On a perfect pea planting day – 42°, downpours alternating with intervals of bright sunshine when wooden chairs and porch rails steam and leaves and buds glitter – I pressed sweet peas into the soil at the edges of beds, and in pots here and there in the courtyard. Knee-high plants, they ramble rather than climb.
Snap peas go in a barrel, under a rebar tripod with plastic mesh for the peas to climb. They provide tasty crunch for many nightly salads. Easy and forgiving, they’re the sorts of seed I can handle.
My clever friend with both greenhouse and a greener thumb brought me seeds she’d started in eggshells. The tiny leaves each in their eggshell reminded me of Celia Thaxter. In her book “An Island Garden,” first published in 1894, Thaxter tells of starting seeds in eggshells to transport to her garden on Appledore, part of the Isles of Shoals off the coast of New Hampshire.
Peas planted, and another rain squall begun, I read Thaxter as she describes the steam tug Pinafore carrying her to the island on the first of April, “hurricane deck awave with green leaves and flowers.” She writes: “All the boxes of sprouted seedlings are carefully packed in wide square baskets to keep them steady, and the stout young plants hold up their strong stems and healthy green leaves, and take the wind and sun bravely as the vessel goes tossing over the salt waves out to sea.”
My copy is a 1988 reprint, and I’ve studied it over and over to look at the artist Childe Hassam’s “pictures and illuminations” as the book’s paintings are called. As a flower painter, I’m awed by Hassam’s impressions of poppies; as a gardener, I’m curious about Thaxter’s seaside garden with sandy, salty wind.
This time I notice Thaxter declares love the most important ingredient in a garden, and she questions writing a book about such a small garden (a rectangle 15 feet by 50). She pleads for seed makers to put advice on the packets (which we take for granted), because to “learn these things by one’s self takes half a lifetime of sad experience.”
While her language is sometimes flowery as her garden of annuals, she is practical (and tough, she also had three children and the island’s hotel to help run). I imagine her seeds exactly spaced (a little guiltily after just tangling with slippery, muddy from inoculant pea seeds which wanted to clump together in my fingers).
Thaxter protects young plants from a succession of enemies she calls out in vivid prose: birds, slugs, weeds, disease, windstorms. Thaxter despairs of plants attempting to “kill each other” if left to grow thickly – so she thins, leaving two, just in case. She doesn’t like the “pulling up and throwing away of the superfluous plants.” (I love her tale of potting those up and paddling across in her little dory to deliver them to friends on nearby islands).
Like some other things with good end results, starting seeds and growing them is fraught with uncertainty. But I’ll accept Thaxter’s assurance that “By and by, when comes the happy time for setting them out in the garden beds, the shell can be broken away from the oval ball of earth that holds their roots without disturbing them, and they are transplanted almost without knowing it.”