In the beginning, nearly a decade ago, sweet peas came as summer gifts from Marjorie’s garden, small vases of nodding, slender-stemmed flowers, bouquets of red, pink, purple and white. I would set them in a sunny window of the room where I worked and enjoy the smell of orange blossoms and honey for days.
We cut sweet peas together now, often at the end of the summer day when their colors glow in the garden’s last light. Or one will wake at dawn to walk about the garden with the dogs, returning with a fist full of blooms for the other. For days on end, the rooms we share are filled with the scent that can only come from sweet peas.
Sweet peas from Marjorie’s garden will get their start this year in late April when we fork composted goat manure into the cold soil of a bed in the full sun. After raising soil compacted by the weight of snow and ice and raking it smooth, we will sow the seeds 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart in more or less straight rows.
You can sow sweet peas like garden peas, in double rows only a few inches apart, each pair of rows separated by about 18 inches. After sowing, push birch stems into the soil, spacing them about two feet apart in the middle of each row pair. Ranging in height from 4 to 5 feet with lateral branches in the upper half, these pea stakes provide a scaffold of overlapping stems for the pea vines to climb.
When the plants are several inches tall, thin to a final spacing of 5 inches, and when seedlings have three or four pairs of leaves, pinch out the top pair to promote branching. At this point, you can use sweet pea transplants purchased from a local grower to fill in gaps within each row.
Gaps there will be, for germination is never better than about 80 percent and there are always a few dormant seeds, nature’s insurance against a late hard freeze. By soaking the seeds for no more than eight hours before sowing, you can identify the ones most likely to germinate, planting only the ones that swell.
Keep sweet peas evenly moist throughout the growing season, mulching with straw and watering during summer droughts.
Climbing varieties for the sweet pea bed this year include ‘Queen of Hearts,’ a mixture of heat-tolerant antique varieties that blossom in scented bouquets of crimson-red, burgundy, magenta-rose and cream; ‘Queen of the Night,’ a superfragrant blend of named antique varieties in the deep shades of a midsummer evening, including navy blue, mauve-blue, bicolor maroon and lilac, dark crimson and salmon-pink; and ‘Perfume Delight,’ a heat-tolerant antique blend of heirloom varieties with an intense honey-orange fragrance, a rich collage of vibrant single colors and bicolors.
I plan to grow ‘Electric Blue,’ a rare species of sweet pea with dainty little flowers in glowing blue that shine against tangled, grassy foliage. I will plant the 4-foot-long blooming vines in a big pot with a trellis.
Seeds of these and many other sweet pea varieties can be purchased online from Renee’s Garden, www.reneesgarden.com/index.htm. An excellent local source for both seeds and seedlings is Sweet Pea Gardens, Surry Road, Surry, Maine, 667-6751. Owner Sue Keating tells me that this year she is offering more than 40 pea varieties, including a few perennial types. Her seedlings will be ready on May 1.
Our summer garden would be incomplete without the fragrance of sweet peas. It is orange blossoms and honey. It is how it all began.
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