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Resurrecting a Fine Fall Tradition : Age-Old Methods of Growing Sweet Peas Are Modernized With a Few New Tricks

September 07, 1986|ROBERT SMAUS | Robert Smaus is an associate editor of Los Angeles Times Magazine.

Part of the fun of growing anything is in the timing. My mother was never much of a gardener, but she feels challenged every year to bring calendulas into bloom before Christmas. Nearly everyone takes delight in discussing whether this fruit or that is early or late and just this year I realized that my peaches were ripening during the one week I am traditionally camping in Yosemite Valley, a case of poor timing.

An example of good timing is the almost forgotten tradition of planting sweet peas in early September. If you haven't tried this you should. While the results are not guaranteed, chances are you will have flowers in time for the holidays, a time when little else can be coaxed into bloom (other than calendulas). At the very least the sweet peas will be the first to welcome spring.

There was a time when sweet peas were just about all that you planted in California in the fall. "Comparatively few annuals are grown in California. Pansies, sweet peas and mignonette, practically make up the sum" is how the section on growing annuals in 1904 edition of Gardening in California begins. "Sweet peas are a particular pride of California...few flowers breathe out a more delightful perfume, few have greater variations of color, and few are more attractive in the garden or more delightful in the room than sweet peas. They fit in almost anywhere and they fill in almost any place--they keep well, are easy to grow and easy to keep." That is from the classic (1923) California Garden Flowers by Edward J. Wickson.

All of this contrasts oddly with the fact that so few are grown in California today, but I suspect that part of the problem is in the timing--they are started too late and run into trouble with Southern California's hot, late-spring weather. The other problem is that they cannot simply be planted from a quart pot and walked away from, and that's what most people want from a plant today. Which is too bad because they are missing one of the great garden adventures--watching a small, hard seed grow into a tall, billowy vine that covers itself with what must be the most delightful of cut flowers.

For that reason, it is hard to generate much enthusiasm for the short, bush varieties. If you are going to grow sweet peas, go for the tall vining kinds that have flowers on properly long stems.

You will of course need a support of some kind for the wiry tendrils to cling to. The simplest to construct uses tall netting made just for sweet peas. Staple the top to the eaves of your roof and the bottom to a board nailed to stakes in the ground. They will easily grow as tall as the roof planted at this time of the year as anyone can attest to who remembers grandmother's garage being a wall of sweet peas. The advantage to inexpensive netting is that when the peas are finished you can roll up the whole tangled affair and set it on the curb with the trash.

If the netting looks too much like you are in the cut flower business, try the traditional English tepee. It's cottage garden charm comes from using simple sticks, pruned from plants in the garden. Just make sure they are tall enough. Six feet is barely adequate. You can set this rustic affair right in the center of a flower bed. Like the netting, it too can be bundled up and set out on garbage day--you do not want to try untangling sweet peas from their support.

There is a traditional way to plant sweet peas, atop a carefully prepared and amended trench, that is worth knowing if not following exactly. Here is how it was described in The Santa Barbara Gardener of 1934:

"To get the best results from Sweet Peas a trench should be dug 12 to 18 inches deep and about a foot wide; fill it about two-thirds full of well rotted manure, cover with a little soil and tramp it down firmly; give it a good soaking and then fill up the trench with soil to which has been added a little bone meal; again firm the soil and give it another watering and let it stand for a week.

"When you are ready for planting, rake the surface smooth and plant the seeds in a row two inches deep and about two inches apart, and remember that the soil should be firm and only moderately moist. Sweet peas should not be planted in loose or wet soil. It will help the germination of some of the varieties with hard seeds if the seeds are soaked in water for a couple of hours before planting.

"If the soil has been properly prepared no more water will be required until the plants are up about an inch or two."

This is the traditional method and it still works though you have to modify it a little for modern times. For one, you will have a devil of a time finding well-rotted manure and steer manure is no substitute.

But the similarities in this and a hundred or so similar recipes found in other musty garden books suggest that these are the essential ingredients for successful sweet peas:

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