They say that people eventually resemble their dogs. Could the same be true for people and the flowers they grow?
Sue Keating of Sweet Pea Gardens doesn't look a bit like her chocolate Labrador retriever, Lily, but she bears more than a passing resemblance to the blooms that are her passion. She is tall and willowy, with a blush in her cheeks and a fresh, engaging smile. Dressed in a spring-green turtleneck, she could be a human version of the beautifully colored, long-stemmed sweet peas that she cultivates beside her home in Surry.But Sue Keating didn't set out to acquire many of the endearing qualities of the sweet pea when she and her husband, Pat, moved to Maine in 1992, right after their honeymoon. They met while working in Manhattan for the giant Tishman Construction Corp., he as construction project manager, and she in marketing. When the company sent Pat to Bar Harbor to oversee construction of The Jackson Lab's $30-million research building and Sue got a job in institutional relations at the lab, the couple rented a house in Lamoine. The next spring, happy to be out of the city and eager to get her hands dirty, Sue planted some sweet peas. She had grown up around gardening - she describes her mother as a "wonderful natural gardener" - and she says, simply, "I love flowers."
Why sweet peas, instead of, say, snapdragons or zinnias? They reminded Sue of her grandmother, she says. Born in Canada and still a Canadian citizen, Sue often visited her maternal grandparents in the Canadian Maritimes during the summer. "My grandmother was a cute little lady, very social, very proper," she explains. "She'd have her lady friends in the parlor for tea and then shut the accordion doors so we couldn't come in." The ladies chattered on about their gardens, while Sue eavesdropped. "I just remember them saying, 'Oh, my sweet peas!' Now, I didn't go out at age eight and say, 'I'm going to plant sweet peas,' but when we came up here, the climate was identical to the Maritimes so I put in three rows. I didn't really know. But they grew like crazy! And once you've grown them, you get hooked. They're fragrant and beautiful and so romantic."
Lathyrus odoratus, the fragrant sweet pea, has been captivating gardeners for more than three centuries. In 1699, the Sicilian Francisco Cupani sent seeds of a flower he'd found growing wild in his garden to one Dr. Robert Uvedale, an English schoolmaster. Within twenty-five years, the seeds were being offered for sale, and by the end of the eighteenth century, Botanical Magazine would emphatically state: "There is scarcely a plant more generally cultivated than the sweet pea." Easy to grow in England's cool climate, exquisitely perfumed, and charmingly ruffled, the sweet pea had become a veritable obsession by the early twentieth century, when new varieties with bigger flowers in hundreds of colors were developed, and exhibitors on both sides of the Atlantic competed furiously for sweet pea prizes.
It didn't take long for Sue Keating to discover one of the flower's chief attractions: the more you cut, the more they bloom. Faced with a profusion of flowers and well-armed with a degree in marketing from Syracuse University, she says it occurred to "the marketer in me" to sell the excess to local florists. Her second year in Maine, the couple bought a house in Surry on an acre of land. Six rows of sweet peas went in on the side lawn. More and better blooms compelled Keating to join the Ellsworth Farmer's Market in 1994, where her buckets of sweet peas sold out every weekend. Truly hooked, she began to educate herself about the cultivation of the intriguing annuals, researching in old books and talking to seed suppliers. Each year, she added a few more rows and, well, "things just evolved," as she puts it.
After Keating's daughter, Maggie, was born in 1996, life got a little more hectic between baby and flowers and flowers and job, so in May 1998 she decided to quit her job to sell sweet peas as a seasonal home business. The family barn was transformed into a rustic shop, Keating's husband, Pat, built two hooped, plastic-covered greenhouses, and a path was created around the back of the barn to lead visitors to display gardens and a tranquil seating area with a rustic granite bench. In addition to the cut sweet peas grown on what by then numbered twenty-five eight-foot-tall trellises, the nursery also sold seedlings, other annuals, and some perennials. Keating makes the transition sound easy, though she admits that sometimes juggling a two-year-old in mid-tantrum and eager customers who showed up at dinner time was "tricky, to say the least."
