Sonoma County sweet pea grower who ships her seeds all over the US, Canada shares tips

Starting sweet peas in fall will give them a better chance to develop strong roots for a fragrant show next spring and summer.|

The glory of the sweet-pea bloom is behind her, but Glenys Johnson still loves autumn, perhaps most of all.

As she pulls the dry pods from her spent vines and opens them to remove the seeds, she knows the little brown balls in her bowl hold the promise of another year of “enchanting sweet peas.”

Planted in early fall, or even into the winter, sweet peas will have a chance to establish the strong roots they need to push up vines that can grow taller than an NBA center.

Johnson is west Sonoma County’s sweet-pea maven. She first started growing the fanciful and fragrant flowers some 30 years ago, while working as a bartender at the old Marty’s Top ‘O The Hill in Sebastopol. For a woman who worked by night, it was her “sunlighting” side hustle, growing gorgeous blooms she sold as cut flowers.

But 25 years ago, she decided to shift her focus to growing sweet peas for seed, which she packages and sells under the Enchanting Sweet Peas label.

Spencers, a type of English sweet pea, were not commonly found in the United States at the time, so Johnson resorted to importing them from England. And when importing became more difficult, she started growing her own flowers in 2000, to harvest the seeds. Over the past 25 years, Johnson has gathered a following of people who appreciate the quality of her seeds. At this busy time for planting, she sends her Sonoma County-grown seeds all over the U.S. and Canada.

Johnson has been captivated by these charming, old-fashioned annuals ever since she was a little girl growing up in Southern California.

“My grandparents had a house in Santa Monica, and my grandfather grew sweet peas. He always let me pick some to take home. They were so fragrant in the car. And I loved the idea that I could pick some,” she recalled.

When she took up growing sweet peas, she experimented with different seeds, trying to discover the ones that produced the best flowers. While taking a class at Santa Rosa Junior College, she came upon the English “Spencer” sweet pea seeds, which she found yielded an outstanding bloom with especially long stems and oversize blossoms with frilly edges.

“They have bigger blossoms with long stems, and you could buy them by individual colors,” she said.

Sweet peas are frost-hardy, so you don’t have to baby them. They’re not fussy, despite their frilly appearance.

At first, Johnson imported her seeds from England. But as importing became more difficult, she found U.S. sources and began growing more production flowers for seeds. She grows some behind the 1910 cottage where she lives near downtown Sebastopol. But she also has friends with more land nearby, who grow flowers for her seeds.

Now, as fall descends, Johnson is collecting seed from the spent vines. She waits until the pods turn brown and collects them in bag. If it gets too hot, they may open on their own, which makes it a little harder to remove the seeds. But she is mindful that in the wild they spring open and explode their seed everywhere, especially on a hot day.

Johnson suggested giving the seeds a gentle start by placing them in the center of a very moist paper towel laid flat on a counter. Fold the towel into a triangle with the seeds inside and put it in a plastic bag for three to five days. They should have germinated by then or at least will have swelled. Plant the seeds in a flat or directly into the soil.

She grows the starts in flats of 50, and most do sprout. They should be ready to transplant, either in planting bags or directly into the ground, by October, the optimum time.

“Starting them in the fall really helps,” she said. “They are really frost-tolerant and hard and they like a long growing time when the weather is cool. During that time they’re not thinking about anything but developing roots, so they can support a big plant and lots of flowers. It’s kind of amazing a seed the size of a pea all of a sudden becomes a 9-foot-tall plant.”

The plant will overwinter. You won’t see much growth, but their roots are growing strong in the soil. By the time temperatures start warming again in early spring, your sweet peas are ready to soar.

A spring bloomer that won’t flinch at a late frost, this fragrant and old-fashioned climber will bide its time until the soil warms, then rocket up in a blaze of frilly blooms.

If you’re an impatient gardener who wants instant gratification rather than waiting many seasons for a shrub or tree to grow big and beautiful, sweet peas deliver.

Johnson said October and November are ideal times to plant but you could plant through the end of the year.

She uses regular potting soil rather than seed starter, filling each plug in a flat about three-quarters full, placing a seed on top and covering with more soil. Keep them moist but not wet while they sprout.

Sweet peas pack a lot of eye candy, so you don’t have to plant vast amounts of them to get a good display.

You will probably want to plant them on a trellis to give the tall vines somewhere to go, although Johnson, who uses hogwire fencing, said back in the old days when what is now Rohnert Park was the Hollister Seed Farm, they grew sweet peas on the ground, with carpets of flowers visible from the road.

In the late 1930s, there were 70 bejeweled acres of sweet peas. According to the Rohnert Park Historical Society, trains full of sightseers would come up from Sausalito to see them, inching past the fields so slowly that a man could walk beside the moving train, just to catch a whiff of the blossoms. On hot days, the seeds popping open in the field sounded like firecrackers.

You can plant them 6 inches apart along a fence or up a freestanding trellis. Johnson plants on both sides of her trellises for more blooms. But if you don’t have a lot of space, or don’t want to bother with a lot of trellising, you can plant them in a pot, a half barrel or, as Johnson prefers, a planting bag.

She likes the fabric Geo Pots, which are breathable and offer good drainage. Plant the seeds or seedlings 5-6 inches apart with bamboo stakes, bringing the tips of the stakes together at the top.

Johnson has developed a teepee disc (which she also sells) with stamped holes that makes bringing the tips together at the top easy-peasy. Put your bag or container in an area that will receive full sun through most of the day. Johnson also likes to nourish them with an occasional serving of composted tea.

Sweet pea seeds and growing materials are easy to find in garden centers and online. But Johnson also sells everything, including the teepee discs and planting kits, along with packs of the seeds she collected herself, at

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or

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