June 2, 2012

Sweet Pea Project Update and Fertilizing Notes

Spencer varieties of Sweet Peas, being trained in the cordon method - bamboo poles with a single stem tied to each, are progressing nicely, with some plants growing 14 inches a week. As flower buds begin to form, maintenance over the  next few weeks will be intense, with daily chores.

My experiment in growing the 'perfect cut flower English sweet peas' is progressing nicely. The weather, which is always the primary factor in success or failure,  has been unusually cooperative providing plenty of cool rain, bright sunny days and cool nights, and the long day length has my crop growing fast and furious. Here is an update on where I am with the project. 

WITH HEAVY RAIN LAST NIGHT AND TODAY, EVEN A SINGLE DAY MISSED IN STAKING THE SWEET PEAS, HAS RESULTED IN SOME BROKEN STEMS.

Sweet peas are not easy to grow, for they require a lot of maintenance and attention, if you want long stems and large flowers. If you remember, in February I started seeds in root trainers, planting out in March under cloches, after pinching out the growing points. Cut flower Sweet peas love cold weather, which is why they are grown so well in England, but rarely seen in America. Here, they require a very early sowing in order to mature before the hot weather does them in. One can sow seeds directly in the cold ground, but sweet peas really reward you well if grown properly. Surprisingly, the same well rooted seedlings that I planted out in other beds and trained onto wire cages, are much smaller than these plants which are being trained with just a single stem onto bamboo poles, called cordons, an old method which has been used for growing exhibition sweet peas for at least 150 years. My garden plants not trained onto cordons will still produce a multitude of flowers, but the quality will be vastly different.

PLASTIC RIBBON TIES ARE USED TO TIE EACH SINGLE STEM TO A BAMBOO STAKE, SINCE IT WILL NOT CUT THE TENDER SWEET PEA STEM, AND BEING SOMEWHAT ELASTIC, IT HOLDS THE THE STEM SECURELY WITHOUT DAMAGE.

I imagine that over the next month, there will be plenty of posts featuring these sweet peas, so bear with me. If the weather remains cool and damp, the season might be extraordinary, but even if it turns hot and humid ( as it will) I am confidant that these plants are now well rooted and strong enough to provide cut flowers until the end of July. I've planned a Sweet Pea dinner party to celebrate a friend's new job at the end of June, featuring local grown produce and a sit-down, outdoor farm table dinner. Last Sunday, while staking plants,  I was a bit worried that June 25th might be too early for sweet peas, but now that flower buds are showing, and that the plants are growing nearly a foot a week, I am no longer concerned. I should have more than enough sweet peas than any human could handle.
THE PLANTS THAT HAVE BEEN TRAINED TO JUST A SINGLE STEM, HAVE MASSIVE STEMS, ALMOST AS THICK AS MY FINGER, AND THE FOLIAGE IS AS LARGE AS MY HAND. THE SAME PLANTS NOT TRAINED TO A SINGLE STEM IN THE GARDEN, HAVE LEAVES THAT ARE THE SIZE OF BOTTLE CAPS.
 Cut flower or exhibition quality sweet peas require proper nutrition, in order to produce first, the strong roots that they need, and then foliage and later, strong flower stems. As seedlings, the plants received 5.5.10 fertilizer, so that strong roots could be formed. Later, at planting out, year old manure was turned into the soil along with lime, to achieve the proper pH of  a neutral soil which is 7 to 7.5. Our soil here in central Massachusetts is high in acid, and has a default pH of 6.0 but it changes throughout my raised beds, so I test each one noting what plants or vegetables will be planted in each.

 I know that many of you will say that sweet peas don't really care about soil pH, but I find that the more neutral the soil, the larger the plants are, in fact, the plants may grow everywhere ( I have them growing right now in many places around the garden) but the plants in my two beds where the soil has be altered to 7.5, have plants that are three times the size and volume than those untended. They all will flower, but the difference is more than just notable, it's extraordinary.
GROWTH OCCURS AT LIGHTNING SPEED IN EARLY JUNE, THESE PLANTS HAVE GROWN 14 INCHES LAST LAST SUNDAY, SO DAILY TIES CHECKS ARE NEEDED. 
Last week, I started using a fertilizer high in phosphorus, to encourage strong flower stems and flowing in general. A 5-10-5 is perfect for this, and I will only apply this twice over the growing period. Weak plants that are malnourished will suffer ( the same goes for edible peas). I did use a legume inoculate, and I am not concerned about nitrogen, as the rain and soil will supply enough of that, but a fertilizer with the proper analysis is essential for sweet peas ( as well as most any other plant) if you are serious about harvesting something worth your efforts. 

You new to gardening, especially vegetable gardening may feel that fertilizers are dangerous and yes, it's true that large scale agriculture mis-uses fertilizer, but in the home garden, it is essential, and no single fertilizer is good for everything. If you want to be all organic, remember that all fertilizer is rooted in chemistry, so act wisely. Fish Emulsion may seem like a good choice, but if you are growing root crops like carrots, you are doing more damage than good. Blood meal and bone meal may seem like safe choices, but they are very slow acting, and often take a year to break down. 

