent, and Watermelon, mainly due to seed availability. Sweet peas are grown for their color (pastel shades of pink, purple, white, and blue, including bi-colors) and their unique fragrance. They have become popular among flower farmers, and I was anxious to find out why.
In early February, I got out my sweet pea seeds, seed starting mix, and root trainer trays and got planting. Sweet peas prefer cool temperatures to germinate, so, once sown, I did not place my tray on a heat mat. Instead, I kept the tray in my unheated basement that stays in the mid-’50s all winter long. Within about ten days, to my excitement, most of my seeds had sprouted.
I babied those seedlings for several more weeks indoors and pinched them when they had two to three sets of leaves to promote bushier plants that would produce more flowers. By the end of March, I took a chance and planted them outdoors in a bed prepared with a good amount of compost. Sweet peas are vining plants, often reaching heights of 6 feet or more, so they need strong support to grow. I planted my seedlings around a snap pea trellis that my husband had built me several years ago.
For the first month or so, I saw slight growth and thought the seedlings would perish due to temperature drops and late winter storms. I wrapped the trellis in row cover and even resorted to blankets during the worst storms to protect the seedlings. During this cooler weather, when they seem to have stalled, they were growing a robust underground root system. About a month later, most of them had made it, and when the warmer weather came, they started to take off. Sweet peas are fast growers and can often grow up to twelve inches weekly! Due to this rapid growth, they need frequent tying to ensure they stay secure to the support.
By early June, I was starting to see my first sweet pea buds, and a few days later, the first flowers bloomed. It was so rewarding to see flowers after months of care, and their sweet scent made it worth all the effort. Since then, I have been harvesting flowers daily. But, of course, the more you cut these beautiful blooms, the more they grow; boy, they can pump out the flowers! I love the subtle white flowers rimmed in the lavender of the varieties’ High Scent’ and ‘April in Paris’ and am equally enamored with the bright pops of purple and pink that ‘Erewhon’ and ‘Watermelon’ provide. And ‘High Scent’ certainly lives up to its name, being the most fragrant of the lot.
Sadly, the flowers don’t last long once picked, with a vase life of around three to four days. The picked blooms prefer to stay cool, and you can keep them in the refrigerator overnight to prolong their vase life. However, they are ethylene-sensitive, so try to keep them away from ripening fruits and vegetables if possible.
Still, regardless of their short vase life, these sweet flowers, reminiscent of grandma’s garden, are worth growing. I’m curious to see how long into the season they continue to flourish as temperatures are on the rise. However, thus far, they don’t appear to be slowing down. When their bloom cycle is over, you can collect and save seeds once the pods are brown and dry. Sweet peas are self-pollinating and are typically true to their parent plant so that you can save with confidence. I think I’ll give it a go at the end of the season.
The only thing left to do is continue to harvest them, enjoy them while they last, and decide what varieties to try next year!