July 6, 2016

Sweet Luscious Sweet Peas - Confections on a Stick

The current craze for sweet peas might have started because of my blog, at least so I have been told, but the truth is, they are due for a resurgence with the slow flower movement. These are flowers one will never see at the supermarket or nursery due to their short life and special needs, but that shouldn't stop you from raising your own at home.

My obsession for growing Sweet Peas should come as no surprise to many of you. After all, I have grown so many over my lifetime. My long history and fascination with sweet peas in some way, began before I was even born - as my parents and grandparents raised them here in our garden. It's kind of comforting and nostalgic to think that the old soil here still contributes to the same, old vases around the house, some since 1915 or so.  Even this past Saturday, I found a bud vase which triggered a memory of my mother using for sweet peas back in the 1960's, and surely long before that as she married my Dad in 1942 and moved in with my grandparents. It was sitting along side some old canning jars inside of a storage crate under our back porch, a nice reminder and one I hadn't remembered until now.

If you want long, straight stems on your sweet pea flowers, don't forget to remove the tendrils as they can entangle and deform stems. This stem one is nearly 14 inches tall an as thick as a knitting needle. If you want stems like this, read on, below. Most of my seeds this year came from the British dealer and well know grower Roger Parsons Sweet Peas. 

Like many of you, I am smitten by the long-stemmed, ruffly Spencer strain or exhibition Sweet Peas - the fancy English sort like there here, which are not as commonly seen here in the US where grandiflora-types are more commonly grown. The Spencer strains are true exhibition types, bred for nearly a century for their long stems and large, ruffled blossoms. Like Dahlias, there are those hich are appropriate for exhibition and those which are not, which only means that they may not meet some of the standards required for exhibition, but most likey are exceptional cut and garden flowers. Who cares if the conformity or the symetry isnt just right? In the US, there are no sweet pea societies or shows (sad face here). And did I mention the scent? I adore it, but apparantly some dont, but that's not unusual when it comes to sweet scents. So regardless of how one feels about the smell, sweet peas seem to be once again, hitting the sweet spot with many gardeners and floral designers - and July is sweet pea season for most of the northern hemisphere.

Sweet Pea 'Burnished Bronze'

Cut flower sweet peas arrive for us, near the end of June in our central Massachusetts garden. The first few buds tease us in early June, but shock us by yellowing and fading before dropping off to the ground in threatening way leading one to believe that something has gone terribly wrong, but experience teaches us that this is simple a normal sweet pea reaction to the warm days and cold nights which June can present early in the month. Once temperatures settle near the end of the month, sweet pea stems extend and flowers emerge from mature bus faster than an over-eager smash mob who can't wait to perform their well, rehearsed performance.

I had limited space this year -  raising only four rows of cordon-trained sweet peas, but I will share that I am preparing for a much larger lathyrus project next year when I plan to rock and roll with many, many more. (don't ask why).

In full sun, 'Burnished Bronze looks more like a merlot wine than promised, but this burgundy color is rich and deep, something many floral designers crave.

Many will say that it is the unique scent which attracts one to sweet peas - a complex profile of warm honey, and base notes of vanilla, dusted off with confectioners sugar with a hint cardamon. But for me, it's their color palette which captivates my designer-mind. Sweet peas have a color palette which has few rivals in the floral world - a pure periwinkle blue so artificially natural that it rivals that of an sugar coated Easter peep (the purple ones). There are countless tints of flushy, blushy pinks as if lifted straight from the gooey palette of a John Singer Seargent portrait, but really, for me, it is the warm coral tones which are so beguiling and special in the floral kingdom - so mouth-wateringly warm and sweet that one can practically smell a watermelon Jolly Rancher candy.

'Suzy Z' is a newer variegated striped or 'flake' type, similar to antique varieties, but with a larger blossom.
This variety is from Owl's Acre Sweet Peas in the UK, another favorite source for exhibition and high-quality sweet peas.

Floral trends come and go slower than those of fashion and decor, and although Sweet Peas are shown in most every wedding magazine and floral design blog, they remain rare in nurseries and garden centers. If you have tried to raise some, I commend you but if you have experienced failure, don't fret - sweet peas do require some skill beyond planting the large round seeds, and waiting for bouquets. Growable? Sure. But if one wants to grow them well - with long stems and large flowers - a few steps must first be taken.

