Marion Owen

Courtesy of Marion Owen

“A Bunch of Sweet Peas” is a feel-good book, a true story about a flower growing contest.

February is here and we’re one month closer to the gardening season. What’s the best way to get through the last vestiges of winter? How about starting seeds indoors? What kind of seeds you ask? Well, it’s time to start plants like celery and lobelia, but I’m thinking bright and cheery here: sweet peas. 

A few years ago, a British gardener mailed me a book called “A Bunch of Sweet Peas,” a true story by Henry Donald that took place in 1911 in the Scottish Border village of Sprouston.

Once upon a time, the Daily Mail sponsored a competition to find the finest bunch of sweet peas in the country grown by an amateur gardener. 

The sweet pea, with its intoxicating scent, remains a feature of the traditional English cottage garden. Recently rated Britain’s best-scented summer flower, the sweet pea’s Latin name is lathyrus odoratus, which means “delicate pleasures.”

Now in Sprouston, a young parish minister wrote to the Daily Mail for two entry forms, one for himself, one for his wife. The top prize was 1,000 pounds, a small fortune in those days, and the organizers predicted that as many as 15,000 would enter. 

Of course, the minister could not foretell that the newspaper’s estimated number of entries would more than double, or that for two weeks before the competition deadline a nationwide drought would threaten the very existence of the sweet peas he was so painstakingly cultivating.

But why am I talking about sweet peas in the dead of winter? Well, we’re getting close to the time you need to start thinking about starting sweet pea seeds. Jeff Lowenfels, garden writer for the Anchorage Daily News, says, “Everything I’m reading and hearing suggests that February, not late April, is the time to start your seeds.” Waiting until the traditional April date to start sweet peas, says Jeff, means they flower too late to fully enjoy them. 

A sweet pea expert is Renee of Renee’s Garden ( Renee has been a sweet pea expert for 35 years and offers dozens of varieties in a symphony of soft colors and bi-colors. One of my favorites is Windowbox Heirloom Cupid. At 10 inches long, they are perfect for containers and hanging baskets. 

Renee says, “The graceful beauty of annual sweet peas with their ruffled blossoms, soft texture and glowing colors makes them one of the most irresistible flowers.” Their scent is an exquisite perfume of orange blossoms and honey, surely one of the most seductive of all flower fragrances.”

Sweet peas grow best in full to partial sun and in deep, rich, loamy (fluffy), moist but well-drained soil. Add plenty of organic matter (compost, well-rotted manure, leaf mold or humus) to the soil, and your sweet peas will thrive.


One tough seed

The seeds have a seed coat that’s pecan-shell tough. To speed and increase the germination rate, nick the outside seed coating carefully with a nail clipper.

“This breaks the outer coat of the seed so it can absorb water immediately,” says Renee. “And a larger percentage of your seeds will germinate and then sprout a few days earlier.”


How to grow sweet peas

Sow seeds into 3- to 4-inch plastic pots filled with a soil, less seed-starting mix. Pre-moisten the soil and plant two or three seeds per pot, pushing each one an inch deep. Cover with mix, water and set pots in a cool, dark place.

Seedlings should emerge in about 10 days. At this point, “water and temperature are the most important factors,” says Renee. Keep soil moist but not soggy and around 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Too warm and they grow up to be wimps. 

After your seeds sprout, provide more light. Place them by a window so long as you use a reflector such as aluminum foil to increase the amount of light. Even better is to supplement with fluorescent lights for 12 to 16 hours a day. Make life easier: Get a timer and keep plants 6 to 12 inches from the lights. 

When the seedlings have two sets of real leaves, thin to one plant per pot. Using a fork or pencil, lift the extra seedling(s) out at the soil line and transplant to another pot. 

So with winter not yet over, give sweet peas a go. Come summer, you’ll understand why English gardeners call them the queen of annuals.

The book, by the way, is available through many online bookstores. It is beautifully illustrated with watercolor plates. The story leaves you with a Jonathan Livingston Seagull inner glow and the knowledge that miracles really do happen.


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