Coming Out from the Cold
The first sweet peas I ever saw were growing on my great-aunt’s chain-link fence, an otherwise ugly thing between the driveway and yard of her little L.A. house. It must have been winter, because that’s when sweet peas bloom in L.A. I was three or four years old, so it was a high fence to me, and I looked at sun shining through the pink, purple, and red wings, and wanted to stay there and drink them in as long as I could. I still feel that way about sweet peas. That’s a good thing, because it’s something of a pain to grow sweet peas in my area.
In fact, from what I read from other gardeners, they’re something of a pain to grow in other areas, too. But sweet peas inspire hopeful devotion: we try again, year after year, because when they flourish, sweet peas are a memorable enchantment.
What makes them hard to grow in my area is spring weather that heats up fast. Most sweet peas faint and die in hot weather. Yet they need sun to bloom generously, so you can’t shelter them with semi-shade. For many years, my sweet pea vines died off when they were only a couple of feet high: it just got too hot. I’ll be honest: a lot of years that still happens.
It was procrastination and ignorance that taught me one of the best tricks for sweet peas in hot summers. I planted some really really late in spring. All through the summer, I watered them devotedly (this was before I knew that sweets peas don’t like heat), hoping that somehow they would grow and flourish. They stayed only a few inches high. Not a flower in sight.The payoff came the next spring: peas easily live through freezing weather, and the minute it got warm, they took off like gangbusters, twining all over the twig fence I’d built and blooming like crazy. It’s the best sweet pea year I ever had; they bloomed their heads off for a couple of months and were totally gorgeous.
By accident, I had gotten two things right: I’d planted them so they had a head start in the spring, and I’d given them twigs to twine around.
The moral: if your spring weather heats up quick, the trick is to plant sweet peas at the end of summer, like cool-weather vegetable crops. (You could plant garden peas then, too: they have the same requirements.) Life being life, I have not managed to do this all the time. But if you get sweet peas in while it’s still cold, you’ll give them a head start. Even if it’s freezing or there’s snow on the ground, the peas will be fine. They are polar bears of the temperate plant world.
For warm-winter gardeners, my old Victory Garden book from the forties says peas can be planted all year. (Remember, as far as planting seasons go, edible peas and sweet peas like the same things.) I wish I’d been old enough to find out when my LA great-aunt planted hers. All I know is it’s unlikely to have been summer, because I wasn’t hot standing transfixed on the driveway admiring the sweet peas. I have a hard time believing you could get anything out of sweet peas from hot middle-of-the-summer plantings (unless it works like my accidental planting, and blooms the next cool season). But maybe if you’re one of those Diligent Gardeners who use shade cloths and misting, you could make it work.
I seem to be bringing up a lot of older books in my posts. That’s because I have a lot of second-hand books in my garden library, partly because they are cheap to buy at library and garage sales, and partly because, weirdly enough, there are styles in gardening as there are in other areas. (Cookbooks suffer the same distinction.) So while a newer book may have something an older one doesn’t, the reverse may also be true.
More on sweet peas next post. Feel free to leave a sweet pea comment yourself.
Reference: Vegetables in the California Garden: Victory Garden Edition, Ross H. Gast, Murray & Gee, Inc. 1943, pg. 20