EVERY YEAR, RIGHT around Valentine’s Day, I begin soaking, sprouting and starting seeds, dreaming of the fragrant blossoms to come. This year, I’m tweaking my familiar garden ritual.
Earlier this winter, I came across Ardelia Farm (ardeliafarm.com), where proprietors Thomas McCurdy and Bailey Hale grow more than 150 varieties of sweet peas on 50 acres in northern Vermont. After reading their online growing guide, I’m trying their method, which promises to produce sturdy seedlings that flower early and thus produce an even longer season of cut flowers.
Today’s blowsy sweet peas descend from a wildling discovered by a Sicilian monk in the late 17th century. Nearly 200 years later, the decidedly modest but powerfully fragrant flower made its way to England, and sweet-pea breeding exploded. Some of today’s varieties still bear the names of plantspeople, like Sutton, Eckford and Spencer, who gave us the plant that we know and love today.
Which is a long way of saying that sweet peas thrive in England’s cool, damp climate. Sound familiar? The following approach to starting plants is common among English growers, with a hat tip to the Vermont farmers who kindly spelled it out for me.
Sweet peas prefer cool, even cold, growing conditions. Starting seeds early in the year allows for the development of a sturdy root system. Beginning in early winter, start plants in a chilly basement, garage or exterior shed, where temperatures hover around 50-55 degrees F. That’s significantly cooler than most indoor temps.
Sow seed about ½ to 1 inch deep in a well-drained, coarse potting mix. Deep pots are preferable to shallow growing trays. Ardelia Farm recommends that you skip soaking, nicking or otherwise pretreating seed to avoid exposing plants to fungal disease.
After about 10 days, longer if conditions are cooler, you’ll begin to see tiny sprouts emerge. At that point, move the seedlings (still in their pots) to an even cooler location, such as an unheated greenhouse, a covered porch or a protected location out in the garden. Provide full natural light (the more, the better). Pro tip: Protect plants from mice, birds, slugs and snails that could devour seedings in a heartbeat.
Sweet peas thrive when temps are around 45 degrees F during the day, with overnight lows around 35 degrees. “No worries,” the Vermont sweet pea guys say. “A hard frost, right down to 20 degrees F, is fine.” I guess they should know: Vermont winters run frigid. When grown cold, top growth on your seedlings will be short and stocky, but the plants’ roots are actively growing.
The experts at Ardelia advise planting sweet peas into the garden when you see daffodil growth emerging. Sweet peas are heavy feeders, so amend the soil with plenty of manure, compost and organic material. As the weather warms, your well-rooted plants will leap into active growth. To encourage robust branching, remove the top set of leaves, leaving two or three sets on the young plant.
Unless you’re growing a dwarf window-box variety, you’ll need to put some sort of support in place to accommodate the clambering vines. Twiggy brush, wire fencing or a teepee strung with string all provide purchase for the vines’ fine curling tendrils to cling to. It’s not uncommon for vines to reach 6 feet (or more) tall, so plan accordingly.
Ready to join me in my chilly sweet pea adventure? Many local nurseries stock Renee’s Garden seeds, a West Coast source known for its extensive sweet pea collection.