Peas remind me of spring and summer and yesterday I gave the grass its first cut of the year and it feels as though spring is not far away. By August the novelty of mowing the grass will have turned into a laborious slog but yesterday it felt as though spring had started, despite the cool temperature. I always say that nothing improves the look of a garden as quickly as mowing and edging and yesterday proved that.
But, back to peas. I am about to upset a lot of people but I am never sure if peas are worth growing at home. Frozen peas are just so good. While I admit that it is a treat to wander around picking pods and shelling them on the spot and munching on raw peas, growing enough to be useful in the kitchen is another matter altogether. I used to live in East Anglia where peas are grown for a famous frozen food company and the peas were harvested day or night, when they were at their peak of freshness and driven to the factory to be processed and frozen within hours. Those sugars in the peas rapidly turn to starch after picking and after their peak of immaturity and they change from sweet and crisp to hard and bitter.
The fact that the peas are picked in one pass means that most varieties are bred to be harvested all in one go, which is not ideal for the home gardener. Traditionally peas were climbing plants and cropped over several weeks. But these need support, traditionally with hazel or beech ‘pea sticks’. Modern kinds are moderately self-supporting, and some are dwarf, and grow 40-60cm high.
I do not grow peas every year, despite how tasty they are. I prefer to grow mangetout peas instead which are usually tall, so need support, but crop over several weeks. As a child I always preferred the taste of the pea pods to the peas inside so mangetout peas, those flat pods that are usually flown halfway across the world, are perfect for me. In addition there are sugarsnap peas which are picked with immature peas in the pods and eaten whole. Many of the mangetout and sugarsnaps have pink or magenta flowers and some have yellow or purple pods.
Peas can be started in pots or trays but are simpler to grow where they are sown. You can sow from late March (if the weather is warm) though to June. Some can also be sown in autumn to overwinter for early crops but so many things eat pea plants that this is a risky strategy. It is usual (and what I do) to take a trench out of the soil, a spade blade width, about 8cm deep. The soil should be previously dug and, ideally enriched with some well rotted manure or compost. The soil should not be waterlogged. Then sow the seeds in the trench so they are about 5-7cm apart, evenly if possible, but don’t panic about it, and cover with the excavated soil.
And then wait. And now come the problems!
Mice adore peas and pea shoots and they will dig up the seeds and, when the seedlings appear, will burrow down and eat the seeds and leave the shoots scattered on the surface. You can cover the row with some chicken wire, which may help. Old methods include soaking the seeds in paraffin or dusting with lead – not a great idea. And if the mice don’t eat them the local pigeons may move in, but the chicken wire or a layer of fleece or mesh will stop them. Weevils can be a problem but rarely as serious as the previous pests.
After that, as long as the slugs don’t move in, they should grow away and when 10cm high you can push in some pea sticks for support – they also tend to dissuade the pigeons.
And then they should start to bloom. And after the flowers come the pods. And it is as the flowers fade that the pea moths move in and lay their eggs on the tiny pods. You can’t do much about these either because, although it is theoretically possible to spray, it is almost impossible to do it without spraying open flowers and this is a no no. Just be careful when you shell the peas to chuck away any with the telltale maggots away. But they are not inevitable.
And then check the pods as they swell and make sure you eat them at their peak.
Peas add nitrogen to the soil so, if sowing in March and pulling up the plants in July, you can follow with a crop of brassicas.
If you just want a taste of peas they can be grown in patio pots and will grow and crop well in multipurpose compost as long as you keep them watered and given a liquid feed every week to keep them going. Perhaps climbing varieties that crop over a longer period would be best though seed companies always suggest the dwarf kinds.
In addition I must mention pea shoots which are quite trendy at the moment. To grow these you can use any variety but I suggest the cheapest. Sow them closer than usual and cut off the shoot tips when about 10-15cm high. The plants will then produce several basal shoots which can be harvested several weeks later. All parts of the pea plants can be eaten including the flowers and tendrils. Pea shoots can be produced almost all year in a poly tunnel and can be grown in pots and growing bags.
Asparagus peas are a different plant and an altogether different proposition. I grow them from time to time but curse them every time I do because they are so fiddly to pick. You could starve picking the things! If you want to know more then I have a previous post here.