The fragrance of sweet peas, as distinct a fragrance as that of Lily of the Valley or Viola odorata, wafts in and out of my January garden dreams. In New England, it is the dreams of the next season's garden which keep the mind active while the gardener's hands are somewhat idle. The only exercise the hands are getting these days is in the turning of plant catalog pages and searching for information on the internet to improve the success of the next garden. Revisiting the photos of those gardens which I have visited in the past also provides inspiration for Garden 2021. I have been fortunate to travel to the gardening capitol of the world, the UK. Yes, I stand firm on this point. Gardening in the UK is a national past time and the proof is in the publication of the National Garden Scheme Handbook which lists over 3,700 gardens, both public and private, within the UK which are open for visits during specific times during the year. Our comparable organization, The Garden Conservancy, is close to having the same amount of featured gardens in our country which is 40 times larger with 11 out of 50 states that are bigger than the UK. I digress, back to sweet peas. I did grow them in 2019 with some success. Sweet peas are a cool annual, vining flowering plant, Lathyrus odoratus. Brought to serious cultivation in the UK in the early 1700's after their discovery on an island in the Mediterranean, I can only imagine it was the fragrance which captivated the plant explorer who happened upon them. You can read more about the history of the development and breeding of sweet peas here on Sarah Raven's blog if you so choose. Many of the large private gardens which I have visited in England grow sweet peas as we here in the US grow zucchini. One would never complain about an abundance of sweet peas. When I grew them I planted them along the fence on poles attached to a top support. They grew fairly well and I did have an abundance of flowers but this year I have ordered my seeds from Owl's Acre who offer exhibition Spencer varieties-yes the very Spencer family of the famous Princess Diana. These varieties have longer stems which are easier to cut and make a better bouquet. They do come in a wide range of delicious colors. From chardonnay through merlot, the allure of the sweet pea is hard to resist. Sweet peas require a fertile, well drained soil and with hardening off, will tolerate frost. They need attention to watering through dry spells and they are heavy feeders although nitrogen should be the more limited element in a complete fertilizer. I will use Fish/Seaweed fertilizer for a liquid feed. I planted the sweet peas out at the end of April in 2019 but this year, I will aim for an earlier planting date. Planting any early crop is very weather dependent here in New England as there can still be a bit of snow on the ground or frost in the ground. Instead of the single angled support, I will adopt this tee pee shaped support. It is attractive as well as functional and gives the gardener access to cutting and viewing from both sides. Sweet peas can also be grown on tripods which are freestanding in the garden or you could put a tripod in a large container on your patio for an up close scentsational experience. Hey, that is a good idea and one which I will employ if I don't forget. I have seen sweet peas for sale in pots at garden centers in the spring so if you are not willing or don't have the time and space for growing plants from seed, you can buy the plants and pot them up yourself for a wonderfully fragrant addition to the patio or back door step. I will start my seeds around the first of March on heat mats and under lights in the basement. Sweet peas have a thick seed coat and many experts advise soaking the seeds or nicking them with an emery board or file. I find that less is more and even soaking is not required. They have germinated quite well without that added step. There is much instruction to be found on line for the growing of sweet peas but I did find this little gem written by George Ball in the 1900's on growing sweet peas for production. If you are truly enthusiastic and want to have an abundance of sweet peas, you will find great information in this publication which can also be purchased here on Amazon.
This year this first week of January has a gentle grip on my garden. Last night Mother Nature delivered the perfect amount of snow. Barely an inch covers the ground. Trees, shrubs and perennials are outlined in clear white and the muted browns and grays are now in sharp contrast. The ground has a slightly soft yield to the step--different from the hard, cold, solid ground of just two days ago. January in my garden is a chameleon. Some days, it has an icy tongue and other days it softly surrounds the trees, branches and ground. January is an excellent time for garden assessment. A light snow shows texture in the garden. The coarseness of the sumac contrasts with the delicate tracery of the branching of the dogwoods. Rhododendrons are frosted with snow. Perennial epimediums hold their foliage through the winter and they catch the snow with their small but broad leaves held on wiry stems creating a 'dance of the sugar fairy' effect albeit in miniature. Snowfall shows that the back garden clearly would benefit from an evergreen backbone. The Virginia red cedars aka junipers have declined over the years from deer browse and the encroaching shade from surrounding woodland trees. This leaves an undefined ending to the back garden. Deer are always a problem here. Don't fight the site is one of the basic rules of landscape gardening and that includes the wildlife which share this habitat. I will plant some upright boxwood along with some winterberry, red and yellow twig dogwood and perhaps some hydrangeas...the deer do love hydrangeas so a bit of fishing line will be employed to deter them. I am thinking of planting several Hydrangea arborescens 'Incrediball'. I truly wish I could find the straight species, Hydrangea arborescens, which grew beautifully in my grandfather's garden. They have smaller flower heads on them but don't flop over in a heavy rain. I never see these for sale at my local garden centers so will settle for this new cultivar which is purported to hold its large, white flower clusters high on strong stems.
January is a time of dreams and rest for this gardener. No garden is as beautiful as that which the mind envisions during the gray, cold and often icy days of January in New England. This month I will dream and plan. February will bring lengthening days and many seed catalogs but for now, there are dreams of a new border and the blooms of the coming season.
As the garden unfolds, slowly this season but with a bit more attention from this quarantined gardener of a certain age, I am thinking of all of those who embrace gardening and all those who have not realized just how gratifying and calming in can be to garden and then relax in the garden. Right now, the oak leaves lie heavy upon the perennial borders and while many gardeners embrace leaving them in place to decompose and feed the soil I have found that they smother many perennials and are better carted off to the compost heap to decompose and then return to the beds as a light covering of compost. Bulbs are an exception and most will push their tiny, mighty shoulders right through the oak leaves. How can there be such strength in something so small and delicate?
At my age, I have too many borders but I do have a lot of time, especially these days when pestilence lurks seemingly everywhere. So, this year, the gardens should be glorious from all the attention. It is early yet in my garden in New England and just the bulbs are blooming-the tiny bulbs. I am thinking that it might be nice to let people - my friends, neighbors and family know when the garden starts to shine. Not en masse but gently. I am thinking that I could call a neighbor who has never seen my garden and invite them to stroll, alone and at their leisure.
We are all looking for safe alternatives to crowded places. Public gardens are closed right now and probably will be for another couple of months. When life begins to return to normal, there may be a new normal with people keeping their distances at least until a vaccine is developed for this latest virus. This could take more than a year. So, that said, just maybe my garden could provide a bit of relief for someone else.
Perhaps no one will come but it may be worth a try. Personal Garden Strolls. That could be just the thing. It might be something for everyone. If you lived close by, would you visit? We could all start a PGS movement. I am still thinking about it.