Peas love cool summers with plenty of rain. The sweetest varieties are wrinkle-seeded and fairly tall, so they do need support. Sow plenty of seeds from March until mid-July. Late sowings often do well and escape the pea moth. Early smooth-seeded varieties are less tasty, with pale flowery seeds.
Choosing the right pea variety
There are two types of pea. Smooth-seeded varieties produce rounded pale-green peas which taste floury and slightly unpleasant when eaten raw. These varieties tend to be hardier and shorter and they include ‘Feltham First’, and ‘Meteor’.
Most commonly-offered pea varieties are wrinkle-seeded however, with pods that contain squarish, bright-green peas that melt in the mouth. Varieties vary from early to maincrop and I can recommend ‘Hurst Green Shaft’ for yield, flavour and freezability.
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When to plant peas
Always assess the condition of your soil before sowing early crops. If the soil sticks to your boots it’s too wet to plant or sow - so bide your time. If April’s still chilly, cloche the areas where you want to sow because warm soil is essential for faster germination.
Peas can be succession-sown every two weeks up until the middle of July and still crop well. For this reason the head gardeners who managed the large walled gardens of country houses devoted more room to peas than any other crop. If there was a glut the peas were dried for soups and stews.
July sowings often do very well as the weather tends to be cooler in autumn. ‘Hurst Greenshaft’ and ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ both do well sown late.
Where to plant peas
Peas are cool season plants, preferring cool, moist conditions and they often do best in cooler summers. They can also tolerate some shade.
Most varieties need supporting with either twiggy pea sticks, or pea netting.
How to plant peas
Get the soil ready and rake it down to a fine tilth whenever the weather allows. Once the texture’s fine enough, leave the soil to stand and settle for at least two or three days.
Make a twelve-inch (30-cm) wide drill and zigzag the seeds across from side to side. Cover with chicken wire or wire netting and then poke the sticks through. The chicken wire will help to prevent mice and birds from eating your seeds.
Add a double row of twiggy supports straight after sowing, so that they form a Gothic arch. Harvest regularly.
You will need to sow plenty of seeds. “One for the mouse, one for the crow, one to rot and one to grow” as the saying goes. Adding a few mangetout seeds to the end of a row will give you mangetout before your peas pod up.
They should be watered well, at least once a week as soon as they come into flower, in dry weather. Morning watering is the most efficient, as early summer nights can be chilly
When to pick peas
Pick regularly to encourage more pods. On average peas take 100 days to mature.
Pinch out the growing tips on later-sown peas as soon as the first pods are ready at the bottom of the plants, so that they concentrate their energies into filling the pods.
Peas (like all legumes) should never be given a nitrogen-rich feed. They fix their own nitrogen by forming an association with certain bacteria in the soil.
Maincrop pea varieties
‘Hurst Green Shaft’ AGM (second early)
A tried and tested heavy-cropper that produces long easily picked pods. Never fails, producing 9 to 11 peas per pod. Good resistance to downy mildew and fusarium wilt. 75cm (30")
‘Twinkle’ (first early)
An early, self-supporting variety, but not a heavy cropper. However it is compact and disease resistant, so perfect for containers and small plots. 55cm (22")
‘Avola’ (first early)
Perfect for containers and small plots due to its short height. Early maturing, producing an abundance of tender pods, each packed with up to 8 succulent peas of a superb sweet flavour. Surplus crops will freeze particularly well. 60cm (24”).
Pea 'Ambassador' (maincrop) AGM
Outstanding resistance to mildew, so excellent in drier areas and also good for later sowing. Produces heavy yields of blunt ended pods, each containing up to 9 delicious, dark green peas on semi-leafless stems making picking easy.
‘Jaguar’ AGM (second early) AGM
An early high yielding pea with short pod containing seven dark, tasty peas on vigorous plants. Good resistance to downy and powdery mildew. Height: 70cm (28").
‘Cavalier’ (maincrop) AGM
British-bred maincrop with pairs of long, straight pods containing nine peas - good flavour. Good powdery mildew resistance. 90cm (35").
Sow a few mangetout at the end of the row to produce edible pods after 70 days.
‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ AGM
Mature first and produces sweet, juicy pods. Easy and excellent for lightly steaming or stir fries.
Taller and heavier cropping than Oregon Sugar Pod - but can get stringy quickly.
Pea Moth (Cydia nigricana)
This drab, small olive brown moth has black and white bars on the front edge of its forewings and long antennae. Between five and 11 days after the adult moths emerge, they lay flat transparent, white eggs (size of a pinhead) on the leaves, pods, flowers or stems of pea plants.Caterpillars hatch and get inside the pods, looking like tiny white maggots.
Early sowings of peas often escape because the moths do not fly until June and July. They home in pea plants in flower, so the earliest sowings may escape if they have finished flowering. Similarly, late sowings often avoid pea moth too.
When fully fed, in mid to late summer, the caterpillars leave the pods and go into the soil to pupate. For this reason peas should never be grown in the same position twice. Traditionally nitrogen-hungry brassicas always follow legumes (ie peas and beans) as the latter enrich the soil with extra nitrogen via their root nodules.
Hoeing the soil, or digging it over straight after the peas are cleared, will expose the pupae to birds such as robins.
Did you know...?
Early pea varieties were not very sweet until the Herefordshire Cider maker Thomas Knight started to hybridise peas. He used his experience as a cider apple grower, selecting and crossing for sweetness. He created wrinkle seeded peas that could be eaten raw. Knight was one of the first presidents of what eventually became the Royal Horticultural Society - between 1811 and 1838.
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