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Sweet peas

04/17/06 12:00AM By Ron Krupp
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(HOST) Flower fashions come and go, and commentator Ron Krupp thinks that it's time for one old favorite to make a come-back.

(KRUPP) At the turn of the 20th century, there was a very popular flowering plant called the sweet pea. North America's enchantment with sweet peas goes back more than a century. In the 1930s, box cars full of sweet pea seeds were shipped from California producers to their customers east of the Rockies. The love of this fragrant climber was widespread in North America from the plains to country gardens in the northeastern United States.

English gardeners call sweet peas "the queen of annuals." These charming plants are unique among garden flowers with their vivid colors and length of blooms. The fragrance of sweet peas is a sensuous blend of honey and orange blossom. The ruffled blooms look like little butterflies all aflutter. They range in color from crimson reds to navy blues, and pastel lavenders to pinks and pure whites. Some newer varieties are called Spencer, and older types are named Grandifloras.

Climate is their main limiting factor. People do well with sweet peas in places where winters are so mild that freezes are light -
or in the north where the summers never get very hot. The key
to growing them in Vermont is to plant the seeds as early as possible and to keep them mulched with lawn clippings and the earth watered on a regular basis. Make sure the young plants don't lie on garden soil. I trellis mine in a long row with chicken wire placed close to the soil. You can also support sweet peas with tall brush and plant them in a circle like a tepee.

Sweet peas are best grown as a cut flower and given their own place in the garden, rather than combined into a mixed border. Being part of the pea family, they need lots of space in which
to climb with their tendrils. Intense summer heat and heavy downpours will diminish the long-lasting blooms.

Sweet peas must be picked often to enjoy the cycle of continuous blooms. It's also wise to cut the flowers with scissors, rather then pulling them off. The seeds can be saved, but it's tricky; they'll drop to the ground sooner than you think. When the pods begin
to brown and dry up on the vine, I pick them carefully and store the dried seeds in glass jars.

Most northern sweet pea growers wish they would bloom a little longer, yet they are an unqualified joy when in flower. As Keats writes:

"Here are sweet peas, on tip-toe for a flight:
With wings of gentle flush o'er delicate white,
And taper fingers catching at all things,
To bind them all about with tiny rings."

Ron Krupp is a gardener and author who lives near Lake Champlain on Shelburne Bay.
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