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Growing Sweet Pea

If your hands are feeling idle and you find yourself longing to get your fingers back into the dirt, sweet pea should be at the top of your list for spring planting. Sweet pea are tall elegant vining flowers long used in Victorian and cottage gardens for their fragrant and colorful blooms. Long stems also make sweet pea ideal for cutting gardens. While not the easiest flowers to grow, you can successfully grow sweet pea by following these five simple steps.

Five Steps for Growing Sweet Pea: Soak, Sew, Cut Back, Plant, Feed

Sweet pea prefer cooler weather and may be planted outside after the last frost date. Many gardeners prefer to get a head start by planting seeds in trays inside, which can be done six to seven weeks before the last frost date. You can check the last frost date for your area on the Farmers Almanac website at by entering your zip code in the search bar. Then, follow these five simple steps.

1. Soak Seeds

Sweet pea have round hard seeds that look like peppercorns. Before planting, first soak seeds in room temperature water for 24 hours. Some gardeners also nick the surface of the seed with a knife to encourage them to grow.

2. Sew Seeds

Sew seeds in a sunny area one inch deep and six inches apart. If planting in trays, place the seed tray under a sunny window or a grow light. Plants generally need eight to ten hours of sunlight daily to grow. Sweet pea seeds germinate within one to two weeks of planting. During this time, the soil should be kept damp but not wet. Overwatering can cause root rot or plants to dampen off (turn yellow and die).

3. Cut Back

Once seedlings emerge and sprouts reach six inches tall, pinch or cut off the top one inch. Cutting seedlings back is a necessary step to encourage thicker stronger stems and will cause plants to branch out (for fuller/bushier plants).

4. Plant Seedlings

If started inside, plant seedlings outside after the last frost date. Remember to harden plants off before planting them outside. (Bring trays outside during the day and inside at night for one week to allow plants to adjust.) Sweet pea should be planted in a sunny location with a minimum of eight to ten hours of sunlight per day, spaced six inches apart. Because most sweet pea varieties reach six to eight feet tall when fully grown, plants will require support (with a bamboo stake, tee-pee, obelisk, or trellis). If using stakes, consider attaching garden netting to the stakes to support a wider area of plants. If using pots, plant seedlings along the perimeter of the pot and insert an obelisk or other support structure in the center. Secure plants with string to the support structure.

Because plants grow as much as one foot each week, check them weekly and tie up new growth as stems grow taller.

5. Feed Flowers

Sweet pea are generally considered hungry plants and will require monthly feedings of high potash fertilizer. (Tomato feed generally works well.)

Flowers should emerge 90-120 days after vining. To encourage new growth, cut flowers regularly. Sweet pea typically bloom from June through October, depending on where you live and when plants were started. Flowers will last up to four days in a vase with water.

Save seed pods in the fall for planting the following year. Sweet pea are not edible plants but the seed pods do look like the edible variety namesake.

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Le Fruitier

“For a valiant heart, nothing is impossible”. Jacques Coeur

I’m a huge fan of words that are not as oft used as in their former glory days. For instance, have you considered the list of words used to describe different sections of the backyard garden as if they were separate rooms, like orchard, grove, vineyard, patch, and nuttery (which is where you will find the nutty trees and not your crazy aunt, silly!). Of course, there are others, like cutting garden, kitchen garden, and herb garden. While there are many options to consider, today we focus on the fruitier, a.k.a., the orchard.

During the first and second world wars, most homes had backyard gardens where families and communities grew their own fresh fruits and vegetables to eat and/or trade with their neighbors to address food shortages. Sadly, this trend did not keep pace with the test of time, which is why today we import food made in third countries that cannot possibly compare in quality, vigor, and/or taste to self-produced fresh food products. While establishing an orchard may seem like a lofty idea in concept, admittedly it may also unnerve some when considering factors like space, proper care, maintenance, etc. Which is why today we opened with Jacques Coeur’s point-of-view and emphasis on the possibilities.

In fact, advances in high-density farming and planting rootstock have crushed the “space constraints” of growing fruit trees. Today, many fruit trees are grown on dwarf rootstock, which result in reduced tree height and enable them to be planted closer together. Further, academic studies have shown that high-density fruit tree production yields better output and uses less resources than other growing methods.

