Picking from the cutting garden

One of the best perks of a garden is having a ready and steady supply of stems to pick to bring inside for flower arrangements. We’re lucky to have a whole garden — The William F. and M. Kathleen Church Cutting Garden — dedicated to that very purpose. It saves us the heartbreak of removing precious flowers from the other gardens and it helps us provide for one of Blithewold’s best traditions. There was always a cutting garden at Blithewold and flowers from it were even sent up to Boston when the family was in town.

Every year Gail, the volunteers and I fill it to bursting with plants, primarily seed annuals as well as perennials, shrubs and vines, that have stems that will last at least a week in water. And we aim for a succession of flowers and foliage that will give us plenty to choose from every week starting when the mansion opens for the season in April until October when it closes again. The flowers we pick every Tuesday are then artfully arranged in vases and placed in the mansion’s foyer and living room and sometimes the butler’s pantry and breakfast porch too, by a dedicated and enthusiastic corps of volunteers. Bessie and Marjorie would certainly approve and applaud their gorgeous efforts.

But for me, removing stems, even from the cutting garden, is a mental toughness test simply because I prefer to look at flowers in the garden. Except when it comes to sweet peas. Even though I love the way they twine themselves up a fence with their curlicue tendrils, nothing compares to a fat posy-full. I could never become bored or overwhelmed by the scent of them even in a confined space… While Gail does the lion’s share of planning and planting for the cutting garden, she allows me the enormous pleasure of choosing sweet peas. This year we ordered most of them from Chiltern Seeds in the UK because their selection is huge and they are generous with varieties that aren’t as easy to find on this side of the pond. Right now, as they peak along the cutting garden fence, you’ll find 14 varieties including Albutt Blue, and Eclipse,

Fire and Ice and Lady Turral,

Lord Nelson, and Matucana (supposedly the most fragrant of all — I believe it),

Painted Lady (always the first to bloom for us), and Wiltshire Ripple.

The irony is that we rarely pick sweet peas for the mansion because the stems aren’t quite long enough for grand arrangements and they don’t last quite a week in water either. So most of the flowers stay on the cutting garden fence right at visitors’ nose level, and a precious few go home with me, Gail, Betsy, and the volunteers as posies. And they don’t last nearly long enough on the vine. By the middle of July they’ll have had it. I suspect that they’re more popular in England than they are here because they last longer in their milder temperatures. But they’re easy to grow and worth even the briefest of shows. We start the seeds at the end of February, keep them cool, and plant them out in rich soil at the end of April. A little water and fertilizer as they grow, and this is our fragrant reward.

Do you grow sweet peas? Do you have a favorite source and variety?