• Maureen Little

I Eat My Peas With Honey

I eat my peas with honey,

I've done it all my life,

It makes the peas taste funny,

But it keeps them on the knife!

Actually, I don’t eat my peas with honey but when I was thinking about writing a post about peas, this little rhyme just popped into my mind. Putting aside childhood table manners, it reminded me that there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that beats the taste of a sweet, young, tender pea, newly popped from its freshly harvested pod (you certainly don’t need honey to sweeten it), and the only way you can really experience that sensation is if you grow your own.

I bet many of you have already got yours well underway. For example, my friend always sows hers in short lengths of plastic guttering which she has drilled drainage holes in, a technique that the late, great Geoff Hamilton pioneered. My friend uses a general-purpose compost and pops in the seeds about 8cm apart and 3cm deep and keeps the whole thing in her cold greenhouse, watering as necessary, until the soil outside has warmed up and the seedlings are big enough to go out. She hardens them off, of course, before she just slides the entire contents of the guttering into shallow trenches that she’s already prepared.

But not to worry if you haven’t stolen a march like my friend. The soil has warmed up nicely now and you can sow your seeds directly into the ground knowing that they will germinate rapidly. Rather than plant single rows, dig out a shallow trench wide enough to take two rows and space the seeds alternately, still keeping them about 8cm apart. Soon they’ll be well on their way to colonising the supports you’ve provided for them to wrap their tendrils around.

Whether you start them off under cover or plant them directly into the soil, peas need an open sunny site but sheltered from the wind, with good, fertile soil. Watering is important too. Keep them well-watered all through flowering and right up to the time when you finish harvesting. If they dry out the pods will not develop properly.

There are a couple of pests and diseases to look out for. The caterpillar of the pea moth (Cydia nigricana) will happily munch its way through your peas inside the pod without you even knowing – until you open up the pod, that is. The female moth is attracted to pea plants that are in flower, so the only sure-fire way of preventing her getting to them in the first place is by growing your peas under insect-proof mesh. This will, by its very definition, exclude other insects, such as bees, but because peas are self-pollinating, this won’t have an adverse effect on the crop.

Mice will be attracted to the seeds, so you may need to place traps to preserve your previous seeds.

Pigeons, the bane of many a gardener, find pea plants irresistible, stripping them down to the stalks in the blink of an eye. Like the mesh for the moth, netting is the only foolproof way of keeping your peas safe.

Not a pest, but a fungal disease which can affect peas is powdery mildew. The best way to avoid this is to make sure the ground is consistently moist, (drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to powdery mildew) and also allow for as much air movement as possible by not planting too close together.

And varieties? A lot depends on what you want to grow. By that I mean, do you want to grow ‘ordinary’ peas in pods, like the ones that I described at the beginning of this post, or do you want to grow mange tout or sugarsnap, the ones you eat whole, pod and all? If it’s for the peas themselves, then good ones to sow now are ‘Balmoral’, ‘Dorian’ or ‘Kelvedon Wonder’. There are also petit pois varieties which produce small, really sweet peas: try ‘Peawee’ or ‘Petit Provencal’. For mange tout, where you don’t allow the peas to develop at all, try ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ or ‘Reuzensuiker’. Sugarsnap peas are where the peas have developed, but you eat the pod too: ‘Sugar Ann’ or ‘Cascadia’ are good varieties to try.

You might even want to grow peas just for the shoots, although I would recommend a completely different approach to growing them: treat these as you would ‘micro greens’, whereby you only allow the plant to develop a set of tendrils before cutting them. Remember growing cress on kitchen or blotting paper as a child? That’s the idea.

As for harvesting your ‘ordinary’ peas, you’ll know when they are ready by gently feeling the pods; the peas will be nice and plump. Don’t let the peas get to big, though; they will be starchy and tough if you do. Pick mange tout and sugarsnap when the pods are about 7cm long. Start at the bottom of the plant and pick your way up; the more you pick, the more the plant will produce.

When you’ve harvested all your peas and the plants are spent, cut the top growth off at ground level and add it to the compost bin. Don’t dig up the roots, however; just chop them up and turn them the soil. During the season, the plants have drawn nitrogen from the air and have ‘fixed’ it in the roots, which will then be released into the soil, providing a valuable source of natural nitrogen.