Mark Diacono shares his expertise with peas, from how to keep pests at bay to the fast-growing varieties he once used to outsmart Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
I’m not much of a competitive gardener — I’ll marvel at an oversized pumpkin as much as the next person, without any intention of growing one — but I do gamble on an early sowing of peas. It’s a hangover from the first days of River Cottage, where a good number of us — Hugh, gardeners, and chefs — would battle to come up with the first peas of the season.
I got the idea when reading about Thomas Jefferson, who, as well as being a US Founding Father, was an extraordinary and enthusiastic gardener. He held a pea-growing competition every year and the grower of the earliest ones hosted a supper for all the contestants, with the peas high on the menu. Bragging rights in the kitchen garden were the only prize then, but it was worth it, nevertheless.
The years I won, I owe to two varieties. The first was Kelvedon Wonder, which can go from sowing to picking in 10 weeks, three or four weeks quicker than most.
When someone cottoned on to Kelvedon Wonder and stole my title the following year, Markana — a dwarf variety growing only 28in to 32in tall — came to my rescue. My theory was that Markana didn’t have to grow much before its energies turned to pods and it paid off. As well as being quick to produce, it’s great for exposed sites or for where a short variety would work aesthetically.
Perhaps echoing our supposed affinity for dogs we resemble, my favourite peas grow very much as I do: tall, elegant and taking up little space on the ground. (Well, two out of three ain’t bad.) The Victorian classic, Alderman, produces the most delicious peas and, as it makes it to my 6ft 2in, I hardly have to bend to pick the pods. Perhaps my idleness is affecting my tastebuds. Hurst Green Shaft runs it a very close second in height and flavour.
Tall varieties need support. Bamboo canes will do, but if you have space to grow your own hazel, you may find that cutting your own pea sticks gives as much pleasure as the autumnal nuts. Pushing the cut end firmly into the soil gives the pea tendrils a framework to latch onto as they climb towards the light. Dwarf varieties offer each other a degree of mutual support, but some thinner sticks can be useful.
I sow all my peas undercover — the novelty of watching birds undo all my sowing quickly wore off. The pea’s long root system needs space to develop and root trainers — long, slim growing modules — are perfect, although loo-roll inners make excellent substitutes.
Unless you are battling for kitchen-garden glory, sowing from late February until early June is good. As soon as the roots start poking out of the base of the modules, I plant them out: 4in between plants and 30in between rows is ideal.
Of the many rules for life I have, only two are unbreakable: never eat a biscuit that floats and never plant out pea and bean seedlings before sowing another batch to follow. This creates a continuous succession of peas, with new plants taking over from tired ones, through late spring until autumn.
“If I’m honest, I can’t remember the last time I picked any peas and got them to the kitchen. All are eaten sitting in the sun, either pea by pea or pod and all”
Pests that go for peas are largely avoidable or ignorable. Sowing undercover dodges the birds and mice and, if you get them to a few inches tall before planting out, they are more resilient to slugs and snails.
Pea and bean weevils may cause stamp-edge notches on the young leaves, but the damage is almost always only cosmetic. The caterpillar of the pea moth can be a proper nuisance, however, burrowing into the pod and the developing peas in July and early August.
Assuming a three-month period from sowing to harvest, I switch to sowing mangetout that mature during these weeks, with early- and late-podded peas either side dodging the caterpillars.
As with all repeat-harvest crops, such as courgettes, peas and beans, imagine you are the plant: they are intent not on providing you with a delicious supper, but on creating more of themselves via their seed. If you keep picking the pods young and tender, the plant will strive to produce more; leave them too long for the seed to mature and the plant slows in productivity.
If I’m honest, I can’t remember the last time I picked any peas and got them to the kitchen. All are eaten sitting in the sun, either pea by pea or pod and all.
The only peas that make it into the basket are the few sugar snaps and mangetout peas I sow. They don’t require shelling, which, when you are cooking for more than one, is a splendid mercy.￼
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