ON SWEET PEAS I think
it was my seventh birthday One of those hazy, Gordon Fraser cards: A pastel girl with hair that swirled around her feet and in her arms, a bunch of what looked like sherbet butterflies—pink, mauve, inky damson, violet—dabs of colour about to burst into flight. “They’re sweet peas,” my mother said.
Peas? The only peas I knew were the violently green Birds Eye ones piled next to the fish fingers on my plate. The ‘sweet’ part made sense though. It was the beginning of a passion still with me half a lifetime later.
Our own garden didn’t have sweet peas. I remember a bed of roses that my sister fell into wearing just a nappy. And grass. And crazy paving. I had a Victory jigsaw which showed a thatched fairytale cottage whose garden was awash with flowers and I liked to imagine those splodges of colour might be sweet peas.
Then we visited a garden where it looked as though someone had been making Indian hideaways in its vast, overflowing flowerbeds: Tall tepees of sticks with the tops tied together. Every single one smothered with flowers—butterfly wings of colour, poised for flight. My heart began to race. The lady had special flower scissors and she snipped me a bunch. Long, nakedly graceful stems. Mysterious corkscrewing tendrils. Those perfect silken blooms on top.
“Smell them,” she said. The scent took you to a place which ‘sweet’ did not begin to describe. When I’m grown up, I thought, I’ll have a garden crammed with sweet peas and nothing else.
But for too many years my relationship with these flowers was confined to pulling in every time I saw a black bucket with a cardboard sign by a country roadside. Bunches tied with twine, criminally cheap at 30p a bunch. I’d put my money in the box and drive home guiltily with my booty.
Then my husband bought me a greenhouse. It’s probably the smallest greenhouse in the whole world, but I’m proud to say that it has entirely changed my relationship with this plant: I have become the lady with the special scissors. A grower of sweet peas.
I love every part of it.Waiting for the rattly packets to arrive in the post. Snipping the foil and letting the nubbly black seeds roll into my hand. The tipping of compost into long-saved-up loo rolls. The pushing them in, two seeds to a pot. And the waiting. More than almost anything, I love the waiting and watching for those first pale shoots of green to appear.
There is no more blissful activity than wandering into the garden on a summer’s morning to snip, to tie in, to check, and inhale my sweet peas. Walking up the stairs and catching that scent on the window sill. Or the hall shelf. Or the top of a chest of drawers. I station them wherever I can. I even draw a melancholy satisfaction from pulling the dry, whispering plants from the earth, cutting through the sun-bleached, rain-sodden twine, and returning the whole lot to the compost heap in late September. Only a month or so, and then I can begin all over again. Surely the definition of a truly happy life: To have the peace and time and heart-space to cultivate something throughout its entire miraculous life-cycle. EMMA DONOGHUE
ON DANDELIONS A disclaimer:
I’m not a gardener. So our garden —our backyard, as they say here in Canada where I’ve lived for 16 years—is just a green space I glance out the window at or lounge in, depending on the season. Its most reliable splash of colour comes in April, when the Ontario snows finally shrink away and the dandelions come out in defiant yellow force.
The man who put our grass in named dandelions as the chief enemy, and said it was very simple: Whenever you see one, gouge out its long taproot right away.
The problem is that I love dandelions. If they were discovered for the first time now—with their pert posture, dazzling shades of gold, and ability to thrive on neglect—everyone would go wild for them.
Kids, who have no snobbery, gather dandelions to display in jam jars because those gaudy heads put the subtle charms of other wildflowers to shame. I remember the pleasure of pulling them apart and scattering the petals like moist confetti. Playing with their firm, crunchy stems till they bruised and flopped, and I could slit them open with my thumbnail to discover the milky latex, or tie them in knots like lank ribbons…
I relish their sharp, fresh smell. Their puffball clocks charm me too; I show our daughter how to blow once, twice, three times, to find out what time it is. I tell her about the mother plant’s indefatigable ambition as she shoots out her parachute-borne seeds on the wind. Dandelions get their English name from dents-de-lion, the French for lion’s teeth (referring to their jagged leaves). But in French they’re known as pissenlits, piss-in-the-beds. (We used to chase each other with dandelions, screaming: “You’ll wet the bed!” It turns out that the roots are strongly diuretic.) A list of their variant names has the ring of a Seamus Heaney poem:
I love dandelions with a guilty love, like other childish pleasures. I fear my gardener neighbours see our scrubby yard as a source of contagion—especially at the baked end of summer, when all that’s left are the huge, coarse dandelion blades.
But I take comfort in the fact that this irrepressible weed seems to be finally winning some respect. As governments across Canada ban pesticides, dandelions are becoming a visible flag for poison-free gardens. Not only is the plant edible in all its parts, but that deep root draws up nutrients to the surface for others to share, and the flower is an attraction for pollinators such as the hard-hit bee.
None of that is why I love them, of course. Nothing rational about such a surge of spring cheer.