Bring the scent of the Mediterranean home with sweet peas!
Imagine someplace with dry, sunny winters and cooler, rainy summers. Feel an ocean breeze blow lightly over your skin as you look out over the blue Aegean sea from the top of a rocky hill. Smell the sweet fragrance of sweet pea flowers climbing up the trellis nearby.
Maybe you live in a climate like this (hello, California!), or maybe you dream of this sort of climate. But if you love sweet pea flowers, you can bring this scent home no matter where you live!
The sweet pea flower came to us via the British as early as 1699 by way of southern Italy. Native to Sicily, Cyprus, southern Italy, and the Aegean Islands, this climbing flower has a sweet fragrance that is often described as orange-y or similar to jasmine. In the U.S., it is an annual climbing plant that usually grows three- to six-feet high.
The Victorians fell in love with the sweet pea after Henry Eckford, a Scottish nurseryman, cross-bred the flower and expanded the cultivars to include all of the colors we know today–pastel blue, pink, purple, white, and bi-colored. It was so popular with them that sweet pea societies were born, and they held an exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1899!
A sweet, short life
The sweet pea flower is ethereal, lasting only four or five days in a vase. But if you don’t grow your own, you will love having these in your home, no matter how brief the stay. Typically florists sell sweet peas as part of mixed flowers in a bouquet; however, one of the best places to buy them (if you don’t grow them yourself) is the farmer’s markets. The stems usually have 3 to 5 blooms on them, and it is best to choose ones with blooms that still have a few unopened buds at the top. When you get them home, cut the stems with a sharp pair of shears and burn the ends slightly over a candle. This helps the sap coagulate and the flowers last longer. They like lots of water, so fill your vase up with cold water to the bottom of the blooms (the necks). And if you add a little bit of sugar to their water, it may help to extend their life a day or two.
Easy annuals climbing up from seeds
For most of us, now is a great time to start a little (or big) crop of sweet pea flowers from seeds. And with about 110 species to choose from, you can find one that is just right for your climate and tastes. This process takes a bit of time and attention, but it is well worth doing. Seeds are cheaper than plugs, too, so if for some reason your seeds flop, you will always have time to start with plantlets later.
Before you start digging, nick your seeds with a sharp blade and soak them in water for a good 24 hours to start the sprouting process.
Find a spot where the sweet peas will get a good 8 hours of full sun each day. If possible, consider a spot where they will have their feet in the shade and their heads in the sun. They like cool, moist soil, so follow the advice of many gardeners who plant low-growing annuals with their sweet peas to help shade the roots.
Hopefully, you are already amending your flower beds–it’s late April, so you better get a move on! Sweet peas like a loamy, high pH type of soil, so you will need to amend your soil with compost and manure about two feet deep. Then dig a four-inch deep trench and put some stakes down. Or grow them next to a fence or trellis for them to climb (they may need help in the beginning.) Poke holes in the trench with a pencil, and drop the seeds into the holes. Cover the holes and firmly press soil over the seeds.
You should see sprouts in seven to fifteen days. Keep an eye on them, and fill in the trench bit by bit as the plants grow up and establish themselves. Always water them at the roots, and put down some mulch as the plants grow bigger.
Harvest your sweet peas early in the morning, and pinch off the flowers as soon as they are faded for more blooms and a bushier plant. Just be sure to wait until the plant is a bit bigger to avoid having a spindly one.
No garden? No problem!
Sweet peas do great in containers, too! You will want to follow most of the instructions above for growing them outdoors. Start with a container that is at least six inches deep and eight inches wide. You are totally fine going bigger, too. Use some pea sticks, wire mesh, or pea netting for support–or grow them on your balcony near something they can climb. Plant the seeds about two inches apart and make sure you keep the soil moist, but not soggy. You will have the soft scent of the Mediterranean wafting around in no time!
Sweet peas flower in early to mid-summer, so as soon as you have them planted, be sure to set up your Mediterranean paradise in your yard or on your balcony (or even in your kitchen). Choose a nice cut of sustainable fish and pour a glass of chilled white wine. Close your eyes and breathe in that intoxicating scent of your sweet peas.