Mother Earth Gardener Blogs >

Digging Around Bowery Beach Farm

Sweet Peas and Me


One of my absolute favorite varieties, 'Mollie Rilstone'

My mom always said she didn't play favorites between my sister and I, and neither of us ever believed her; each of us thinking the other was getting something that we weren't. Now that I'm older, I know my mother was telling the truth, because that is how it is for me in the garden. With so many flavors and colors to enjoy, how can I have a favorite?

Between large, dinner plate dahlias (which I can wax poetic on for days) and scented geraniums (think of a scratch-n-sniff sticker, but with leaves!), not to mention my kitchen garden—which is filled with a tasty array of tomatoes, carrots and broccoli—I can hardly narrow down the list of "favorites."


Look at that stem-length, over 12 inches of it! Oh, and let's not forget, that stunning variety 'Nimbus', sure to make any arrangement sing.

That said, each child (or in my case plant) is not without their own uniqueness that must be encouraged and celebrated. For example, there will always be a special place in my heart for the delicate sweet pea. They are like the childhood friend that visited your family's home every summer; you can't wait for them to arrive and feel lost when it's time to say your goodbyes. 

Growing up, my mom always kept a jar of these on the windowsill, their sweet scent welcoming me home on warm summer days, a link between the outside and in, and I've continued the tradition she unknowingly set in motion, growing these deliciously scented plants every year without fail. 


Soaking my (labeled!) sweet peas overnight in some oh-so-useful canning jars before sowing.

Sweet peas need a good start and really benefit from some ruthless pinching, so a head start is well needed. Typically, I start these at the end of January, or early February, soaking the seeds overnight. The next morning after they've plumped-up I sow them two-to-a-pot and set the trays on a heat mat to help get them germinating. Since sweet peas develop a rather elaborate root system (which we want to encourage!) I've found they do much better if I start them off in the 2.5" square pot I intend to keep them in until transplanting, as opposed to the smaller cells of propagation trays and repotting them later. 


For branched, bushy sweet peas, you MUST pinch!

Now comes the part that makes many gardeners break out in hives—pinching. Once the plants reach about 6" tall and have 4-6 sets of true leaves, I cut them back to one or two sets of leaves. Yes, I am cutting away lots of leafy green growth. Yes, I promise this won't decimate your plants. This will in fact make your seedlings branch, develop more stems and give you longer flower stems. So this is TOTALLY worth it!

And just to blow your minds ... I do this 3-4 times before setting out!


These little guys are ready for their first pinch!

Now, before the sweet peas are planted outside in the garden, I harden them off religiously, as sweet peas are very sensitive to temperature fluctuations. On the first day I move them to the front of the greenhouse and open the door. Then the following day I move them to a sheltered spot outside for a few hours, making sure to bring them back inside the greenhouse. Each subsequent day I leave them outside a little longer than the day before, before returning them to the greenhouse. This process takes about 10-14 days. 


See how much more filled out they are after they've been cut back--I promised I wouldn't lead you astray.

I'm all about gardening organically, so each year I top off my bed with some fresh compost and scratch in bonemeal to promote healthy root systems and growth. Because I love the way intensive planting strategies look—and save space—I plant my sweet pea seedlings 6" apart and weave them into the trellis above. I've used all sorts of materials: nylon netting, wood lattice and chicken wire. Personally I like the chickenwire because it's not distracting once the plants begin blooming, but mostly because it's so much stronger and doesn't sag between the t-posts. Also, I plant on both sides of my free-standing wall trellis to make the most of the space.


I plant my seedlings deep, and fertilize with some fish emulsion to give them that added boost after planting!

From then on it's mostly watering. I usually give my newly seedlings a dose of fish emulsion to get them excited about growing, but after that it's just regular, deep watering. Try to avoid short, infrequent watering as that's often not enough to reach the deep root system. As the plants take off I add a layer of jute twine every 12" to corral the sweet peas and keep them growing upright.


An aisle in my sweet pea patch next to the greenhouse.

Once you start seeing blooms it's time to cut, cut, cut! Typically I'm out there cutting stems three times a week. Sweet peas seem to be of "the more you cut, the more you get" plant variety. And don't forget to remove any spent flowers along the way. This prevents the plants from going into seed-starting mode, elongating the bloom period—which is the whole point of growing these sweet-smelling beauties!