Her lucky break came soon thereafter. An avid follower of Martha Stewart's TV show and magazine, Sue knew the lifestyle superstar was a sweet pea enthusiast, so she sent her a card when she learned that Stewart had acquired a house in Seal Harbor on nearby Mount Desert Island. "I wrote, 'Welcome to Maine. Hope you enjoy the challenges of gardening here.' I also included some pictures of my sweet peas, and said I'd love it if she'd come by and see my garden some time. Everyone laughed at me," she recalls. "They said, 'You're such a fool, she's not even going to read it.' "
The surprise was on them. Not only did the celebrity read the card, but within three months a crew was in Sue Keating's nursery, filming a feature for Stewart's TV show. The eight-minute segment aired in 1999, ran several times, and was later picked up by HGTV. In 2001, Martha Stewart's Living magazine ran a print feature on Sue's sweet peas. "It gave us instant credibility," Keating says.
And the great lady herself even showed up in person a few summers later. "I had just done the flowers for a wedding," Keating says. "I was all disheveled, I had cut my hand. And suddenly, I heard, 'Oh, Sue! It's Martha!' I was so happy, and she was really lovely." While there, Stewart spied Pat's original design for the trellis frames - it uses copper pipe, an idea that came to him in a dream after Sue asked for something more attractive than weathered wood. "Mind if I copy this?" Stewart asked.
"And what do you know?" says Keating. "In the February 2005 issue of Martha Stewart's Living, there they were: Copper Trellises."
A 2003 cover story in Garden Design magazine, as well as other press attention, further helped establish the reputation of her business, and her Web site (www.sweetpeagardens.com
) is now often mentioned in articles about sweet peas as a go-to source for information and seeds.
It's not hard to understand why Sue Keating has been successful, given her effervescent nature and evident passion for plants. Add to those qualities a healthy dose of good, old-fashioned horticultural sense, plus marketing skills honed at big corporations, and it's like hitting three strawberries in the slots. She describes herself not as a gardener but a grower, and says her business is a "plant boutique." Visitors to the nursery will find, in addition to a tantalizing array of sweet pea seedlings, more than forty annuals - traditional favorites like sunflowers, nicotiana, and cosmos, and a host of container plants such as petunia, verbena, lantana, and sweet potato vine. She also offers a selection of perennials such as hostas, clematis, alchemilla, and daylilies, in addition to the perennial sweet pea, Lathyrus latifolius, and its mounding cousin, Lathyrus vernus. Many visitors come to admire the blooming trellises, taking in the remarkable colors of sweet peas - almost every hue is represented, from palest pink-tinged white to deepest burgundy, including true blue (Lathyrus sativus azureus) and the hard-to-grow, acid yellow Lathyrus chloranthus - and trying to catch the elusive fragrance that some compare to orange and honey.
In December 2003, Sweet Pea Gardens evolved yet again. For some time Keating had been supplying sweet peas for weddings, first just what she calls "tussy-mussy bouquets" then, as one customer led to another, more elaborate designs using sweet peas as accent flowers. As that part of the business grew, it became logistically difficult to work out of the porch on her house, and she realized that the next step was to open a year-round flower shop.
The Little Flower and Garden Shop is housed in a diminutive antique clapboard building three miles up Route 172 in Surry Center, and all cut flowers and arrangements are now sold there. Between May and October, Keating does a wedding almost every weekend, and she estimates that the shop now accounts for 75 percent of her gross income. The tiny space, with the cooler banished to the back porch ("I don't like going into a flower shop and seeing all that condensation," she says) is both cozy and sophisticated, an extension of the distinctive floral style she's developed by "just doing it."
Keating's signature business, however, continues to be sweet peas. "They're our hook," she says, the item that brings people in, though they find much more once they're here. Her loyal customers, like the one in Northeast Harbor who buys seventy-five dozen blooms three times a week during the season, count on her abundant production. Accordingly, she devotes time and energy to cultivating the best sweet peas around. She is picky about her seeds, since reliability is paramount, both in germination and in blooming true to variety. She relies on Renee's Seeds, grown in California by Renee Shepherd, whom she credits with having taught her a great deal. Another trusted source is Unwins, of Cambridge, England. She doesn't, however, sell seeds from her own plants; to do that, she would have to let her blooms go to seed, and she uses up every blossom in her business. Instead, she keeps a few seeds from her plants to repeat, though viability vanishes by the third year.
