Sow now, and by summer you’ll have fragrant sweet peas

Debra Prinzing  –  February 25, 2019

“I have a plant crush,” says Lorene Edwards Forkner, as if confiding a secret passion. The garden designer and owner of Fremont Gardens, a specialty nursery in the Fremont neighborhood, is a sweet pea fanatic.

Forkner stocks no fewer than 35 varieties of sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus). She enjoys all types, from richly scented, old-fashioned varieties to ruffled, long-stemmed Spencer hybrids. One of her favorites is ‘April in Paris’, a sweet pea that produces uncommon pale yellow blooms edged in purple.

“It’s the language ― and the fragrance ― of these flowers that seduces me, and I’ve got to have them,” Forkner says. Fortunately, it’s a manageable addiction: A sweet pea packet contains 10 to 15 seeds and costs $2.75 to $3.50, so it’s easy to experiment with growing several varieties.

Best news of all: You can grow them indoors right now. Although gardeners in warmer climates sow seeds in fall, Forkner advises Seattleites to plant the nostalgic annual flowers indoors starting in February and transplant them later. Come summer, you’ll be reaping your rewards.
Info: Fremont Gardens (4001 Leary Way N.W., Seattle, WA; 206/781-8283)

Forkner’s favorite mixes

If you can’t decide on one variety, take Forkner’s recommendation and try a special grower’s mix offered by seed companies, such as Renee’s Garden Seeds, Fragrant Garden Nursery, and Botanical Interests Seeds.

1. ‘Cupani’s Original’. A favorite for its intense fragrance. The heirloom flower dates to the 1600s, with purple-blue blooms.
Source: Renee’s Garden Seeds

2. ‘Miss Willmott’. An antique sweet pea with petals tinged dark pink-salmon.
Source: Fragrant Garden Nursery

3. ‘Orange Dragon’. A ruffled Spencer type that’s close to true orange.
Source: Fragrant Garden Nursery

4. ‘Heirloom Cupid’. A medium pink dwarf variety that’s ideal for hanging baskets, window boxes, and containers.
Source: Renee’s Garden Seeds

Get growing

Sweet pea seeds germinate well in soil that’s 60° or warmer, although once they sprout, the seedlings thrive in cooler temperatures. Sow them in small peat pots using a seed-starting medium. Here are more of Forkner’s planting and growing tips.

• Soak. To soften the hard seed coat and speed germination, soak seeds overnight.

• Sow. In a 4-inch pot, sow three or four seeds 1 inch deep.

• Irrigate. Mist seedlings and keep soil moist.

• Feed. Use a liquid fertilizer every two weeks during the growing season.

• Protect. Keep pesky slugs and birds away from the seedlings by protecting plants with row covers.

• Transplant. When seedlings reach about 5 inches tall, move them to an open site that gets plenty of direct sunlight and has well-draining soil. To keep roots cool, cover the soil around plants with mulch. You can also sow sweet pea seeds directly in the ground once soil has warmed to at least 60°.

• Prune. Tip-pinch the seedlings when they’re about 6 inches tall to encourage branching of side stems.

• Support. Vining sweet peas grow 4 to 5 feet tall or more, requiring support. Train the plants on a trellis or other structure.