My Spencer sweet peas are pretty heat tolerant and are really kicking it into high gear now. So much so that there's plenty for my home and to sell at market, but enough leftovers to share with family and friends! But the best part about growing these tall, elegant plants? Every time I get a whiff, I'm transported back to some of the happiest moments of my childhood.

Freshly Minted


Fresh 'Mojito' mint ready to be harvested. ©Kelly Orzel

When I first began my foray into growing and selling herbs, I painstakingly planned what and how I would grow. Using all the knowledge I had up until that point and exacting standards—that was how I planned to set my plants apart at market—I sowed, took cutting and grew all my favorite herbs and varieties! Flats of French thyme, basil (oh-so-many-basils), 'Greek' oregano, 'Hidcote' lavender, cilantro and 'Gigante d’Italia' Parsley just to name a few. But the one thing I did not grow was mint.

You see, she’s a promiscuous little thing! More times than not when I worked at the local nursery I was teaching people how to corral and eradicate this escape artist. I could never have imagined that mint would be a sought-after herb at the farmer’s market.


I keep our mint contained in 6" tall raised beds. ©Kelly Orzel

Since mint roots so incredibly easily, I took a few cuttings and potted them up. Within a couple weeks I had pots ready to go … and they flew off the table! I’ve come so far in my mint appreciation since those early growing days, but I now I do so with caution.

I can’t sell a single plant without giving it's new owner a disclaimer about how invasive mint can be. “Plant it in a 2-3 gallon nursery pot," "sink the plastic pot 90% into the ground” and “harvest regularly!” New gardeners often nod reassuringly at me, all the while thinking they won’t have a problem with mint running a-muck in their beds, while the more well-seasoned gardener purchases it with a specific purpose and we discuss various containment strategies before they go home to introduce their new baby to the garden.


'Apple' & 'Pineapple' mints mixing with some pumpkin vines! ©Kelly Orzel

This post is certainly not designed to scare you off growing mint, but it is so incredibly important to know why and how you’re growing it, so not to create a meddlesome pest that you have to spend hours each season hacking out of your vegetable beds.


Some of my favorite mint flavors for the kitchen. ©Kelly Orzel

Now let’s talk about all the delicious mints I love! The all-purpose 'Spearmint’ can be used in drinks, salads, on the grill and tastes good in most dishes that call for mint. ‘Peppermint’ is coveted for teas and is often distilled into oil. The signature flavors of ‘Mojito’ (for the obvious mojito cocktail) and ‘Kentucky Colonel’, favored in mint juleps popular around Kentucky Derby time, add pizazz to any last-minute summer get-togethers. I not only sell ‘Apple’, ‘Chocolate’ and ‘Orange’ mints to local markets, but also florists—who use them as fragrant filler for bouquets and arrangements. Variegated ‘Pineapple’ makes a statement as either a drink garnish or in floral design. And that’s not even considering all the other novelty flavors that I’m growing-just because I HAD to. Things like ‘Banana’, ‘Grapefruit’ and ‘Strawberry.’ Absolutely delish in their own right. And don’t let me forget to mention ‘Basil’ Mint … oh-my-gosh! I can’t even talk about that amazingness without salivating.


A pound of mint ensures Mojitos for everyone at the picnic! ©Kelly Orzel

As a perennial, this herb comes back year after year and aside from regularly harvesting, it doesn’t require much TLC from you. Plant in full sun, and start harvesting on the south-side of the bed. Every 1-2 weeks there will be enough regrowth for a second harvest. I'm a bit ruthless on the farm when it comes to cutting back, I go straight to ground level once a season to revitalize the bed to keep it productive. 

So if you’re not a fan of mowing, go ahead and let mint do its thing, let it roam free...however, if you're not a fan of chaos and living on the edge, grow it in a pot!

Kelly Orzel is a Master Gardener, horticulturist and girl-farmer who owns and operates Bowery Beach Farm in Maine. She holds a MS in Horticulture and is a garden speaker, freelance writer and photographer. Her first book, The Backyard Gardener: Simple, Easy and Beautiful Gardening with Vegetables, Herbs and Flowers, on organic kitchen gardening is available in her webshop and on Amazon!

The Gardener's Version of a Selfie

Coral CG Dahlia 

You know you’ve crossed the threshold of obsession when your idea of a selfie is a pic of your favorite plant at the moment. Most people’s Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of photos of friends at the beach, family gatherings, and their latest plate from the newest trendy artsy-foodie restaurant that just opened. But for us gardeners who get beyond excited when we discover a new plant, or that dahlia that you’ve been nurturing all season is putting on an insanely gorgeous show, it is our gardens that are the star!

