Updated: Nov 25, 2020
Sweet peas have always been a favorite flower of mine. When I got married almost thirty years ago and had my first "garden" they were one of my first gardening successes and I loved cutting them and bringing them inside to enjoy their delicious sweet fragrance. But I lived in a very different climate at that time--one that made gardening really quite easy.
For the last twenty years I have tried to grow sweet peas here in Maryland. It isn't easy. They do not like hot humid climates and this is a hot humid climate. So they are a crop that can be attempted every year with the knowledge that failure is possible and once in awhile the weather gods will allow them to thrive. The last time I had real success was when my eighteen year old was a baby. It was a year with a long cool spring.
It seems that many people think of sweet peas as a flower their grandmother easily grew, something perhaps to be taken for granted. But not me. I love them with a love that is strong and never wavering and I know that they should be appreciated because they do not easily grow in areas with hot summers or freezing winters. I've tried to grow them every year that I've lived in Maryland and very rarely get more than a bouquet or two before an early heat waves shut down the vines. Just as an example, last year I started about 60’ of brand new sweet pea beds. We heavily amended and fertilized the soil so that they would be happy, strung drip hose, started them inside in January and planted them out in March. Deer and groundhogs ate quite a few, but most survived, however in the end I might have gotten a few bouquets, but it was definitely not a success. That was a typical year, but this year was different.
This year we had the longest coolest spring we've had in the last twenty years. It allowed the sweet peas to develop deep roots and to be able to sustain themselves much longer and into the terrible June heat that came along. Additionally, I grew the plants in my new high tunnel. Something about the climate in a high tunnel moderates the heat, even though it can be much hotter inside the structure--it's a mystery to me exactly how it works, but I'm loving it.
I have gotten seed from various sources, usually England, and did so again this year from Owl Acre Seeds. January 1st is always an important seed starting day on my calendar and it is the day I start sweet peas. Nothing could be more enjoyable in the depth of winter than planting flower seeds and thinking of spring (well, a trip to the Bahamas might be more enjoyable). I have developed a trick that no one taught me, just something I noticed and which works, but which I have recently heard other growers mention. I soak my seeds, not just for a few hours but for days, and sometimes weeks. I change the water daily, to keep the seeds from rotting (they will rot in the water and must be watched carefully), but the idea is to get the seeds to germinate in the water. The reason for this is that I often find the germination rate to be not as high or fast as I would like and this way I only plant those that have actually begun to grow. But I have to catch and plant them daily as they emerge or the new growth might be damaged, so this is a daily commitment and not a job to be given to others.
I grow my sweet peas in English root trainers (shown above) which can be difficult to find but also use root bands that are for growing tree seedlings (shown in the top seedling picture) or the tallest cells I can find. Then when they are big enough they move out to the heated greenhouse until it's time to go in the ground. Now, this year we were travelling in early March so I planted a 20' row in the high tunnel in late February and hoped for the best. Unfortunately they froze and died, but I had plenty of extra plants, so this was not a problem. When we returned I planted them again in the high tunnel and this time was ready to do everything necessary to protect the plants from any freezes. I had to cover them quite a few times with agribon frost protection cloth inside the high tunnel due to freezes that we had late into the spring. My daughter kept saying it wasn't worth it--she couldn't remember ever having seen sweet peas in bloom--I knew it was.
We put up the hortanova netting for support once and then again as they got taller and taller and the plants started to bloom. Once they began to bloom heavily they required cutting almost every day and then daily. We began to cut flowers in early May and were cutting buckets of sweet peas by mid June and continued harvesting buckets everyday until mid July. Our house was filled with them and I was in heaven. We could include long stems of sweet peas in our bouquets for weeks and we sold them for a couple weeks as straight bouquets, although I was not entirely comfortable selling them to customers who might not understand that sweet peas are not a flower with a long vase life. Their value is in their delicate beauty and their sweet smell, however short their time with us may be.
I can't say when we will have another year like this year. I hope we can repeat it. We've already received our 2020 seed order from Owl Acre seed and Renee's Garden Seeds and our plan is to start them in the fall this year and let them overwinter in the high tunnel with cover so that we have flowers much earlier in the season when they are a more valuable crop. We will see what happens, but my takeaway is that growing in the high tunnel is the secret to success.
The end of the season just before we removed the vines. Still pretty.
We finally took out the vines on July 23, still covered with flowers. The flower stems were extremely short and the flowers were small, and they set seed very quickly in the extreme heat we were experiencing. I cut my last bouquet from the vines as I pulled them out and enjoyed their beauty for just a few more days.