Give peas a chance

One of the challenges we’ve set ourselves this year is to produce a continuous supply of peas for the kitchens throughout the growing season. Like many vegetables, peas continue respiration after their harvest, burning up the sugars in the fruit, and so, for the sweetest flavour, they need to be eaten directly from the garden. We grow mangetout and sugar snap (more of which, below), but it’s the shelling pea that we’re particularly keen on.

Sowing peas

Peas can be sown in the open ground in staggered, double rows, 3in apart, in a shallow trench, as long as the soil is warm enough. They should germinate well enough, but I’ve found that sowing them in sections of semi-circular guttering in the glass house or cold frame gives a better result. The controlled environment enables faster germination and prevents the problem of rotting-off in wet weather or hungry mice digging them up. Once the seedlings are well established, they can be hardened off and the whole row slid out of the guttering into a shallow trench, into their final position.

Our first sowings, made in early February, are of Douce Provence, a hardy, round pea. They’re grown in the poly-tunnel, where, with luck, we hope to be harvesting by April. Sowings continue at fortnightly intervals to provide a staggered crop and, by March, we’re sliding the contents of the gutter sections into a well-manured bed, protected by a cloche. From mid March until the end of April, we switch to a second early pea, Jaguar, a wrinkly variety with good flavour, high yield and mildew resistance.

First and second early crops are usually ready about 11-14 weeks after sowing and always have beautiful flavour. But the sweetest and heaviest cropping peas are the maincrop varieties, which we start sowing from the middle of April-they take about 16 weeks from sowing to harvest. Tommy is probably the best main-crop pea I’ve ever grown, both in terms of taste and yield. And from mid June to mid July, we go back to sowing the hardy Douce Provence, for late-season crops.
If all goes according to plan, this sowing schedule should ensure the special taste of fresh peas is available from April to October. The last sowing we make will be in autumn and the crop will be overwintered in the polytunnel for an extra early crop next spring

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Sugar snaps and mangetout

Of the mangetout, I think Carouby de Maussane has the best flavour. It’s a French heirloom variety bearing flat, wide pods of exceptional sweetness. A tall grower, reaching 5ft, it has very attractive pink and purple flowers, making it ornamental as well as edible. The large pods need picking when the peas inside are barely showing. Sugar-snap peas have a reputation for being stringy, but Delikett is stringless and is a good, heavy cropper. For both mangetout and sugar snaps, cultivation is similar to podded peas, but keep an eye on the developing pods, which must be harvested while they’re still young and tender.

Something to climb on

Peas need to be supported before they’re blown sideways and flattened by rain. I like to use pea sticks made from twiggy hazel brushwood that we cut from the woods each winter. Birch and hornbeam brushwood do equally well. These pea sticks are pushed firmly in to the ground, either side of the pea row, about 1ft apart, and should be at the height you expect your peas to grow to (different varieties can range from 2ft-6ft tall). If you can’t source brushwood, make a bamboo cane A-frame covered in netting, erected over the row, so the peas can grow through it.

Good watering is important to ensure the peas swell to fill their pods nicely and, when they’re ready, regular picking is essential, starting at the bottom. The added bonus with peas is that, being legumes, their roots fix nitrogen to the soil, so when they’ve finished performing, we simply cut them down and dig the roots in for an extra-fertile bed in the rotation next year.

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