February is usually a gray, dismal month in the garden, with many plants dead or dormant from the cold winter weather. Look a little more closely though, and you’ll notice that the days are getting longer, and the afternoon sun is warmer on your face that it had been in January. Slowly but surely, spring is on its way …

If you can’t wait to get back out into the garden, sweet peas are the perfect plant for you to sow early. These fragrant climbing vines are frost hardy and require cool temperatures to bloom, so starting them in late February is the perfect way to enjoy beautiful blooms throughout the spring.

Sweet Pea Basics:

Growing Zones: 2-8, though as an annual, these vines are not hardy
Bloom Time: Flowers in late spring
Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Mature Size: From three to 10 feet tall, depending on variety
Notes: Like edible peas, sweet peas are vines that need a trellis or other support system to climb. Grass-green stems with rounded leaves give way to bright flowers that range from white and yellow to pinks, purples and even blue. Sweet peas are mildly poisonous, so exercise caution if you have children or pets.

Growing Sweet Peas in the Landscape:

Sweet peas are native to Italy and a fragrant wildflower there, but the plants were popularized in the British Isles by Henry Eckford, who hybridized them to grow marvelously aromatic and colorful flowers in the Victorian era. The English climate is ideal, so look for a moist spot with rich soil and cool temperatures when planting sweet peas. Sweet peas tend to do best when their flowers are in the sun but their roots are shaded.

Sweet Peas

Planting Details:

For best success, plant sweet peas six to eight weeks before the last frost, or as early as the soil can be worked. For Kansas City, late February is ideal, as this will give plants time to get established and bloom before temperature get too hot.

Before planting your seeds, decide on the type of support you’d like to use. If you already have a trellis or arbor, you should be all set. Sweet peas can also climb up existing balustrades or chain link fence. You can also build a traditional trellis of pea brush by using pruned branches from other trees and shrubs as a low-maintenance support system.

To plant sweet peas, prepare the soil around your trellis by adding compost and a bit of lime to the soil to make it rich and alkaline. Sweet peas require good drainage, so planting in a raised bed is a good idea. Dig to a depth of at least six inches as you turn the soil to allow for deep rooting.

To help seeds germinate more quickly, soak them overnight before planting or nick the coat with a nail clipper or metal file. Plant seeds one inch deep every three to four inches along the length of your trellis and water well.

Ongoing Care:

Once sweet peas sprout, the are relatively care free. Protect young shoots from slug damage by setting out a trap and water weekly in dry spells. If your sweet peas have trouble reaching the trellis at first, gently wrap stems around supports to train them – once they get started, they are vigorous climbers.

To keep sweet peas blooming for as long as possible, deadhead the vines by removing spent blooms so the plant can’t form seed pods. This is best done by cutting flowers for bouquets to bring their scent inside your home. The more flowers you cut, the more you’ll get, making sweet peas a gift that keeps on giving.