Today’s challenge, if you should choose to accept it, is to check out different fruit tree varieties and to think about how you might incorporate them into your garden plan (if you’ve been following along). I actually have three potted fruit trees that I bring inside during the winter months because they are not rated for my growing zone, but I am determined to have them in my collection (a Mexican key lime, lemon, and Italian fig).

Factors to Consider When Planting Fruit Trees:

  1. Choose fruit trees grown on dwarf rootstock (you can prune trees to manage their height to 6-8 feet so that you don’t need a ladder to pick fruit);
  2. Take note of whether your tree variety is self-pollinating or requires a cross-pollinator (typically a different variety that blooms / flowers at the same time);
  3. Note your trees super powers / potential uses (some trees have specific culinary properties which make them suitable for cooking, making cider, canning, etc.);
  4. Trees can be planted in rows along a fence or other flat vertical plane, i.e., espalier (checkout River Road Farms in Tennesee to get the juices flowing at;
  5. Trees should be spaced at least five feet within the row and a space equal to the maximum tree height between rows (this allows the sun to hit all sides of the trees);
  6. Water regularly (young trees need between 12 and 15 gallons of water per week (May through September);
  7. Use an organic fungicide to control mildew, rust, leaf spot disease, etc. (I use bonide on my trees); and
  8. Prune trees annually once they are dormant (doing so will spur more growth the following spring).
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Season Extension

The cold Chicago weather has me thinking about season extension, which simply means growing plants outside the parameters of one’s growing environment or season. One thing that always resonates with me when visiting other regions are the beautiful flowers that I can only dream of at home this time of year. In fact, I happily spend hours every winter surveying flower magazines for inspiration (and sometimes curse when west coast growers post pictures on Instagram of their flourishing gardens, not withstanding…)

Chicago weather is very temperamental and, as such, it’s extremely risky to plant anything outside before June 1. (I attribute it to Jack Frost’s frequent visits throughout the spring months and inability to contain his wily ways.) But, waiting until June to start planting (whether flowers or veggies) will delay any substantial presence in the garden. Also, most natural color outside is fleeting in the fall when the leaves abandon the trees and the frost kills off any straggler plants after a mere three to four short months.

The way through this quandary is not to flout Mother Nature (because she always wins), but to consider potential workarounds such as growing in containers and/or growing inside. While there are many options, this year I planted approximately 100 ziva paperwhites ‘narcissus papyraceus’ bulbs inside and have been amazed by how beautifully they have flourished.

Growing Indoors in Containers

The process begins with identifying the plant you want to grow. We planted three bulbs in a 6 inch container and then watered them for about 4-6 weeks. The bulbs produce long sleek green stems with clusters of white flowers that bloom for weeks. (Mine grew to about 21.5 inches tall from the top of the container). They also produce a beautiful fragrance that lingers in the air, which I immediately notice when I enter the room. These flowers are light and fresh and offer a welcome hint that spring is just around the corner (when it is needed the most). Also, starting one’s own plants and watching them grow is extremely satisfying.

Paperwhite bulbs are easy to grow in containers and bloom by Christmas, often into January. As an added bonus, the bulbs can be saved/stored (in a cool dry place) after the stems die back and will produce even more flowers next year.

Listed below are a few tips and tricks for successful growing indoors in pots:

  1. Soil mediums are key. When growing in containers, its important to use a light soil medium to support strong and healthy root development. Many growers use a mix of peat, perlite, and vermiculite. But, I personally like the coco coir and Nature’s Cure organic mixes. (Potting soil should be avoided because it is too heavy.) Note, the root system, plant leaves, and sun light are all essential success factors for heathy plant development.
  2. Choose bulbs that have demonstrated success growing indoors and in containers. Bulb size can often indicate how many flower shoots may be generated by an individual bulb. Also, certain bulbs have prooven performance as perennials while others are one and done. Perennials, which by definition come back for at least three consecutive years, are a good investment. (Google your particular cultivar/variety to understand these key considerations).
  3. Don’t forget to water your flowers regularly, but don’t overwater. Research your specific plant’s water requirements.
  4. If the stems get long and top heavy, you could also consider staking them or cutting and displaying them as a cut flower arrangement in a simple vase.

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