Bamboo canes tied to a cross bar create the long cordod rows. Pea plants are pinched when transplanted, and only one sucker is selected to be allowed to be tied to each cane. If kept to a single stem, the floral stems and flowers can become very long, and the foliage will grow very large.

In the foreground,'Dark Passion', one of the darkest sweet peas was left un-trimmed to show the difference in size. Sometimes, as a garden plant, this can make for a more impactful display, especially with the darker flowered varieties. Just behind 'Dark Passion', in the background, is 'Windsor', another nearly black variety.

The truth is, sweet peas, which were once the most common and popular cut and garden flower in the Victorian era, are best when grown in cooler climates. Winter in California will do, but if you live in the mid-west or in New England, one must pray for a cool summer - free from humidity and extreme heat. An early sowing will promise flowers in late June and early July, just as the hot and humid weather arrives, allowing for at least a few weeks of flowers, but if one is blessed enough to live in Canada or the Pacific Northwest, Sweet peas are best thought of as an early summer crop.

I grew my sweet peas on cordons this year, trying to keep most trained to a single stem (but not all).

I can barely remember my parents sweet pea adventures (they were active gardeners, but gave up on sweet peas by the time I came along in the 1960's - opting for veggies and other plants), but I have photos of my grandparents raising them here - right on the same land where my greenhouse sits -they used to exhibit at out local Horticultural Hall (home of the Worcester County horticultural Society) in their summer flower shows through the 1940's until the 1950's, but I've been told by older aunts that their sweet peas never compared to our neighbor Mrs. Usher whose sweet peas which were notorious in our community in the 1920's and 1930's. 

As I hinted about earlier, sweet peas  are growable but one must be realistic. Sowing seeds directly in the ground, and allowing them to tangle away along branches and stakes will work, but only if one wants clouds of flowers, but blossoms will be smaller and stems will be crooked and shorter. Those long stems with large, ruffled petals will take skill, and thus, require more effort to grow well. Serious effort.

I was concerned that my color palette wouldn't mix well, but I was surprised when I combined all of the violet and dark varieties. With coleus and very little green, this casual blend still fit within a palette range of violet to mauve.

Success with sweet peas begins with sourcing excellent seed (Spencer varieties are exhibition types, and like many flowers - this means researching the best varieties which are often those raised for competitive exhibition - I recommend joining the National Sweet Pea Society in England, to learn their methods and to find tips and tricks from those who raise amazing long-stemmed sweet peas for exhibition. At the very least, snoop around their website to learn about sources and cultural tips.

'Our Harry', is one of my favorites, as I am a sucker for anything periwinkle blue.

My pea seed generally comes from England, from sources who raise stock for exhibitors (as not all 'Spencer' varieties are the same - compare the size of seed raised in California to seed raised in New Zealand or England). But there are some good US sources I am told (Renee's Garden Sweet Peas) in particular is fine and trustworthy). Personally,  I am stuck on a few trusted UK sources  for other reason then my knowledge that they supply many of the exhibitors seeds in England. Order seed in early January  and if you have a greenhouse, sow in late January in long, deep pots. If you are starting indoors, wait until mid February.  Most expert growers now feel that soaking seed isn't necessary, and this is the first year I skipped the overnight soak, and mostly all germinated just fine, but the ritual of soaking is somehow part of the experience, so it's up to you whether you want to bother or not.

'Dark Passion', so deep and dark that it is almost black.

One of the most important steps in raising sweet pea seedlings is pinching or 'stopping' them when they have their second pair of leaves. This is a bit horrifying to do, as it will leave you with a rather pathetic little stem, often with one leaf, but if you skip this step, you will end up with a wirey, little stem with tiny foliage which when set in the garden, will sulk a bot longer than those which have been stimulated to fire off new, larger and more robust side stems.

'Restormel' is a lovely watermelon color.

Set plants out into the soil, even if it is cold out, as they can handle light frosts, early. Often at the end of February if the snow is melted, but more likely mid March around here in Zone 5. A good drink of all purpose fertilizer will suffice, and a well limed soil will aid them. The pinched plants will force more roots, which will ensure deeper immersion into the soil, and new shoots will quickly shoot out by mid to late May as the weather warms. 

I've allowed my Spencer sweet peas to ramble a bit more this year, as I really don't exhibit them (I mean, where would I in the US?), but even with a few extra stems allowed, my flower stems are long.

