Get Ahead by Sowing Sweet Peas in Fall

, written by Benedict Vanheems gb flag

Sweet pea flowers

The fruit and vegetable garden is about much more than merely growing food to feed the body. At the risk of sounding overly poetic and/or pretentious, it’s also a place to feed the mind, spirit and soul!

Think about it for a moment: Why do we grow our own produce? Is it to save money, to ensure it’s grown in a safe and earth-friendly way, or simply to offer ourselves a welcome distraction from the noise and flurry of modern life? For most of us it’s a combination of all the above.

Communing with Mother Nature and immersing ourselves in the sights, sounds and smells of her bounty is what it’s all about, which is why I always grow a tepee of sweet peas in among my food crops. You may not be able to eat sweet peas, but they’ll feed you in so many other ways.

Sweet peas growing up a tepee

Growing Sweet Peas in the Vegetable Garden

I’m not alone in growing sweet peas in my vegetable garden, and there are some pretty compelling reasons why. First and foremost is their sweet scent – a delicious perfume that rivals even granny’s soap collection! Then there’s the myriad of colors, from pastel tones reminiscent of bygone cottage gardens to bold, eye-popping shades that deliver their colour with a punch.

Bees love sweet peas. I have spent many a gardening tea break just watching in absorbed fascination as these industrious pollinators move from bloom to bloom, oblivious to my presence.

Sweet peas are also a welcome source of near-limitless posies. How nice to turn up at a friends house with a bunch of sweet peas. Or how about gracing the dining room table with a floriferous vase of these beauties – an ocular feast fit for all occasions!

Sowing and covering sweet pea seeds

How to Sow Sweet Peas in Fall

Sweet peas can be started off in the fall in most temperate regions of the world – USDA zones eight and above, for example. In colder regions consider waiting until the second half of winter, when germination can be coaxed along with a little added warmth and the end of cold weather is within sight.

If it’s really cold where you grow – the sort of penetrating winters that freeze the ground solid for months at a time – wait until spring. While fall sowing gives a head start and hence early flowering, spring-sown sweet peas will still yield fistfuls of blooming stems by summer.

Sowing itself is straightforward. Sow into pots of quality compost, setting one seed to each 7cm (3in) pot or several seeds into a 15cm (6in) pot. Seeds sown in autumn need to be kept protected, so place the pots into a cold frame or greenhouse. Cover the pots with newspaper until the seedlings emerge.

Seeds sown in late winter will likely need a little additional heat to help them pop up. Once they have germinated, remove the heat source to encourage the plants to grow stout and sturdy rather than tall and leggy.

Spring-sown sweet peas can be started off in pots if the soil isn’t quite ready, or direct sown where they are to grow, as soon as conditions allow. Avoid cold, wet soil at all cost – you don’t want your seeds to rot.

Some gardeners recommend soaking the seeds overnight in order to speed up germination. Others suggest nicking the hard seed coat with sandpaper to help moisture penetrate. I have found sweet peas germinate just fine without this intervention, but if you have difficulties you could try either method.

Sweet peas planted out

Growing Sweet Peas

Fall-sown sweet peas should be kept in their cold frame or greenhouse to overwinter. While you don’t want to mollycoddle seedlings too much (cool temperatures will keep plants stocky and sturdy) they won’t appreciate being repeatedly frozen, so add extra protection in frosty weather. Cold frames can have layers of burlap or bubble wrap laid over the lights, for example.

Encourage plants to bush out by nipping out the top two leaves as soon as plants have grown four leaves. This stimulates new side shoots, which means more stems and, ultimately, more flowers! Watch out for the usual suspects: slugs, snails and mice have a penchant for foliage and seeds respectively.

You can plant out your pot-raised sweet peas as soon as the weather has warmed up and soil conditions allow. Pick a sunny site and plant into moist, rich soil. Plant the seedlings 20-30cm (8-12in) apart against supports such as pea netting, or trellis. The absolutely best effect, however, comes from growing up rustic tepees – the sort made from hazel poles tied at the top with string.

Initially you may need to encourage sweet peas up their supports by tying them in with string. Once they have found their feet they will pull themselves up with their twining tendrils.

The golden rule with sweet peas, like many prolific flowerers, is to keep on picking! Snip off faded blooms and remove any seedpods you find and your sweet peas will continue to produce a steady stream of flowers for cutting to enjoy at home or give away – sweet rewards indeed for your diligence.

