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Saturday, November 16, 2002

Sweet peas

I HAVE dug up and divided the perennials, given the grass a last mow, picked and eaten the last tomato (in November!), and tasted a first frost in the steamed greens. I regret, however, that I did not manage to save seed this year. My target seeds were scarlet runners and sweet peas. Last year's scarlet runners were a big success. We had two kinds, the true runners and a bush variety, which you're supposed to mass, like salvia, for the red blooms. I built a pole tripod for the runners and planted the bush variety around its feet, resulting in a display in the vegetable garden that rapidly became the centerpiece that drew the eye of the visitor, whether human or hummingbird.

Somehow I managed to save the big purple beans, in spite of a week of rain at the end of that season, and in separate lots too, though there was no difference between them to see. I put them in clay bowls for safe keeping, one kind in each pot, and gloated over them through the winter. Occasionally I would stop by, plunge a hand into each bowl, and run my fingers though the beans like a miser bathing in gold.

On a day in May, with a week to go before planting, I went to look over the beans, only to find that one of the bowls was empty, while the other was twice as full as it had been.

"So, um, what's happened to my beans?" I asked Beloved.

"Looks like one of the kids has been having a tactile experience," she calmly replied.

I was so unnerved that I went out and planted the lot indiscriminately in a cold flower bed, a week ahead of schedule; only about ten came up, which were all runners. These ultimately produced beans, but my heart wasn't in it, and they are languishing now among the year's dying calendulas and zinnias.

The sweet peas are more of a success story. We have a spectacular variety that grows here along fence rows and right-of-ways, which with patience can be captured. Three years ago, with this in mind, I rambled into a field near the university where I work, in which I remembered seeing a brilliant display of pink blooms. I looked over the available plants and their pods (there were about fifty to choose from) and selected three healthy specimens which I discreetly marked with flagging tape. Each week thereafter, on my lunch hour, I dropped by and checked the pods. These will turn brown and become dry and rattly, and they begin to twist into a corkscrew shape. You want to get them just after they dry and just before they twist. I was able to do so, and brought home about 100 pods.

"What are those?" asked Beloved.

"Sweet peas!" I began shelling them into a bowl.

"May I suggest you transfer them from that bowl into an envelope at your earliest possible convenience? And label it clearly?"

"Sure...uh, how come?"

"Well, it's good practice generally, but I notice you tend to leave your experiments round the kitchen -- and these things happen to be poisonous."

"Yes'm." So I've been told, and now you have too.

Not knowing the viability or germination rates for the peas, and having a shortage of two inch pots, I elected to put all of the peas in the ground by the corner of the front fence, in spring.

Nothing happened.

Our elderly neighbor dropped by later that summer, presumably on his annual inspection of all the painting and glazing we haven't done (he built the house, after all), and during the course of a tour, I showed him my dismal fence corner.

"Oh, those; you plant them in the fall. Takes 'em a long time to get going, too."


So, more as a matter of maintaining a faint hope than anything else, I kept the little spot cleared and gave it a drink or two over the course of the summer, then eventually gave up.

The following spring, I discovered three wimpy six-inch-tall pea vines amid the dandelions.


I cleared around them, gave them sips (not much; these are supposed to do fine in our summer droughts), buried them in leaves for the winter, and crossed my fingers.

This year, I have sweet peas.

They've taken over the fence corner, and bloomed all summer long, right behind the mailbox with its wagon wheel, for all the world like a calendar photograph. There were well over a hundred seed pods, too, ready for harvesting; but life has been been cruelly busy. When I went out to collect the pods for shelling, they had done their thing. Each pod had dried, twisted into a corkscrew shape, and exploded, dumping peas near and far. If some of these come up, two years from now, perhaps I'll be able to write about transplanting them. Otherwise, I'll have to wait for next fall to write "sweet peas -- poisonous" on a manila envelope.


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