At this time, a second essential step must be performed, and it's another one which requires a strong heart and a fearless mind. Remove ALL shoots except one, which you will allow to mature. Sure, one will sneak in a second shoot or two at some point, but by allowing the plant to produce only one main stem, it allows the Spencer sweet pea to truly develop its unique characteristics which is why you are raising them in the first place - mainly, large, if not gigantic foliage, and eventually, long, strong flower stems and large, ruffled blossoms.

In the center, 'Eclipse' is a rich, bright mauve violet - it is one of the top ten exhibition varieties, and it has a very strong scent and long stems.

If you want just lots and lots of sweet peas and shorter floral stems and smaller flowers, then skip the Spencer strains, and sow those labeled as floribunda-types or Royal Sweet Peas - American strains which tend to sulk less in our heat, and often are even more fragrant and floriferous in the States. There are also many species forms, as well as old-fashioned strains (such as Cupani, or Stars and Stripes) which will perform equally as well as the old floribundas, but hold your expectations at bay if you expect long stemmed beauties like those seen on Wedding blogs. Exhibition varieties such as the Spencer strains will only do for that, and only if they are raised with some restriction to stem production.

In England, the Spencer strains if grown for exhibition, are limited by serious growers to a single stem, tied to a cane, often in rows called 'Cordon's'. This is how I raise most of mine, yet I sometimes allow a few (or more than a few) to produce side stems at some point in the process, as trimming stems and tendrils is a daily task which sometimes gets tiresome. 

Stripes and Flakes were very popular 125 years ago, and it's easy to see why.

Bi-daily staking and tieing is a necessary part of the sweet pea process, so be sure be be prepared with tall bamboo stakes (8 feet is ideal, but never really tall enough), small scissors and staking material which can be twine, yarn or ideally plastic tape which won't cut through the stems). The first few weeks will break ones back but by mid June, the plants are tall enough so that one doesn't have to bend over. I really want to get one of those wheels-things that one sits one, though!

When trained on cordons, the foliage on the single, selected sucker can get quite large, these leaves are larger than my hand.

Grown in this cordon method, which isn't unattractive at all, one can expect the first flower buds to burst, yellow and fade, but this is more often due to temperature fluctuations from day to night, than anything else. Keep an eye our for aphids, but often plants are growing to  vigorously, that even the aphids can't get a hold of them fast enough, so I never use spray.

I had to try a black and white hand tied bouquet. Sunday, we delivered these to some of our elder neighbors.

One will need to tie stems nearly every two days throughout June, which is remarkable, as plants seem to grow on average of a foot and a half each week. The foliage will be huge, as large as a man's hand while the few plants which you may have allowed to produce many branches au-naturale, will have smaller and tendrils more in tune with edible garden peas. Both methods are nice, as there is no such thing as a bad sweet pea, so if you want to raise your peas in a pot with a tee pee of bamboo, let them have their way and enjoy the mayhem. 

The same goes for those intended for the border or flower garden. A towering tee pee of twigs and branches with a dozen of un-manscaped sweet peas tangled and bushy will still provide a punch of color, even with it's more casual presentation. The presence and stature alone makes for an impressive display if one doesn't mind short stems and smaller flowers. Size is relative, dare I say.

'Jilly', an award winning cream colored variety very popular on the show bench in England and popular with visitors to our garden. Tovah Martin visited on Sunday and said that she was so surprised that these were so ruffled - just like the photos in the catalogs. We wondered if the larger blooms allowed for more ruffling, while un-trimmed plants produced just more blooms?

But for cut flowers, trimming is essential throughout the season. A tidy row of well-manicured exhibition sweet peas is admirable, and one will be rewarded with stout and straight stems topped off with 3, 4 or even 5 large flouncy flowers is all steps are followed. The surprising one for many, is the often daily trimming of tendrils, which when presented on  ends of monstrous foliage  are indeed, monstrous themselves, often threatening to grab onto even ones neck if you don't catch them in time.

'Jilly', is a nice creamy white too, with just a hint of yellow.

Tendrils will snake around emerging flowerbeds, and twist around neighboring flower stems disfiguring them in just a single day, if they are not removed. As strong as boa constrictors, failure to remove tendrils will quickly teach you a lesson you won't forget. Knotted stems won't make for a nice bouquet come July. Sweet peas are best when allowed to let their flower grow tall, and ramrod straight so plan on some declawing as part of your sweet pea regimen. 

'Suzy Z' striping is variable, but every flower is nice.

