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Plant This: Sweet Peas

An Alaskan gardener's thoughts on this classic, flower.

When I ran into a massive wall of sweet peas (Lathyrus) during my first summer in Alaska, I knew I was home and wanted to have sweet peas in the garden. Although they’re not difficult to grow, I had to work at them for a couple of years before succeeding. The problem came from plant-ing the seeds directly into very cold soil; I didn’t get flowers until August. Finally I turned to locally revered gardener Evelyn Bush for help. She told me to sow the pre-soaked seeds, four or five to a four-inch pot, a few weeks ahead of planting out in mid- to late May. That advice made all the difference. Plant performance also improved when I started plumping up the sticky yellow clay soil with compost, but keeping the nitrogen level down.

In January, when it’s time to order seeds from catalogs, I always get stuck in the sweet-pea pages. I want them all, but I try to limit myself to six or seven (or eight) varieties. Two that make the final cut almost every year are maroon and purple ‘Matucana’, with a scent so strong that it can be detected several feet away; and ‘White Supreme’, for its highly fragrant cream-colored flowers that blend so well with all the other colors. ‘Royal Wedding’ is equally good.

For many years I qualified my affection for sweet peas by saying they were my favorite annual, but I can’t think of any other plant that I like more. At the risk of being treated like a pea-riah by plant snob friends, I’m going to go out on a tendril and declare them as my favorite flowers.