Faith, we were taught to recite in Sunday school, is the essence of things hoped for and the substance of things not seen. And I was reflecting on this last Sunday afternoon as I sat, perched on an old set of steps in the greenhouse, planting sweet pea seeds into pots of warm brown compost. For it seems to me that gardening is a very faith-based activity: planting seeds which contain a spark of life in the firm belief that they will germinate, grow, flourish and flower. So my favourite plant this month is not one which is currently in flower, but one that we can already begin looking forward to.
There are so many opinions about sowing sweet peas – some people put theirs into root trainers or toilet roll tubes, others use pots; some plant them in the autumn, others now as the light levels increase while some prefer to plant outside when the soil has lost its winter chill. I’ve tried all three and the best results seem to come from late winter sowings under glass when the sun starts to shine properly again and the nights are less cold (even with a greenhouse heater the temperature still fluctuates). As for seed preparation, I soak mine overnight in water to soften the hard case but don’t go as far as to cut into the case as it simply doesn’t seem to be necessary. I have tried root trainers and agree that they do seem to give a good root run but the downside is that you have lots of single plants to put into the ground and it’s much more satisfactory to make a hole and slot in a nice clump of seedlings). Loo roll tubes will disintegrate as they get damp but can be tied together with string but even so, can you really be bothered with it? I can’t. Instead I plant five seeds into a square pot, push them well down with a chopstick, firm the compost over, and keep them damp. When the second pair of true leaves appear I pinch out the middles and grow them on. Try not to let them get too wet as there is a risk of the seedlings damping off and also you can get a hard mossy cap on the compost which stops the germinated seedlings from getting through. I used to put mine into a heated propagator but the bottom heat made them grow a bit too leggy so now I try to be patient and wait for them to come up in their own time.
The selection of which ones to plant is a matter of personal choice. I buy a packet of fragrant ones, some frilly ones and some old fashioned ones, mix them up and enjoy the results. Single coloured, named varieties are excellent for showing.
I’d love to have a long row of deeply dug soil, posts, wires and long strings to grow the plants along – and if you have an allotment, then that is certainly the traditional and most productive way to go. Instead I make do with bamboo wigwams, prepare the ground as well as I can and then, to give them a real start, I use handfuls of compost from a grow-bag which is very effective. They are greedy plants, needing regular generous watering and feeding with tomato fertiliser and the removal of tendrils and faded flowers. But then you can pick and pick and inhale that amazing perfume and fill bowls and give bunches away and generally enjoy the fruits of your labours and that tiny act of faith so many weeks ago which has led to this colourful bounty.
An act of faith which seems all more important right now as my left leg is encased in a heavy cast following a skiing accident and a double fracture. So not only am I trusting that my sweet peas are going to come up, but also that I will be out of plaster, off crutches and sufficiently mobile by the time the seedlings are large enough so that I can plant them out and enjoy their heavenly fragrance this summer.