St Patrick’s Day used to be the traditional day for starting sweet peas (indeed any kind of peas according to Bill Harris founder of White Flower Farm) in the upper forty eight states. It was a simple procedure, you dug a trench about three inches deep or so, maybe worked in a little compost or manure, stuck pea poles in at intervals along your furrow and then waited for the little vines to hoist themselves up and bind themselves to the sticks with their tendrils.
Easy right? Well it was easy, but then something happened and I’m inclined to think that what happened was the ambitions of plant breeders expanded even more than the hybrid’s petals. Sweet Peas were improved. They became bigger and better, they had wider flowers, and more distinctive colors, and became showy, but in the process, also difficult. The old fashioned darlings had turned into divas and they would shrivel, or refuse to come up, or never bloom in that annoying way divas’ have. Knowing perfectly well you’d been waiting for this performance and then cancelling at the last possible moment. Sweet pea’s role this season will be performed by petunia! What a disappointment. You want to throw down the playbill before the show even starts.
I know about all this unreliability because I’ve been growing sweet peas on and off for years. My best success with them, unsurprisingly, was in Vermont. The fact is that no matter how often seeds men claim to have developed heat resistant varieties, sweet peas hate heat. In Vermont, planted in May, I reveled in a long growing season, until September generally, and all I had to do was cut bouquets to keep the vines in production. I used an old fashioned mix sold by Thompson and Morgan, and the experience was a happy one.
The catch has been that I could never replicate those conditions. I did try several times, but in New Jersey where we lived, it just got too hot too fast and the sweet peas sulked and never bloomed. As recently as last year that was my dismal result. Since then we have moved back North to Connecticut and although it’s zone 6, I intend to try sweet peas once more. In fact I’ve just put in an order for a packet of seeds from Swallowtail Gardens that claims to contain some of the most fragrant sweet peas ever bred. King’s High Scent, they bloom a creamy white and have enough fragrance to perfume an entire room with one small bouquet.
This is of course what I was after, and it’s what I’ve always been after since that first season in Vermont, that fragrance. If you’ve never smelled sweet peas in bloom you have no idea how wonderful it is.
Wonderfully pretty as sweet peas are, I wouldn’t grow them if it were not for the marvelous perfume and although there have been several attempts at getting the sweet peas’ scent into bottles, including Antonia Bellanca’s Floret, and Carven Le Parfum, the only one which does not smell totally synthetic to me is Miller Harris’ Coeur de Fleur.
Actually I wish that one of those perfumers who know about flowers would make an attempt at sweet peas. (Only some perfumers seem to actually like flowers. For instance Mark Buxton seems to know about night clubs and trains- but not flowers). A Jean Claude Ellena, a Patricia de Nicolai, or an Yves Cassar, then I would have to sit up and pay attention. As it is, my simple goal is just to raise a line of sweet peas and bring them into the house. I hope it’s not too much to ask. Given the capriciousness of these little darlings, it might be, but the point about sweet peas is determination. Sweet peas certainly teach you about failure, many times over in fact, but they can also teach you, quite unexpectedly, about success…