Margaret Lauterbach

Perfect time approaching to dig a trench for next year’s sweet pea bed

One of these cool mornings, dig a narrow trench next to an eastern or northern fence, about 12 inches deep. Fill it with compost and then walk away. In January or February and beyond, you’ll be happy you did that. This is preparation necessary for a sweet pea bed, yielding beautiful and fragrant cut flowers well into summer, until hot weather arrives. Sweet peas are a little old-fashioned in this country, but still favored in Europe. Their fragrance is unique and unforgettable.

Sweet peas are heavy feeders and may be started from seed indoors. West of the Cascades, they start them outdoors, sowing seeds in trenches by Presidents Day. They can also be started indoors, transplanted with care and potted into containers that are at least 4 inches deep. They love cold weather, so this is a great winter activity, transplanting them outdoors about Presidents Day. They should then have a long, cool blooming season.

They need something to climb upon and have short tendrils, so don’t rely on their climbing wide poles. String trellises work well but will have to be discarded with the spent vine at the end of the season, so keep an eye on cost.

Once you’ve obtained seeds for climbing sweet peas (not bush or dwarf sweet peas), soak seeds in tepid water overnight before sowing in good potting soil. They should germinate in 10 to 20 days. If you have elected to presprout seeds in damp paper towels, then sow in containers in which you’ve used a pencil or chopstick to make a hole in potting soil, and holding the seed, emerged root pointing down, gently drop it into the hole and pinch soil against the seed. Water well. Try not to touch the root sprout, and be mindful of the touchiness of the root system when transplanting later.

After transplanting, take care not to overwater, since Mother Nature will do a lot of that for you in the spring. Once the vines start blooming, pick all blossoms regularly to encourage continuous blooming. The old-fashioned varieties of sweet peas have slightly smaller blossoms than newer varieties, but the old-fashioned ones are strikingly more fragrant.

▪  If you have iris that blooms only once a year and you haven’t divided it for three or four years, this is a good time of year to do that. Cues that iris need dividing are clumps with few blossoms and/or rhizomes pushing on top of one another or pushing out of the ground. Discard those rhizomes that feel spongy and don’t support leaf fans. Gardeners usually trim leaves of each keepable rhizome into an inverted V shape for easier transplanting.

To divide iris, if possible, use a spading fork or spade to lift the whole clump out of the ground, and then brush soil off the tops of the rhizomes. If that’s not possible, carefully dig parts of the clump, and then separate. You’ll keep only those rhizomes that have a fan of leaves and feel firm. Do not remove any of the roots attached to the rhizome. And when you transplant it, leave the top of the rhizome exposed. If it’s buried, you won’t get a spring blossom. Having trimmed the leaves to a tent shape will help it remain upright until roots take hold in the soil, since it’s a shallow setting.

▪  The weather in this valley has been generally cooler than the past several summers, I think. We’ve usually had a week or at least a few days of cool weather to remind us of looming winter, but this summer we’ve had a number of these cooler days. This summer, the eastern part of the United States has taken up the scorching heat.

Send garden questions to or Gardening, The Statesman, P.O. Box 40, Boise, ID 83707.