Around April 15, Sue begins sowing the first of forty different sweet pea varieties in beds prepared in the fall, and then plants successively for the next three weeks, five rows at a time. In the middle of May, she finishes up by transplanting some select seedlings that she's grown indoors. A special bed is used for the wedding blossoms, for which she uses premium seed germinated indoors and then planted farther apart, since increased light and air between each plant contributes to stronger stalks and bigger blooms. She has personal favorites. "My favorite color combinations are purples, blues, and creams; I'm not really a pink person," she says. "Teresa Maureen," prolific, purpled-veined, and tending to cream, is one. Her absolute favorite is "April in Paris," a highly fragrant cream-colored variety flushed with lavender, which was developed by world-renowned New Zealand breeder Dr. Keith Hammett. "It just blooms and blooms," she notes, "and it's reliable."
Although Keating employs three part-time employees in the winter and adds three full-timers in the summer, Sweet Pea Gardens is a family effort. Pat, who now works for Pizzagalli Construction Company in project management, handles all the construction and maintenance of the greenhouses, irrigation systems, trellises, and even contributed a delicate drawing of a sweet pea for the company's promotional brochure. Daughter Maggie, now nine, sets up her lemonade stand at the nursery, has her own little garden, and creates cards that are sold in the flower shop. "She's a phenomenal little businesswoman," says her proud mother. Evidently sweet peas aren't the only crop that blossoms true to form at Sweet Pea Gardens.Tips for Growing Sweet Peas in Maine
Maine's cool nights and long hours of less intense summer sunlight are ideal for growing sweet peas.
Site: Choose a sunny spot protected from wind where rows can be situated on a north-south axis. Prepare the beds in the fall, digging in compost to a depth of six to twelve inches for well-drained soil with a pH of 7.0. Sweet peas' large, fibrous roots need room, and well-drained soil will help reduce seed rot.
Seed: Buy good quality seed from a specialist supplier to ensure good germination, true to type. Choose a combination of early blooming varieties, (Cuthbertsons, Winter Elegance, and Grandifloras) and later-blooming Spencers, which like cool conditions. Seeds should be soaked in water for twenty-four hours before planting. Any seeds with hard coats that fail to swell should be nicked with a knife or small file to enable them to take up water. Before planting, coat the damp seeds with a powder inoculant.
Sowing and Transplanting: In Maine, seeds can be sown (one-inch deep, two- to three-inches apart) directly into the ground beginning in mid-April, when the soil is friable. Seeds can withstand several light frosts, but if germination hasn't occurred within twenty-five days, dig up a few and check to make sure they haven't rotted. Although sweet peas prefer direct sowing, they can be grown in ProMix and transplanted successfully when they are four to six weeks along, or three- to four-inches tall. A dose of Biophos, an organic product with phosphate, will help reduce transplant shock. After May 15, Keating recommends transplanting seedlings, rather than direct sowing. Mulch beds with four inches of straw when plants have been pinched back and are about five to six inches tall.
Care: When seedlings are about two inches tall, thin to four to five inches apart. At five to six inches tall, feed with diluted fish emulsion, organic fertilizer, or manure tea every two weeks for a month, to give the plants a good start. Once they are in full growth, sweet peas need lots of water - about one inch per week, or one good soaking.
Support: Sweet pea vines, which can grow up to eight to ten feet tall, require support to flourish. Their tendrils need something skinny like wire to wrap around when they're starting, and later will wrap around each other. Chicken wire on a frame is ideal, though not always suited to a border. Vines can be trained on obelisks, or on the woody stems of perennials like clematis, or in containers with bamboo stakes or branches for support.
Bloom: Planted in mid-April, sweet peas will bloom by about July 10, depending on the weather. In Maine, they will continue to bloom through late September, though blooms may decrease if it's unusually hot in mid- to late-August, then revive when cooler temperatures return. Blossoms should be cut every few days to encourage continuing blooms, and will keep longer in vases in a solution of two parts water to one part lemon-lime soda.
Essential Reading: The Sweet Pea Book by Graham Rice (Timber Press, $19.95).
Sweet Pea Gardens: The Little Flower & Garden Shop, 1278 Surry Road, Surry. 207-667-4730. www.sweetpeagardens.com
. Open year—round, Tuesday to Saturday. Nursery & Gardens, 614 Surry Road, Surry. Open May 1 through July 4, Tuesday to Saturday. After July 4, Tuesday and Thursday or by appointment.