I use more everything, phosphorus, nitrogen, potassium, micro nutrients and minerals, but only based on the particular species need, and my soil testing. I equate it to my own personal blood analysis - high sugar or cholesterol, too much salt or a b6 deficiency? Your responsible, as a gardener, to be a doctor - just be informed and use the proper medication or nutrient to counteract or treat and deficiency. Simple. Otherwise, you will end up with stumpy, twisted tough woody carrots, spotty, yellow tomatoes and twisty beans. Be serious about growing your food. Plants need to be strong, and well grown to be able to withstand diseases - that is an essential part of organic gardening.

 Fresh manure is still best, but it is highest in nitrogen, and can burn an entire crop, that is, if you can even find it. Composted manure from your hardware store is often just composted wood mulch with a little manure added. I prefer granular elements that I mix myself, based on the nutritional needs of each plant, and then I fertilize only as needed, at half the strength. There are times when water soluble fertilizer is best, as it is quick acting, and with many plants, that is preferred, especially vegetables which need both foliar feeding as well as root nutrients.

SUCKERS ARE CUT OFF, WHICH PAINS ME, BUT IT ENSURES STRONG STEMS AND LONG FLOWER STEMS. ON SOME PLANTS, I HAVE ALLOWED 2 OR 3 STEMS, BUT ON STRONGER PLANTS, ONLY ONE. THIS TIME OF YEAR, SUCKERS ARE PRODUCED QUICKLY, SO WEEKLY CHECKS MUST BE MADE.

THE FIRST FLOWER BUDS ARE EMERGING. WHEN I CHECKED THE PLANTS FOR FLOWER BUDS LAST WEEKEND, I COULD NOT FIND A SINGLE ONE. TODAY, MOST EVERY PLANT HAS BUDS FORMING.

ONE OF THE MOST TEDIOUS TASKS IS SNIPPING OFF ALL TENDRILS, WHICH ARE NOT NEEDED ANYWAY, SINCE THESE PLANTS ARE BEING TIED TO POLES. I ACTUALLY LIKE THIS PART OF THE PROJECT, THERE IS SOME PLEASURE IN SNIPPING OFF EACH ONE.

THE TENDRILS ON THE CORDON GROWN PLANTS ARE DANGEROUS, BECAUSE THEY ARE LARGE AND GRAB ONTO NEIGHBORING PLANTS, TWISTING AROUND NEW STEMS, FOLIAGE AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, EMERGING FLOWER STEMS. THESE GIAN PLANTS HAVE TENDRIL HEAD NEARLY A FOOT ACROSS.

TENDRILS CAN TURN A HEALTHY PLANT WITH NEW FLOWER BUDS INTO A TANGLED MESS IN JUST A SINGLE NIGHT.

CUT FLOWER SWEET PEAS ASIDE, I DO GROW SNAP PEAS AND ENGLISH PEAS FOR EATING TOO.
THESE SUGAR SNAPS ARE NOT ONLY BLOOMING ALREADY, THEY ARE PROVIDING OUR FIRST PEAS FOR DINNER.

SUGAR SNAP PEAS READY TO PICK, NEIGHBORING THE BEDS WITH THE FANCY SWEET PEAS FOR CUT FLOWERS, THESE ARE VALUED JUST AS MUCH EVEN THOUGH THEIR FLOWERS MAY NOT BE AS PRETTY. BY NEXT WEEK, WE WILL BE SWIMMING IN PEAS OF ALL SORTS.

5 comments :

  1. I am so looking forward to each and every sweet pea post from you in the coming month.

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  2. hopflower11:28 PM

    They respond well to compost fertilizers, but too early can be detrimental. Make sure it is not too high in Nitrogen; they are nitrogen- fixed and it will only attract too many aphids as well. I wait until the first flower flush before feeding. Actually, any good tomato food will do for them. Of course, any competitive growing requires a bit more; but there are no sweet peas shows in America. Still, large frilly blossoms never hurt anybody under any circumstances!.

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  3. I'm so glad you posted this. I am actually (trying to) grow sweet peas this year - I was given some seeds.. And I don't know a thing about them. My climate is a few weeks behind yours and now I'll be prepared!

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  4. You are correct, Hopflower. But I've found that many tomato fertilizers here in America have higher nitrogen than they should, so one should check the analysis to make sure that that first number in the series of three, is lower than the second or last. There seems to be no general standard. Best to look for a middle number that is highest, I suppose!

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  5. hopflower9:47 AM

    I meant also to mention that those peas of yours are looking great! I got few this year because I moved and had to put my vines in a planter of all things. That, or get no peas at all. I could not bear the thought of that!

    The hop rhizomes on the other hand are really taking off. It was about the time to plant them that I was to replant myself. They must be waist high now, and growing six inches per day day.

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