Like everyone, I’ll post a photo of my mom and I on Mother’s day, but for the most part my social media—and especially my Instagram is wallpapered in flowers, vegetables, herbs and just about anything plant related. It’s a sickness really to be this invested in my garden, but I just can’t help myself.

I feel no shame than my feeds are crowded and bursting with images of lilacs, dahlias, tomatoes, carrots, scented geraniums and armfuls of herbs like basil and chives. These are my loves, why shouldn’t I show them off? Even though I’ve been growing things since I was a teenager, I am invariably surprised when these little seeds turn into something beautiful or tasty.

cosmos towering 

cosmos DayDream 

There’s no greater thrill than seeing a small seedling you cultivated surpass the package, or catalog, descriptions. Last year I grew some cosmos because, really, why not? They’re the classic cottage garden cut flower (of which I am an everlasting fan), they come in a selection of luxurious pastel colors and are remarkably productive, three things that have me clicking “add to card” like Pavlov’s dog salivating for a treat. Well the ‘Double Click’ and ‘Daydream’ descriptions said to expect the plants to grow to three-and-a-half to four feet, I thought “Awesome, these will look great between my dahlias.” Well, these suckers grew more than five-an-a-half feet tall! I’m 5’1’ and these things towered over me and my dahlias—you should have seen me cutting them down at the end of the season, my husband couldn’t see me in the flower patch even after the frost had killed everything. When you have a performer like that, how can you not share? It would really be a public disservice.

gardeners selfie 

When you look out in your garden and you’re sure you’ve grown the most succulent lettuce anyone has ever grown or your scented geraniums are so tall you’re wading waist-deep in their delicious scent our grubby, compost-ridden fingers can’t wait to get out our phones, or cameras to capture such awesomeness. Or how about when you are convinced you just harvested the most incredible 20 pounds of basil anyone has ever harvested, won’t your fellow gardeners understand the love that went into growing them? And you cannot even contemplate not bestowing the glory of your foot-long, arrow-straight carrots with your online friends. As gardeners we just have to share!

This is not to say that nothing ever goes wrong in the garden—quite the contrary. I prefer to think of these garden mistakes as “experiments in research.” And I just learned how not to do something that didn’t work so well … like the first time I planted comfrey, gifted from a garden friend. In case you are unaware, while comfrey has many uses in the organic garden it can be quite invasive if not cared for properly. No one told me to cut it to the ground, and I let it flower and go to seed since it was so pretty. That was a big NO-NO! Comfrey can be incredibly invasive if you don’t have the ‘Blocking 14’ cultivar, which is sterile. Now I make use of this hardy perennial, cutting it back to the ground four or more times a year. Making fertile comfrey tea to feed my flowers and fruiting veggies, using it as an organic mulch, and layering it within my compost pile to accelerate decomposition (for more info on how to use comfrey and other organic gardening techniques, check our my new book The Backyard Gardener. The flower stalks add a nice touch to my kitchen arrangements as well!

comfrey blocking 

While these distressing moments don’t typically end up on Instagram or Facebook—just as I imagine people are not posting when their children are behaving in a way they wished they didn’t—they help you become the gardener you are today. And so we celebrate our garden successes, just as if they were our children, because really, they kind of are.

Kelly Orzel is a Master Gardener, horticulturist and girl-farmer who owns and operates Bowery Beach Farm in Maine. She holds an MS in Horticulture and is a garden speaker, freelance writer and photographer. Her first book is The Backyard Gardener: Simple, Easy and Beautiful Gardening with Vegetables, Herbs and Flowers.

Become a Preferred Subscriber and start enjoying the benefits today!

Fall in love with the flavor, versatility, and beauty of Mother Earth Gardener

Mother Earth GardenerDelight your taste buds, mind and eyes with beautiful photos and inspirational techniques on everything you need to know to grow, preserve and cook your own heirloom fruits and vegetables. You won’t want to miss the stories about plants passed down from generation to generation.

Don’t miss a single issue of Mother Earth Gardener. Published by the editors of MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Mother Earth Gardener provides decades of organic gardening experience from the most trusted voices in the field. Join today and save off the newsstand price! Get one year (4 issues) for only $24.95! (USA only)

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube