Oh, Sweet Pea, meet me at the Bijou

March 29, 2023

After serving in the U.S. Army, Tommy Roe had his first Top 40 hit in two years with his bubblegum music song “Sweet Pea.”

“Bijou,” originally a French word meaning “jewel” or “bauble,” used to be one of the most common theater names in the country. So, it is no surprise that breeders mixed “sweet peas” and Bijou as the name of dwarf sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus). Bijou Sweet Peas are bushy, non-vining flowers that do not need a trellis. Their compact habit makes them ideal for low borders, hanging baskets and pots. They are resistant to deer, rabbits and other herbivores. The fragrant flowers will attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. The adorably compact sweet pea vine is perfect for even the smallest garden.

Bijou sweet peas and their relatives the also-compact Knee High sweet peas bloom in every color imaginable, including reds, pinks, whites and blues. The flowers have the stunning fragrance of the best sweet peas.

In many cultures, sweet peas are believed to possess magical properties that strengthen your wisdom and give you spiritual power.

Planting sweet pea seeds early is the key to success. Looks are deceiving, and delicate sweet peas are very hardy and can tolerate frosts. Plant the seeds before your last frost, as soon as you can dig the soil. The seeds are large, so they are perfect for a children's garden project.

Soak the seeds in water overnight to help them sprout. You can also gently nick the seeds with a nail file to help break their tough outer skin. Sweet peas grow best in full sun to light shade, and they need rich, well-drained soil; a pH of 6-7 is ideal. 

Never mix sweet peas with edible garden peas, because all parts of the sweet pea plant are poisonous. Eating flowering sweet peas can cause lathyrism, leading to convulsions and even paralysis.

Plant the seeds 1 inch deep, about 3 inches apart. Sweet peas can be slow to germinate, so don't be alarmed if they take up to two weeks to sprout. You can sow sweet peas indoors a month or two before the last frost and set the plants out when you can work the garden. To discourage mildew, thin the plants so plenty of air can circulate. Mulching sweet peas will help hold in soil moisture and keep their roots cool.

Once your Knee High or Bijou sweet peas flower, keep picking them to encourage more blooms. Keeping them picked means the plants will put energy into more flowers rather than going to seed. Pick flowers early in the day, because this is when they will be most fragrant.

Fertilize with an organic fertilizer meant for flowering plants. Adding too much nitrogen will make your sweet peas grow lots of leavers and few flowers. A good tomato fertilizer works well on most flowering plants.

You can easily save seeds to plant next year. After the leaves fade, let some of the flowers mature and form seedpods. Dry the pea pods and gently remove the hard seeds.

Plant Bijou or Knee High sweet peas, and your garden will sing bubblegum music: Oh, Sweet Pea, come on and dance with me.


  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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