Thursday, July 13, 2006

Sweet peas, a recompense

Living in New England, I find myself missing the joys of my southern childhood garden: the aroma of boxwoods under the hot sun, the electric explosion of crape myrtle blossoms during the dog days of summer, the sight of pansies blooming in the errant snowstorm . . . but for these losses, there are certain northern compensations.

Chief among these is the ability to grow those cold climate plants that fail where the summer light is scorching and the weather unrelentingly hot and humid, day and night. Yes, there's a perverse pleasure in growing the flowers that your mother never could--even if it's the gardener's climate rather than her talents that are responsible for the success.

A special gratification comes from sweet peas. I raise a row of these on a trellis kindly built for me by VPS, Jr. Although the flower bed should be dug in with composted manure during the fall, this instruction is invariably forgotten until a week before spring planting. As long as I remember to soften the hard seed shells by soaking for 24 hours before putting them in the ground, I’m doing well. Planting is always on St. Patrick’s Day—or as soon as possible thereafter, if we are still being battered by winter storms. The seeds are buried about ½ inch deep, steadily watered—and inevitably, impatiently supplemented with a few nursery-bought plants. The crucial part of the sweet peas' care comes later: the blossoms have to be diligently picked in order to stimulate continued blooming. What happy labor!

This year, I planted seeds of "Old Spice," a heat resistant variety, and purchased plants that are now bearing these deep purple blossoms. The blooms have a richly saturated color and a glossy sheen almost like an animal’s pelt.

(Okay, it's no Jane Wentzell photograph, but it captures something of these sweet peas' charm.)

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