Seeding Sweet Peas

the gardener's workshop high scent sweet peasCould there be any fragrance more enchantingly reminiscent of spring than from the flowers of the sweet pea?  “High Scent” is a cultivar of sweet pea known for its fresh and sweet scent.  Sweet peas, indeed. The creamy white flowers are edged in pale lavender.  Divine. Like edible peas, the plants are vining, and grow to 6 feet tall. They want the same cool conditions that all peas want. They will continue to grow and bloom as long as the nights are cool, and the days not too hot.  Mulching helps to keep the root runs cool. Once the heat of the summer arrives, the edible and ornamental peas wane, and quit producing.  Sweet peas is just one of many things that come to mind when I think of English gardens.  The climate in England means the run of the annual sweet peas is a long run.  Sweet peas are are difficult to grow in my area, unless we have a long cool spring.  I usually buy them as cut flowers when they are in season.  I have never tried to grow them.  All the literature suggests that sweet pea failure in my zone would be predictable.  Both this vase of high scent sweet peas, and the fabulous photograph is from The Gardener’s Workshop Flower Farm in Newport News, Virginia.  If they can be grown in Virginia, might I not be able to grow them?

sweet-pea-seeds.jpgWhy on earth am I thinking about sweet peas? This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting and spending an hour with Fergus Garrett, head gardener and designer at Great Dixter in England. He was in town for the Spring Symposium  arranged and given by the Master Gardeners of St Clair County.  One of his hosts brought him by the shop.  His favorite thing of all was an old perennial spade of mine that I have had for years that he found in the tool closet in the garage. Figures!  I am thinking I should send that old spade to him. He also talked with Rob about English hurdles and hurdle makers.  Malcolm Seal is a close personal friend of his, and anyone who goes to the gardening school at Great Dixter learns how to make sweet chestnut sheep’s hurdles.  The hurdle talk, and the company of one of England’s most celebrated gardeners got me to thinking about sweet peas.

sweet-pea-seeds.jpgAnother pea reason-the state of our wintery spring.  Marlene Uhlianuk who owns Uhlianuk Farms in Armada stopped by for our hellebore festival.  She said the ice on Lake Huron near her was 3 feet thick in places.  Too deep for ice fishermen to augur through.  Her theory is that it will take a very long time for all that ice to melt.  She wonders if the ice cover on the great lakes will cool air passing over, and influence our summer weather.  As in a chilly summer.  I am thinking about the possibility that a cold summer may follow a very cold winter. Well, if the summer will be cold, maybe I’ll be able to grow sweet peas.  This is the optimist in me.  The one seed in the above picture that did not swell-I pitched it.  I doubt it will germinate.

sowing-seeds.jpgA third reason?  It was 12 degrees here again today.  Meaning that the we are still ice bound and snowed under.  Any gardening would have to be conducted indoors.  It only took a moment for me to forget about the winter, and concentrate on sowing my seeds.  Seeds with hard seed coats benefit from a process called scarification.  The hard coating can be abraded with a piece of sandpaper, so water can penetrate.  Or you can soak the seeds.  I soaked for 24 hours, and then set the seeds about an inch below the surface.  I made sure that the soiless mix in my flats was thoroughly wet.  This part takes a while. It may look wet on the top, and be bone dry in the middle. Once a seed has begun to germinate, it cannot dry out.  Too dry conditions for even a short time can kill a developing seedling.

growing-plants-on-the-sill.jpgSweet peas can take 1 to 2 weeks to germinate.  As I am sowing them rather late, I’ll keep the seed flats in a warmish place until they germinate.  Then I’ll move them into the shop greenhouse-a cool place.  Marlene thinks it unlikely that I will get flowers as I am starting seeds so late, but if the summer stays cool, who knows what could happen.  At the worst, I will have entertained my winter weary self with a garden narrative.

seed-flats.jpgNow all there is to do is wait.  Sweet peas are very slow to germinate.  I have the time.  The time it takes for these seeds to germinate will be vastly less than the time we have taken enduring the winter.

sweet-pea-white“White Elegance”  is beautiful.  It is not particularly fragrant.  It is a day-neutral plant, meaning that it will bud and bloom regardless of the length of the day.  I have a flat of these seeds sowed.  “High Scent” is a long day flowering sweet pea, meaning the daylight hours need to be longer than the night time hours for flowering to be initiated.  The seeds of this sweet pea, soaked and sown.

