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Hey, Sweet Pea, It's September

Love those bountiful blooms that produce for months? Then get going and plant.

September 12, 1998|SHARON WHATLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Here are sweet peas, on tiptoe for a flight with wings of gentle flush o'er delicate white."

--John Keats

*

As my friend Melinda reminds me with a call every September, "It's sweet pea time."

I draw bright-red boxes on my calendar, lest I forget to soak my seeds overnight and rise early the next morning to plant them in long rows along the garden wall.

Winter-flowering varieties produce armloads of blooms from December through summer. The trick is to plant them at the right time.

"Get sweet peas into the ground as early in September as possible," says Pat Welsh, author of "Pat Welsh's Southern California Gardening" (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, $19.95) and "All My Edens: A Gardener's Memoir" (Chronicle, $24.95).

"It's very important to get the right seed," Welsh says.

Among the tall vining varieties, choose only those that read "winter-flowering" or "early flowering" on the packet such as early

'Spencer,' early flowering 'Multiflora' (many flowers per stem) and early 'Mammoth.'

These early season hybrids exhibit rapid growth, reaching only 2 to 4 feet before flowers emerge. Sown in August to early September, they put out their first flush of long-stalked clusters around late December.

Traditional sweet peas are spring-flowering or summer-flowering types sown from seed in October for the next year's bloom. While you may get beautiful leafy blue-green vines through the winter, flowers won't emerge until the days are more than 12 hours long.

" 'Winter Elegance' would be my garden pick for winter flowering because of its reliability," says Howard Bodger, president of Lompoc Valley-based Bodger Seeds, a worldwide supplier of sweet pea seeds since 1925.

Shorter varieties that work well as ground covers are the winter-flowering Snoopea, Supersnoop, Explorer, Jet Set and Knee-Hi.

A compact bush variety, "Bijou," grows to about 3 feet in height. All are ideal in containers and flower beds for those who don't want to bother staking and tying.

"Although most of the super-fragrant, old-fashioned types are not early varieties, with early sweet peas you are growing them at a time of year when the weather is cooler and more moist and you actually detect more fragrance," Welsh says.

Sweet peas are exquisite for cut flower arrangements. The vines possess an exotic beauty when intertwined with other stately flowers.

"Old-fashioned varieties of flowers are becoming popular once again," says Joel Reiten, research manager for Territorial Seeds in Oregon. "It seems people are interested in yesteryear and remembering what Grandmother used to raise in her garden. According to flower designers, sweet peas are the No. 1 choice gaining popularity for winter wedding arrangements."

Sowing

The hard outer coverings of sweet pea seeds benefit from overnight soaking. Place in a shallow dish filled with warm water, labeling each with its name and color, and leave overnight.

Early the next morning, direct seeds into your prepared beds. If you can't sow them right away, drain the water, place seeds between damp paper towels in a plastic bag and refrigerate. Sow as soon as possible.

Welsh suggests digging a trench for a sweet pea bed, 1 1/2 feet deep and 6 to 8 inches wide. Align it north-south to capture the most sun. Remove soil and fill the trench bottom with one sack of manure per 8 to 10 feet of trench.

Work one-third nitrolized ground bark or compost and a low-nitrogen fertilizer into removed soil. Backfill soil into trench until it's 1 to 2 inches from the top (this allows for easy watering). Soak area with water and let it settle overnight, then direct seed.

Welsh plants her seeds 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart.

Cover the area with 1 inch of potting soil to give seeds the darkness needed to sprout. Firm the soil gently over the seed.

An alternative method is to backfill a trench to a foot below ground level. "Allow the seedlings to sprout," says Bodger, "and when the plants achieve a height of about 6 inches, begin to fill in the trench as the vine grows and reaches above ground level. Now you have 12 inches of vine below the soil where it's cooler. Just what sweet peas like."

Sweet peas should be well-watered until sprouts emerge within 10 to 14 days. When seedlings reach a height of 6 inches, thin to 6 inches apart.

Once established, maintain even soil moisture and give regular monthly feedings with a diluted liquid fertilizer or manure tea just before flower emergence. Mulch to protect against moisture loss, guarantee cool roots and lengthen blooming time.

Sweet Pea Support

Sweet peas climb by means of tendrils. Any of the vining varieties can be grown in-ground or in containers as long as they're well-staked. Methods include pea sticks, hardware cloth, a wigwam of twiggy prunings and trellises.

Train them along a chain-link fence, occasionally directing tendrils upward. Or break with tradition and allow vines to scramble up established shrubs or to spill sensuously unpropped by any supports.

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