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Sweet Peas

Sweet Peas

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) are a lovely, old-fashioned flower, quite popular in Victorian times. Easy to grow, the dainty flowers come in shades of pink, purple, blue, red, and white, as well as bicolors. Some (but not all) varieties are fragrant. They are attractive to pollinators and make a wonderful cut flower. 

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There are many named varieties of sweet peas, and are available in packets of single colors or as a mix of colors. Heirloom varieties are available, which means you can save the seeds. If fragrance matters, be sure to check the description before ordering.

An annual climbing vine, sweet peas grow by sending out delicate tendrils that curl around a support. They will need something to climb: a fence, trellis, arbor or other structure. Vines can grow to 10’ long, though most stay around 6’. 

In USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 7 and colder, sweet peas are planted in early spring or very late winter. In warmer zones, they can be planted in the fall. Sweet peas like cool weather; plants can even take a light frost. They bloom in spring and early summer, but peter out once summer heat really sets in.

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How To Grow:

Sow the seeds outdoors where they are to grow – they don’t like transplanting. Soaking the seeds overnight before planting helps speed up germination. Even so, seeds are slow to germinate, as long as 15 days.

Plant seeds in full sun in the north and afternoon shade in the south.

Plant in rich, well-drained soil, ideally on the alkaline side. Sweet peas are heavy feeders, so add compost or aged manure before planting.

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Once the vines are up and growing, mulch to keep the soil cool and moist. It takes four to six weeks after the plants start to vine before they produce flowers.

When the plants are 6” tall, pinch 1” off the growing tips of the vines. That will encourage them to branch and produce more flowers.

Fertilize with a high-phosphorous, low-nitrogen fertilizer for more flowers.

If the plants are grown too closely together, they can get powdery mildew, which not only looks bad, but reduces flowering. Slugs and snails will feed on sweet peas.

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Important: Unlike vegetable peas, sweet peas are toxic to humans and animals. Do not eat the seeds, pods, leaves, flowers, tendrils, or any part of the plant. To be safe, plant sweet peas in a location away from edible peas.

True Leaf Market, Johnny’s Selected Seeds,  and Eden Brothers all carry sweet pea seeds.


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