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Show Comments


"I just love sweet peas they are so delicate with a gorgeous perfume.My husband keeps all the pods after some of the blooms have flowered so I can plant them the following year. So far for last few years they hàve turned out to great advantage.(GOOD TIP)."
Carol Ann Moffat on Friday 16 October 2015
"Hi Carol. I completely agree - if you can save your own seeds then that will save you a lot on buying in new seeds and, with time, you may even develop a strain ideally suited to your growing conditions."
Ben Vanheems on Saturday 17 October 2015
"Hi Ben,Thank you for the reply,very kind and much appreciated. Had a great crop this year from last years pods and still flowering n Oct.Eh!!"
CarolAnn Moffat on Saturday 17 October 2015
"Good morning, this may seem a silly question but do you need to water sweet peas seeds if sown in the autumn and put in the cold frame? Many thanks norma"
Norma on Monday 30 October 2017
"It's not a sill question Norma - because it does depend on the conditions within the cold frame. Generally, over winter, you want to keep the compost/potting soil that the sweet pea seeds are in lightly moist but definitely not wet, which could cause the seeds to rot. So the compost/potting soil should feel damp to the touch, but never glisteningly wet, if that makes sense. If they are kept in a cold frame, it's likely that even in winter the temperature inside will get quite warm on a sunny day. So watering a few times a month, say, may be necessary."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 30 October 2017
"I have grown my favourite sweet pea for a few years by starting it off in Autumn in my greenhouse. When it reaches the stage where it needs to be nipped out I make sure the tip is long enough to place into a jar of water where it will, invariably, root thereby giving me more plants and a continuous back up should the original seedling fail for any reason. These rooted cuttings perform as well as the parent."
stan on Saturday 25 August 2018
"Thanks for sharing this tip Stan - it would never have occurred to me to take cuttings as well. As you say, this is a great insurance option or way of getting additional plants."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 27 August 2018
"my autum sown sweet peas have germinated well but are now grown 6in tal and the leaves are jus tshooting.should i pinch the steams to make them shorter or wait untill further leaves shoot"
Ernest Howell on Wednesday 5 December 2018
"Yes, once the plants have grown at least four leaves it's worth pinching out the tops of the stems to encourage them to bush out/sprout more stems. This way they will be sturdier and bushier by the time you come to plant them."
Ben Vanheems on Thursday 6 December 2018
"Hi there, I was just wondering when it would be possible to sow them... Could I start already? (6th Sep.) What time frame do we mean by Autumn? Thanks so much for the tips. =) "
Vicky on Sunday 6 September 2020
"Hi Vicky. It depends on where you are, but assuming you are gardening in a similar climate to that of the UK, then autumn would mean, in this case, from early October to the end of November."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 7 September 2020
"I love sweet peas and grew them for years without problem. However in the last 5 to 7 years they start off great but come July and Aug one by one powdery mildew appear on a couple of plants and then eventually they all die. I grow some up against garage wall ( where they flowered brilliantly for at least 25 years) and some I grow up wigwams dotted round the garden. Unfortunately the end is the same. HELP PLEASE."
Cheryl Brown on Sunday 17 January 2021
"Hi Cheryl. Sweet peas do line good air flower, so anywhere with stagnant air (like up against a wall) stands a higher risk of mildew. Ensure regular watering in dry periods and mulch the ground to help lock in soil moisture and minimise the risk of soil going from very wet to very dry, which can stress plants. Avoid higher nitrogen feeds, which will produce lots of lush, soft - and susceptible - foliage. Keep plants properly spaced to help with air flow. I would also make sure all plant debris from last year is definitely removed to avoid spores overwintering to infect this season's sweet peas. Try planting your sweet peas in a new area too - fresh ground will give a fresh start."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 18 January 2021
"Hi , I planted sweet peas in the autumn for the first time and have over wintered them in a green house. They germinated well and I pinched out the tips once they had 4 leaves. They looked good until a week or so ago where they seemed to have lost the vigour and have gone thin and weedy looking. Do I need to keep pinching out the top shoots and should I put them outside now to harden up a but?"
sarah on Wednesday 3 March 2021
"Hi Sarah. They may have lost their vigour because the nutrients in the compost/potting mix you used has now been exhausted by the plans. I would start hardening them off now, yes - with a view to planting once it isn't freezing every night and there's some warmth during the day, which in the UK might be towards the end of March. Once they are in the ground with fresh resources they'll hopefully liven up again."
Ben Vanheems on Monday 8 March 2021
"Can you eat them though, or they are only flowers. I am not familiar with sweet peas , and this article only talks about flowers."
Nick on Sunday 2 May 2021
"Hi Nick. They're not edible - sweet peas are just for decoration, not to be eaten."
Ben Vanheems on Tuesday 4 May 2021

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