Skip to content

le grande sweet pea experiment

After a beautiful week of temperatures in the 70s, the last few days have been shooting up and from the feel of it, summer is here. Usually at this point there is no turning back; the heat is on. (Why do I hear Glenn Frey in the background singing 80s style?)

The spring bloomers are all going to seed and I started collecting my first bluebonnet seeds today. Some of them even got ahead of me and started popping open and dropping their seeds. I love doing this, thinking that just a few bluebonnet plants gives me about 100 more next year, and some seeds to give away.

As I wrote in an earlier journal, this year I was far more focused on my spring garden, filled with many annuals which I planted in fall and early winter. That leaves me, just about now, with a garden that is starting to look pretty sketchy. Now is the time of year when everything switches to the sun and heat lovers (and I’m reminded how few of those I have planted in my garden yet).

In the meantime, I’m taking stock of all the sweet peas I grew. Last spring, having never seen a sweet pea in my life, I became fascinated with these lovely fragrant vines. Any book or article on heirloom plants, fragrant gardens, cottage gardens seemed to mention them. Sweet peas were everywhere. At the time, although I was quite pleased with my successes in wildflowers, I realized my garden was missing something that very few artists have at their disposal: fragrance!

This year I started calling it “le grande sweet pea experiment”. My experiment started with buying tons of seed packets, and I started keeping a note diary of when, how, and where certain varieties were planted, and how they did. Keep in mind I am a fairly new gardener and so none of this comes from years of experience. By nature I have this little scientist in me; I guess it comes from my dad the biology teacher, who used to take me into his lab and let me dissect the extra amphibians he had. I always want to know how and why things work so it is very much in me to plant some 20-odd varieties of one thing on my first try and then keep track of all the little details.I grew over 20 different types, (But that’s just an excuse, I really can’t contain myself when I go to order seeds, I want to try them all!)

For all the work, I have to say it was all worth it to have those several weeks when there were so many flowers I had to keep picking them. I tried them in containers, in beds and by sowing them both in October and in January. I have to say that so far my favorite, and the longest lasting, were the Royal mix, which I got from a local nursery. These are earlier blooming than most sweet peas, and mine started as early as February.

Second favorite would be the Salmon Cream Winter Elegance, a single color from the Elegance series which I bought from The Fragrant Garden. It grew to enormous proportions and was just covered with flowers from the end of February all the way till last week. My husband also loved the beautiful salmon pink flowers, a shade that I keep adding to my garden in the form of pinks and now I’m trying a salmon canna. I just have this thing for shell pinks and salmons–from any distance you can never quite tell what color they are.

Unfortunately, the only problem with these two sweet peas is that their fragrance is negligible. So far, my favorites in the fragrance department were Painted Lady, which also bloomed early but is a much smaller vine than all the others, and April in Paris, which blooms among the latest and its type is not the kind you normally grow in Texas, but just for its brief moment its worth it; its pretty white and lavender-edged flowers are larger than most of the others as well as ridiculously sweet fragrant.

my lone sweet Matucana bloom, before the plant croaked

My sweet peas in containers did not fair as well as those in the ground. I up-ended one of the containers today, which was planted full of Matucana, an old-fashioned sweet pea but which had struggled for the last two months and died over the week. I’d been inspired by a gorgeous picture in a book of this exact sweet pea in a container and hoped to have the same frilliness I saw, but I still haven’t learned the secrets to container growing. It had been plagued by fire ants for the last few weeks and as I turned out the soil the bottom was so waterlogged and massed in roots I could see that it neither had oxygen or room to grow. Not to mention this situation made for a fire-ant paradise, which I promptly dosed with vinegar. Note to self: need bigger containers with better drainage.

It’s hard to tell when containers need watering. They seem to dry out a lot here and if you stick your finger down the top few inches it might seem dry but you never know what kind of compost soup is going on at the bottom where the soil has compacted. That might explain the general ill-health of most of my containers.

My other big disappointment were the dwarf sweet peas. I grew 3 different kinds and while they grew nice and healthy all winter, by spring they looked so overgrown and ratty. Many of them browned on their lower leaves or were plagued by powdery mildew. I should mention that most of these were in containers as well, although one planted in a bed behaved the same way. I just wonder how people get this healthy big containers full of flowers and pretty foliage.

I’ve written a few articles about my sweet pea experiments here.

i can’t wait to try them again this year, and am a bit sad as the summer draws near, to have to yank them up after all they’ve given me. They are lovely and worth the trouble for all their butterfly lightness and sweet candy fragrance they bring to my garden.