See those sweet peas, the ones in that photo? (They smell as beautiful as they look, by the way). They are the first flowers that I have ever grown from seed in my whole adult life. I am forty years old.
I am not a natural gardener. Back in the days of cult life and religious homeschooling, we lived on a smallholding with a lot of land. Gardening, on a big scale, was a regular feature in our daily chores list. I was double-digging vegetable patches and pruning raspberry canes before I was ten. I loathed it.
Even as I saw our combined efforts change our plot from a flat square of scrubby grassland to a beautiful rolling garden with an orchard, a pond, a kitchen garden, flowerbeds and a playground, I resented the endless labour it required. I became belligerent about the tasks I was allocated. “I’d rather clean the toilet,” I remember screeching one day, “than turn over the compost heap one more time.” It was true.
What I loved at that age was reading, and books, and playing the piano. Gradually I withdrew from the gardening, as often as I was allowed to, in favour of these indoor pursuits. By the time I was a teenager I had fulfilled my own petulant prophecy. I told anyone who’d listen that I wasn’t a gardener, that I had the opposite of green fingers, and that when I bought a house I’d concrete over any outside space it might have.
I didn’t go quite that far. But beyond viewing it as a useful space for the kids’ trampoline and climbing frame, I barely even noticed the garden in the house my husband and I bought to raise our children in.
Periodically, people bought me plants in pots, and after a flurry of initial watering I would forget about them. I would ignore them steadfastly until they withered and died. I had the same approach to house plants. I’d fill a shelf with greenery, using leaves as decor, and then neglect them. I would remember them again when they turned brown, and then I’d throw the pots in the bin. “Not a gardener, remember,” I’d sigh, airily.
Covid-19 changed all that. Suddenly, if I wanted to be outdoors, my garden was the only option. In the depths of lockdown there was no more driving to beautiful pastures and woods for long walks; no more running through the prettiest parks in the area. If I wanted to see the beauty of nature, I had to do so outside my own back door.
Pity, then, that there wasn’t any beautiful nature there to see. I had a scrubby lawn, a cherry tree and a few anaemic-looking shrubs that had survived the decade since we bought the house from people that did more gardening than us. It was a visual tribute to horticultural neglect.
I felt embarrassed and short-sighted and slightly ashamed of my faux-urban stance. Why hadn’t I paid more attention to this space before? Why had I seen it as a badge of honour that I didn’t own secateurs or a kneeling pad for weeding? In the acres of free, uninterrupted time that lockdown introduced to us all, my priorities stretched and shifted.
I noticed little things. The way that the roots of the cherry tree were pushing gently at the paving stones of the garden path, nudging them upwards, growing all the time despite my lack of attention. The ivy that crept along the fence and twirled around the edge of the garden shed. Suddenly, the fact that these things happened every year, whether or not I cared about them: that fact felt completely miraculous.
I started to get it.
I didn’t know anything much about gardens or gardening. It had been many years since I’d pruned raspberry canes or weeded a flower bed. I did know, though, that I bloody love sweet peas.
I like the delicate translucency of the flowers, the tenacious bustling greenery created by their lanky, looping stems, the fact they are so pretty but can’t exist properly without external support. (How decadent of them, to rely on their guaranteed beauty to ensure that they’ll always be propped up when they need it!). I like the way they create a chaotic and wild effect in a garden. I like the way they smell, especially at night after it’s rained.
I went on Google and I looked up sweet peas. This was early April, and Google told me I still had time to plant seeds. Lockdown meant I couldn’t visit a garden centre, so I had to order these seeds online; they took a long time to arrive. When they finally did, the envelope contained the smallest ziploc bag you ever did see. Twelve seeds, brown and utterly unassuming, lurked within.
Google said to soak the seeds. I soaked the seeds. Google said to plant them one inch deep, in quality compost. I did that.
And then I sat back and waited.
April became May, and nothing happened. No specks of green were visible on the surface of my quality compost. Every day I checked those pots. Every three days, I watered them. Nothing happened. It was three weeks before I saw even the tiniest fleck of a leaf, peeking above the compost’s surface.
I still don’t know what I did wrong, but those sweet peas kept me waiting endlessly. My favourite running route takes me past an allotment, and one of the allotment-keepers has a whole fence full of sweet peas, right next to the road. Through May they taunted me on every run as they sprang and burst from their containers, clambering bravely up the trellis set out for them.
Mine, meanwhile, lagged far behind. On my birthday in early July, they were barely six inches high, hardly needing the canes I’d carefully set up for them to climb. I was exasperated and disappointed, but this time, I didn’t give up.
I did some more gardeny things, aided by Google. I moved the seedlings to a bigger pot. I added more compost, introduced plant food. I created a pyramid of canes to give the stems even more structure to aim their burgeoning shoots at.And suddenly, in the middle of July, my little plants finally got the message. They began to grow at a terrific rate, outpacing the cane pyramids within days, necessitating an emergency fence-trellis DIY situation. I was thrilled. But still they didn’t produce any flowers.
Last week, with August lurking on the horizon — four months since I’d bought and planted the seeds — I finally saw a tinge of pink on the tip of one of my sweet pea stems. My joy was disproportionately excessive. I’d done that! I had planted seeds and nurtured those seeds and now, new and beautiful flowers were beginning to exist in the world. This week, I picked a bunch of them (my dad tells me that picking them will help more to grow), and that bunch is what you can see in the photo above. I felt almost as proud of those little flowers as I do of my children. Perhaps more, actually, in this summer-holidaysy bicker fest.
To a gardener, the concept of connecting to the life cycle through plants and planting feels totally basic and unworthy of explanation. But to me, it was beyond exciting. Suddenly I could see potential everywhere.
And potential equals hope. I like the sound of hope.
In a time when hope and optimism have been so thin on the ground — as holidays, work contracts, family plans and celebrations have been cancelled or deferred — the resolute, cheerful endurance of plants and nature in general has taken on a new significance to me.
It’s not just about making my garden prettier. It’s about acknowledging my very small place in the chain of things and helping that chain to grow regardless. When I go out every morning, early, and water all the plants I’ve now added to my garden, I feel grounded and safe.
I’m glad I finally get it. Even if it means I’m old. (Which yes, it probably does).