Lathyrus latifolius mixedMy third packet of seeds-the rambling and vining perennial sweet pea.  Lathyrus Latifolius.  Perennial sweet peas grow over on the property at the Branch studio.  Who knows how they got there.  I have seen them scrambling down wild embankments along the highways in Michigan.  Blooming in shades of white pink and red, they are a cottage garden favorite where they have room to grow.  This gorgeous illustration is from the website of Van Meuven.  Who wouldn’t want to grow this plant?  If I get any to grow lustily from my seed sowing, I may plant them on the fence at the Branch Studio.  Any plant that represents in spite of the tough and unpredictable Michigan gardening conditions is worth a look.  I planted some seeds today, in hopes of having a garden again soon.


  1. Starr Foster says

    I love sweet peas and grew them one season after seeing them at Les Quatres Vents in Canada near the St. Lawrence River. They are tricky to keep happy, preferring cool sunny days, cool nights and humid air. Finding the sun was no problem, but the cool days and nights were. Marlene is an expert; I think she is right about the cool summer we are about to have! I purchased my plants from her years ago; if she sells them this spring, I’m buying.
    The old fashioned sweet peas have light sweet intoxicating scents, sweeter than most any flower, except old fashioned roses. Also old-fashioned scented violets (viola odorata), which aren’t grown by anyone I know of. Viola o. ‘Bride White’ and ‘Governor Herrick’ are two which are hardy in zone 5; most are hardy in zones 7 – 8. They are clump forming and did not seed around in my garden.

  2. debra phillips @ 5th and state says

    sweet peas instantly transport me to the english countryside and make me smile.

    cannot wait to read about your adventures in having this favorite annual, much success!

  3. Hi Deborah! Yes, I agree, the wild perennial sweet pea is wonderful, and does grow enthusiastically. Here in MA it thrives. But when I planted a few seeds along a garden wall, it made intractable roots under the wall, rapidly threw out branches in all directions, grew all over everything else, meanwhile dropping its seeds between other garden plants and starting new intractable plants – in other words: invasive! VERY hard to dig out! So you should be fine if it has its own space away from other plants and gardens. A grassy slope is perfect! (as you noted for Michigan highways). Cheers!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Mary, I have 7 wild acres over at the Branch Studio-that’s where I plan to put them. Thanks for the warning! Deborah

  4. I LOVE sweet peas and buy them every year from Marlene. The fragrance is intoxicating. I plant my sweet peas on the east side where they only get about 2 – 3 hours of sun in the early morning. I do deadhead the old blooms and try not to let them go to pods. The sweet pea will blossom for me until it frosts. I enjoy giving a blossom to each person who enters my garden and they have fun carrying it around with them and enjoying the scent.

  5. My favorite summer memory is of my grandfather’s garden where there was a long trellis that was filled with sweet peas in bloom…there was always a bouquet for the house and one to give away…loved the task of cutting the flowers everyday so more would bloom…best garden memories! Thanks for sparking that memory on yet another chilly, cloudy Michigan Thursday!

  6. Deborah, I too am potting up Sweet Peas. Tip on wetting potting mixes. I pre-moisten it by mixing one part water with three parts potting mix and leave it over night. That mix is moist but not messy to work with and doesn’t repel water as does the dry sphagnum.

    Perennial sweet peas grow wild in my area, blooming from summer through frost.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Nancy, that’s exactly how I got my soil mix wet. The overnight part is a huge help. Thanks, Deborah

  7. erin bailey says

    I have grown sweet peas in Iowa, which is probably much warmer than detroit area. The secret is to use the old mixes which are more heat tolerant than the newer bred ones, and to plant them in an east facing garden spot so that they get afternoon shade. Also it is important to start them early so they get a chance to mature before temps rise. If you do this, and keep them deadheaded, not only will you have a spring/early summer season of bloom but they will begin to bloom again as cooler fall temps revive them. Another trick I learned, as they do not like transplanting, is to save the cardboard tubes at the end of the toilet paper roll for starting each pea in a deep rooted space that can be planted like a peat pot and yet disintegrate much faster/better than peat pots. I hope your peas give you some beautiful blooms this year!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Erin, thank you so much for your advice. I plan to take it to heart. Thanks for writing, Deborah

  8. Joyce Voyt says

    I threw perennial sweet peas seeds in my Muskegon Mi. Garden about seven years ago and had beautiful blooms vining all through my Mt.Airy Fothegillia for the first three years…..then the sweet peas bolted and I’ve been digging them out ever since!! What a mess! We are zone 6 right here along the shores of Lake Michigan and my garden with the sweet peas faces due south with full sun.

  9. Annual sweet peas are a staple through most of rural Alberta, another tough and unpredictable environment! My mother-in-law taught me to soak them overnight and plant them directly in the garden, as soon as the snow melts. They love the cooler conditions, and mulching is essential when summer invariably turns hot (during the day) and dry.

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