If you have never popped open a pod straight from the bush, then forgo other plans for this weekend and find some pea seeds, because nothing comes close to the grassy sweetness of a fresh pea. You cannot buy this flavour, it has to happen in the garden. In fact, popping them fresh is the very reason to grow them: if they get to the kitchen, it’s a bonus.
There are two main players in the pea family: shelling peas, where the seed is either round or wrinkled, and mangetout. Mangetout, as their name suggests, have edible pods. There are two types: flat-podded, often slightly curved in shape and ever so slightly bloated; and sugar snap, where the pods are inflated and there’s a small immature pea. The latter are picked when the pod snaps in half. If you fail to harvest mangetout at the right moment they can be left to mature to shelling peas.
Peas are also categorised into how long they take to mature: earlies, which tend to be dwarf, take 11-12 weeks; and main crops, which tend to be very tall, take 13-14 weeks. It is possible to dwarf any pea plant by pinching out the main shoot when the plant is about 20cm high and allowing it to branch.
Tall main crops, particularly the older varieties, can reach more than two metres (7ft) and thus need supports. Pea vines often billow out from their supports – you can rein them in by tying string horizontally around the whole plant at various points.
You will need to do this if you are growing rows less than 91cm (3ft) apart, otherwise you just won’t get in to pick. There is an old saying that your rows should be as far apart as the peas are tall. If you are going for 91cm between rows, give each plant more space between it and its neighbours: 10cm (4in) between each plant for tall plants, 5cm (2in) apart for small varieties. If you are growing for pea shoots, the delicious young tips of the plant, then you can cram those babies in almost shoulder to shoulder.
For pots and containers, I love the early shelling peas ‘Oskar’, ‘Meteor’ or the semi-leafless ‘Ceresa’, so no need to stake. ‘Sugar Snow Green’ is a good compact sugar snap for pots. There are a number of mangetout that are highly ornamental: ‘Golden Sweet’ has purple flowers and yellow pods; ‘Carouby de Maussane’ has lovely bicolour pink blooms; ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ is a wonderful early pea that is very heavy yielding. ‘Alderman’, ‘Telephone’, ‘Champion of England’, ‘Hurst Greenshaft’ and ‘Ambassador’ are all heavy-yielding maincrop peas.
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