This year, I have dabbled with a few sweet pea projects, partly out of curiosity I have decided to try a few dozen species forms, some with varied results, but probably because I have tried most of them as container plants. More about these in a future post, but as you can see, I couldn't resist a few rows of cordon-trained plants of which, I will admit I have become a bit lazy with, and allowed a few extra stems to take over (besides, I was traveling for most of the month!). I still have some tall stems, and although the color palette is odd since I wanted to try some varieties which were dark, or ones I have not grown yet, there is no such thing as an ugly sweet pea.


  1. Beautiful and helpful post, but... not fair! Who are the UK suppliers you use?! Thanks...I really enjoy your blog and envy your garden space and greenhouse!

    1. hopflower4:39 PM

      Owl's Acre, Roger Parsons, and Eagle Sweet Peas are but a few. Just type the names into your browser; they will bring up the sites.

    2. Hop flower nailed it and beat me to it! Thanks!

  2. Your garden(s) is so beautiful. So inspiring...maybe a little jealousy-inducing!

    1. Awww. blush. Really though, it had LOTS of weeds and totally looks much nicer in photos - no kidding.

  3. Hi Matt! Wow! What absolutely wonderful information. I am a new flower farmer and stumbled across your blog looking for more information about my current passion, sweet peas. As I started reading I was amazed that you live and grow in Worcester! We live and farm in Oxford. If you would ever find the time to speak with me I would love to meet you and pick your brain a little. We are currently selling flowers at the Grafton, West Boylston and Thursday's Canal district farmers market. Stop by and say hello! Thanks for sharing so much information.
    Long Field Flower Farm

    1. Oh my gosh! You are literally, "just down the road" from me. We are off of Route 20 near the Price Choppah.......I think may run into you at next weeks canal district market then!

  4. Thank you Matt! What a wonderful post. While I have been growing sweet peas for years your post answered so many questions. And we live in similar zones so I will be following your suggestions to the letter come next January. They are my favorite flower and I can't wait to cordon a few rows next year. Can I ask another question of you? Can you tell me the make and model of your greenhouse? My family wants to purchase one for me and I am hesitant, as I want the perfect one. Your's looks like just what I need. Thank you for sharing all your beautiful gardens, puppies and wonderful growing information with us. I read your blog as soon as it hits my mailbox.

    1. Hi Heidi. My greenhouse is made by the Texas Greenhouse Company, and I think it was called the American Classic.

  5. This is such a soft, little flower and I am glad to know that this blooms in different colors. Such a lovely garden of luscious sweet peas.

  6. Anonymous6:39 AM

    Dear Matt
    Although I have not grown them for a while, I appreciate your sweet pea post and tips. I was fascinated to watch a hummingbird, one early a m, picking aphids off a stem, one by one. Demonstrates that even the showiest of flowers has survival value to another species.
    All best,
    ~ 02568

    1. Funny that you mention this - last night, we were watching a humming bird and then a chickadee doing exactly this!

  7. Anonymous10:34 AM

    Wow !!!!! I love Sweet Peas !!! Beautiful !!!!
    / Vendela from Sweden

  8. Absolutely stunning! I so far dare only to grow 'Cupani' since it is a bit tougher and more resistant to temperature extremes. It is lovely and fragrant but much smaller and for me finishes by about this time of the year.

    1. I do love (and miss) Cupani. Now that I think about it, it's been about 10 years since I have grown it in the garden. SO fragrant, and although small, it isn't as small as many of the species. Time to revisit it, I think. Thanks!

  9. Anonymous6:09 AM

    Hi Matt,
    lovely sweet peas and impressing tattoo….sexy!

    1. Hmm. Why thank you, Horst (sexy name!).

  10. We're a small mail order nursery in England that sells wholesale English country garden flowers and wild flowers to retail and event florists. We're growing sweet peas for the first time this year and discovered your very lovely site after a google search for information on bud drop.

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed reading your posts and to thank you for the reassurance that we will get flowers eventually ! - it's been a very rainy and chilly summer here so far with only the odd day of sunshine.

    I found your 'About' page particularly interesting and the focus on history and design - are you familiar with Rosemary Verey's work at Barnsley House in England? You might enjoy her book 'Good Planting' if not - I love the way she picks up colour and echoes it in different plants in a bed - your gold and blue border rather reminded me of her.

    Have bookmarked your blog so I can catch up regularly!



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