Yesterday I stood salivating at the grocery store over a huge display of magazines touting mouth-watering collections of holiday sweets. Never mind that I haven’t dug a single dahlia yet, I’m ready for some much needed end-of-season rest AND some therapeutic baking. Everything looks so yummy, how can I decide? My hand pauses over each volume. It’s a week before Christmas, my shopping is barely done, we’re moving in to our new house, and our tree isn’t even up. I hesitate to add to my long list of unfinished projects. In uncertain times like these I resign myself to make do with recipes of old and turn to face the cashier, yet, a flash of green catches my eye. I quickly snatch up the last copy of the Martha Stewart Weddings.

Flipping through, I find an article on bouquets and see that half of the eight featured contain sweet peas. I’ve already had one bride request sweet peas as the feature flower in her May wedding. Now, I can envision increased demand from my florists as well. So buy your seeds, get your beds prepped and read on for a summary of my lecture on Sweet Peas from the 2007 National Conference in Raleigh.

10 Tips for Sweet Pea Success in the Mid-Atlantic

1.Select early-flowering varieties and PLANT EARLY!
Sweet peas require specific daylengths to flower. Early-flowering Elegance and Winter Sunshine series require only 10 hours daylength to flower, while the more fragrant Spencer varieties require 12 hours. The difference can be a few weeks of cooler spring temperatures, not easy to come by in a region known for its unpredictable spring heat. Look for new early-flowering varieties on the market as most breeding efforts in the U.S. and abroad are focused in this area. We start seeds in late December/early January and transplant in our hoop in February. If there are tricks to growing sweet peas successfully outdoors in our region, we have not figured them out yet, but will keep trying

2. Dig deep!
Be sure to select a site in full to partial sun; some afternoon high shade may be beneficial when temps soar in spring. Amend well with organic matter, plant in well-drained soil and provide good air circulation.

3. Protect your investment.
Early-season pests can destroy a crop faster than you can build a trellis. Before you start your seeds, have strategies in place to protect your seeds/shoots/plants from slugs, mice and birds.

4. The seed prep debate.
Some say to soak the seed overnight, some say nick the seed coat (a fingernail clipper is easiest), some say both nick and soak together, some say just plant as is. Trial and error is your best solution here as each seed-starting situation may be different, be it cold frame, greenhouse, heat mat, or other. We’ve had good success with soaking seeds, but have lost many to root rot/overwatering so I will modify my watering schedule this year to prevent loss.

5.Tray seeding and growing on.
Sow seeds in larger (72+) deep cells or multiple seeds per 4″ pot, 1″ deep, in soilless potting mix. Cover with newspaper, place in cool area. Seeds germinate at 55-65F in 10-21 days. Bottom watering can reduces risk of disease to young plants. Grow on at cool temps, 50F. Be sure to keep soil evenly moist. Thin multi-plant cells to one strong seedling when 2 sets of true leaves appear. Pinch at 3-pair leaves to promote lateral branching, then transplant. Bamboo stake if needed.

6. Direct seeding or transplanting.
Space rows 12-24″ apart, in-row spacing at 2-3″ apart, 1-2″ deep. Thin/transplant to 6-8″. Plants tolerate light frosts, protect from hard freezes. We found that a heavy organic mulch (6-8″) cools roots and makes for happier plants.

7. Trellising and training.
We construct our support trellises from tall t-posts and two layers of vertically hung Hortonova support netting fastened with zip-ties. Whatever method you choose, make sure netting is taut. Young plants generally find trellis when the structures are erected early in the seedlings’ development, however, you may have to coax/attach stray shoots. As our season is so short we choose to grow our sweet peas with a natural trellising method or “on the bush”. This means plants are allowed to grow naturally with no removal of lateral branches.

8. Fertilizing.
Provide early balanced liquid feeding (20-20-20), switching to low nitrogen “Blossom Booster” as plant matures. Mulching and side dressing with composted manure work well too.

9. Check the label.
Sweet peas are very sensitive. Whatever method of pest and/or disease control you use make sure it labeled safe to use on sweet peas. Control of pests is essential as aphids and thrips love sweet peas, can destroy plants and flowers and transmit viruses. Use sterile media and fungicides for controlling root rots.

10. Harvest time and marketing.

Sweet peas can be cut when 2-3 buds are swollen and showing color, up to when half the cluster is open. Cut directly into floral preservative, stems can be stored for up to 24 hours in a 35F cooler. Vase life is short: 3-5 days. Use of ethylene inhibitors (STS, Ethylbloc) definitely improves vase life significantly. As we are selling most of our stems to consumers we find that selling with clusters more open is most attractive and appealing to buyers. We market them in short, flared, heavy-bottomed glass vases at market, to both array their beautiful stems and help them compete in our stand next to other longer-lasting spring blooms.

If you decide to grow sweet peas this season here are some great resources:

Specialty and Commercial Seed Suppliers:

Pest & Disease Information: