January can be a tough month for an allotment gardener.
We may have flung open the doors to let the old year out in a raucous chorus of Auld Lang Syne, but the countryside is still bare, the light is low and hazy and the world is still a cold and dark place.
Despite this, the move into the New Year brings with it the intense itch to sow and grow and patience can be a difficult beast to tame.
However, on account of taking the plunge into the wonderful world of flowers this year, I’ve found something that can scratch that itch just a little – sweet peas.
The autumn sown seeds came through tremendously quickly and the plants were around 3 inches tall by the time the temperature and light levels dropped in December.
The germination rate was excellent too, with nine out the ten seeds sprouting.
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Whenever I take on something new, I have a compulsion to find out as much as I possibly can about it. Over the winter, I spent time reading and learning about what is possibly the gardening nation’s favourite flower.
Maybe we can get a new generation embracing these beauties in much the same way as craft beer and Sherry have met with revival and are bang on trend? (I’m stroking my hipster beard as I type this!)
The National Sweet Pea Society is a charity dedicated to these wonderful flowers. I’ve discovered its website is a fantastic resource to unearth the plant’s history, hear about events and obtain hints and tips on growing sweet peas.
The website has a wonderful gallery too, showing a variety of sweet peas in bloom, which is helpful when making the decision on the types of sweet peas you may wish to grow on your plot.
My favourite find, however, was The Sweet Pea Book by Graham Rice. I bought this book over the Christmas break and simply flew through the pages. It’s a joy to read.
As a complete newbie to sweet peas, this is a comprehensive guide but the narrative is effortless and doesn’t make you feel like you are ploughing through a textbook.
I’m excited by sweet peas which is strange as I’ve not yet gone a season growing them. But there is something about this flower that has me thrilled to be growing it on the allotment this year.
I’m especially seduced by the thought of bringing home cut and fragrant blooms to pop in a vase – a beautiful accompaniment to adorn the table as we tuck into all that home-grown veg.
Back to scratching that gardening itch.
I’m sowing the second batch of sweet peas this month. More Lady Salisbury and also Blue Velvet. My plan is to ease into growing sweet peas by limiting my choice to just two. I also think the bold contrast in colour of these blooms will make a simple yet striking display on the plot and arranged in a vase.
Raising sweet peas from seed
The large round seeds of sweet peas make them very easy to handle. They remind me of those edible silver balls used to decorate the tops of cakes – only, they’re not silver and, well, they’re not edible.
Sweet peas are annuals and can be sown in the spring. However, as with sowing the seeds in October, a January sowing enables the plants to develop strong roots, put on some early growth and provide larger plants to set out after the frosts.
It does feel incredibly strange sowing seeds in the middle of January. But, in Britain especially, it’s very common practice. The early sowing gives them the edge over those sown in spring and strong, healthy plants will always have the upper hand over new seedlings in the fight against those pesky slugs.
Despite not having much success with sweet peas before, I’m very aware of the debate around pre-sowing technique. Should you ‘chip’ the seed case to aid germination? Is there an advantage to soaking or ‘chitting’ the seeds before sowing?
The truth, I’m reliably informed, you can simply poke the seed into the soil and they’ll come up. However, it might be worth taking a little extra time and using the above techniques to ensure better results.
In October, I sowed the sweet pea seeds into two 5 inch pots. This time, armed with further knowledge, I’m using toilet roll tubes to sow each sweet pea seed.
There are two good reasons for doing this.
Firstly, an article in The Telegraph in 2007 suggested that us Brits were leading the way in toilet paper use. The figures indicated that British toilet paper consumption of 110 rolls per capita was 25 times that of Ukraine, Europe’s lowest.
That’s a lot of bottom wiping and a lot of empty cardboard tubes too. By all means, recycle them. But they make terrific homemade pots for seeds.
Secondly, if you sow the seeds into a pot, when it comes to planting out the sweet peas, you will need to pull each plant apart from the large root ball that has formed. No matter how gentle you are at doing this, it will always cause some root damage.
Of course, the effect of such root damage is very small. I’m sure only the growing purist would notice. However, maybe we should aspire to be as professional as possible when it comes to our blooms? And so modules or root trainers get top marks.
Root trainers are relatively cheap to buy and are reusable. I would have no problem with purchasing a few packs. But as I’ve said, we are swimming in cardboard tubes from all the toilet paper we get through.
Cardboard tubes provide the same benefit as commercial root trainers in terms of root protection but they are also biodegradable. So you can plant the sweet peas out in the ground – Pot and all.
Fill the tubes with seed compost and shake them and gently push the compost down. Make a hole in the compost, drop the seed in and then add a small amount of compost on top to tuck them into bed nicely. Give them a soaking and pop them in a mini greenhouse.
As I did recently with the sweet peas sown in October, I’ll be pinching out the January sown plants when they reach around 3 inches in height.
There is nothing complicated in doing this (I know. I was scared the first time I did this too!). Simply take a finger and thumb and pinch off the top of the sweet pea seedling above a leaf joint.
It’s wonderful to be outside and sowing something to look forward to seeing bloom later this year. I’ll watch patiently for the first signs of little shoots poking through. But now, I’m going back inside to warm my fingers around a hot mug of tea.
What about you? Are you a January sweet pea sower? Let me know what you’re sowing and any advice and tips you want to share too. Drop me a comment below.
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