A Gardener’s Dreams of Sweet Peas and Summer Poppies

February may have the fewest days, but it is the longest month for this gardener.  I have grown weary of winter, want to see the ground again, to plant a seed.  Most of all, I long to smell sweet peas in bloom and to discover where the pink Shirley poppies will flower again in Marjorie’s Garden.

In the beginning, over fifteen years ago, sweet peas came as summer gifts from Marjorie’s garden, small vases of nodding slender-stemmed flowers, bouquets of red, pink, purple, and white.  I would set them in a sunny window of the room where I worked and enjoy their aroma for days.

Sweet peas flowering on the garden fence.

Sweet peas flowering on the garden fence.

We cut sweet peas together now, often at the end of the summer day when their colors glow in the garden’s last light, or at dawn during our first walk about the garden, coffee in hand, returning to the house with a fist full of blooms.  For days on end, the rooms we share are filled with the scent that can only come from sweet peas.  Our summer garden would be incomplete without their fragrance.  It is orange blossoms and honey.  It is how it all began.

Growing Sweet Peas in the Summer Garden

In years past, our sweet peas were direct sown in late April, as soon as we could fork composted goat manure into the cold soil of a full sun bed.  We sowed the seeds like garden peas, one inch deep and two inches apart in long rows at the back of raised beds.  After sowing, we would push birch branches into the soil a few inches in front of the seed row and about two feet apart.  Ranging in height from four to five feet with lateral branches in the upper half, these “pea stakes” provided the perfect scaffold of overlapping stems for the pea vines to climb.

When the plants were several inches tall, we thinned them to a final spacing of five inches, and when the seedlings had three or four pairs of leaves, we pinched out the top pair to promote branching.  At this point, we purchased sweet pea transplants from a local grower to fill in gaps within each row.

Gaps there would be, for sweet pea germination is never better than about 80 % and there are always a few dormant seeds, nature’s insurance against a late hard freeze.  By soaking the seeds for no more than eight hours before sowing, we could identify the ones most likely to germinate, planting only the ones that swelled with soaking, yet there would always be a few gaps to fill in.

In recent years we have opted to grow our own sweet pea transplants, sowing the seeds indoors on April 26, nicking the seed coat and soaking the seeds for 24 hours before sowing.  The transplants are set out in the garden on May 22.  (These dates are for USDA Zone 5 and should be adjusted for other hardiness zones.  Zones 4 and 3 should be one and two weeks later, respectively.  Zones 6 and 7 should be one and two weeks earlier, respectively.)

Keep sweet peas evenly moist throughout the growing season, mulching with straw and watering during summer droughts.

Sweet pea seeds can be purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (http://www.johnnyseeds.com) and Renee’s Garden Seeds (http://www.reneesgarden.com).  You may also find them at your local garden center.

Summer Poppies

Several autumns ago, Marjorie scattered a handful of tiny Shirley poppy seeds in a small corner of the garden.  The seeds germinated the following spring and the resulting plants grew to three feet in height, slender stems clad with blue-green leaves.  In July, each stem was topped with a single blossom, a whorl of pink petals the texture of crinkled tissue paper.

These first plants scattered their fine seed to the wind and the following spring there were poppy seedlings growing throughout the garden, easy to recognize by their unique blue-green foliage.  Most were weeded out, a few allowed to grow and blossom.

Volunteer Shirley poppies bloom in May in Marjorie's Garden.

Volunteer Shirley poppies bloom in May in Marjorie’s Garden.

Last summer poppies bloomed amidst the strawberries, wound their single stems through the branches of a blueberry shrub, added color to the perennial border, and danced around the compost bin.  All were allowed to go to seed.  Where will they pop up this year?

We do not know the variety name of these Shirley poppies – or corn poppies – which move about the garden from year to year.  They are descendants of the wild red corn poppies immortalized in Canadian John McRae’s poem written during World War I: “In Flanders’ Fields the poppies blow, between the crosses row on row”.

They were named in honor of the vicar of the parish of Shirley in England, the Reverend William Wilks, who discovered a variant of the local field poppy (Papaver rhoeas) with a narrow white border around the petals.  With careful selection and hybridization over many years, he obtained a strain of poppies ranging in color from white and pale lilac to pink and red.  Further selection has given rise to semi-double and double forms, as well as flowers with a ring of contrasting color around the edge, a picotee form.

A honeybee landing on a Shirley poppy.

A honeybee landing on a Shirley poppy.

Shirley poppies are the only flowers in Marjorie’s Garden that attract honeybees.  This may be because the poppies appear in their relative abundance as a field of pollen-bearing flowers, always the preference for foraging honeybees, or perhaps it is the size of each flower, large enough to accommodate several workers at once.  Luckily for a gardener afflicted with an allergy to their venom, the honeybees are too preoccupied with their work to feel threatened, even when I brush against a flower.

The poppies go to seed in late summer, each tall stem drying until it either falls to the ground, releasing thousands of tiny seeds from a terminal pod, or one of us pulls it up and tosses it on the compost pile.  Either way, seeds are scattered about by rain, wind, and wheelbarrow.

Seeds of the classic red poppy seen in fields throughout Europe can be purchased from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (http://www.johnnyseeds.com).  Renee’s Garden Seeds (http://www.reneesgarden.com) also offers several varieties of Shirley poppies.  Also, check with your local garden center.

If you decide to introduce these lovely flowers to your garden, remember that the seeds are very small and best mixed with sand before scattering them thinly over light, well-drained soil.  While Johnny’s recommends covering the seed ¼-inch deep, other sources insist that there is no need to do this.  Simple scratching them into the soil with a garden rake seems to be sufficient.

This gardener dreams of being in the summer garden at first light to watch the poppies greet the day, to see them swaying with the slightest breeze, the low-angled light casting stamen-shadows inside curved petals.  Or at dusk, watching the last light of the day slowly fade in the glow of their luminous petals.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-New-England-Gardeners-Year/187285218055676.)