Sweet peas Lathyrus odoratus -- lovely, fragrant, and slightly temperamental flowers -- have become Susan Keating's life's work. The former grower of organic vegetables and cut flowers decided to create a niche for herself after she returned home from the market with a mere $17 to show for a long, hot day of selling vegetables. Susan chose sweet peas as her specialty, opened up Sweet Pea Gardens and Greenhouses at her farm in Surry, Maine, and quickly became known to locals as the Sweet Pea Lady.
Sweet peas come in a variety of colors, including lavender, salmon, pink, white, rose, and blue. The joys of growing these old-fashioned, utterly charming flowers are well worth any extra nurturing they might require. One of the few American members of the British Sweet Pea Society, Susan specializes in antique varieties (sweet peas are also bred in dwarf and bush forms), which are among the most fragrant, and every year she adds another variety, changing her collection depending on how well the variety performed the previous year.
First cultivated in Sicily, the delicate sweet pea requires a cool climate with just the right conditions if it is to bloom in abundance. With a little trial and error, Susan has developed a set of techniques that make the most of Maine's cool summers, which are ideal for the flowers. Since sweet peas are vulnerable to wind and sun, she plants them in beds of 18 trellised rows, 3 feet apart. The closely planted rows create a protective microclimate. The 8-foot-tall, reinforced trellises are made from chicken wire and two-by-fours split into two. The flowers grow upward, reaching heights of 9 to 10 feet, and as the sweet peas start to flop, which can happen if they're exposed to wind or rain, Susan ties them back with 4-foot lengths of string, attached to the trellises at 12-inch intervals. If you don't have the sort of space Susan has, you can plant sweet peas in a 16-inch pot, using bamboo canes and chicken wire to make a teepee-shaped trellis.
Prepare the soil in the fall. Dig to a depth of about 1 foot, and mix in some compost or manure. Sow sweet peas early in spring, before the frost is out of the ground, even before the soil can be properly worked. Martha likes to sow her sweet peas between March 15 and April 15 in moist, well-drained, deeply dug, and fertile soil that is just slightly alkaline. In California, plant sweet peas between September and January. In the Southwest, southern Texas, and south Florida, plant them in September and October. In the lower southern states, sweet peas are best sown between November and January. Seeds often take three to four weeks to germinate.
Susan advocates fertilizing sweet peas every two weeks or so with manure tea made from dehydrated manure steeped in a bucket of water. She gives the flowers plenty of fish-emulsion concentrate. A heavy straw mulch retains soil moisture and nutrients.
During the 10-week growing period, Susan cuts the flowers every other day. It's important to cut aggressively to obtain continual blooms (this prevents the flowers from going to seed; the more you pick them, the more they'll bloom). To prolong the life of the cut flowers, Susan carries prepared containers of one part lemon-lime soda to three parts water out to the flower beds and submerges the stems of the flowers into this solution as soon as she cuts them. The soda gives the flowers the sugar and acid they need.
Special thanks to Susan, Pat, and Maggie Keating. Cut flowers, sweet pea seeds, and annual and perennial seedlings were from Sweet Pea Gardens and Greenhouses. The seeds were from Thompson and Morgan (phone: 800-274-7333), Shepherd's Garden Seeds (phone: 860-482-3638), Select Seed Antique Flowers (phone: 860-684-9310), and Page Seed Company (phone: 607-656-4107).