For the greedy gardener, growing peas is dangerous – it’s impossible to resist gobbling their delicate, young shoots. But then you won’t harvest enough ripe peas, later in the season.
If you haven’t eaten pea shoots, they’re worryingly addictive – the crunchy, sweet essence of pea. These green tendrils are prized in China and Japan: foodies go wild for them. Sainsbury’s, M&S and Waitrose now stock them, charging a pound for just fifty grams.
So the trick is to grow enough pea plants for both harvests – half or more for pea shoots, the other solely for peas in their pods.
The key to success is how you organise your growing space. For a crop of pea shoots, for example, you can squash the plants snugly together because you are not aiming for full maturity.
To harvest, you nip off the main stem when around eight inches tall. The plant will grow back and produce extra side shoots. Repeat this process three times or more.
If you don’t have a garden, a trick for growing pea shoots is to sow around thirty seeds, far more than usual, one inch (2.5cm) deep in a deep seed tray or recycled plastic vegetable tray from your local grocer.
Fill first with multi-purpose compost, tap the container hard to knock out any air pockets, sow, then keep on a window ledge or balcony. It will take around four weeks to first harvest. Sow every three weeks for a steady supply.
In the garden, go for two growing spaces – one for a thick clump for shoots, the other spaced more widely, around four inches (10cm) apart, for growing the peas to full height, stretching up to the sky.
If you sow direct into the soil, dig in lots of organic matter beforehand for a bumper crop. Or you can start peas off indoors in small pots, deep seed trays, special ‘root trainers’ (a modular seed tray with extra depth) or cardboard toilet rolls – you later plant these straight into the ground, where the cardboard rots away.
Another clever method is to use a length of black plastic guttering. Fill and sow as normal. Around a month later, dig a trench and slide the peas straight in when around four inches tall. Ask a friend to help, as it is tricky to hold the plastic tube up at both ends.
When buying pea seed, don’t overlook the dwarf varieties. These have a compact growing habit, so are perfect for smaller spaces, especially balconies. Markana, for example, reaches about 80cm high and will require less support than taller types.
In the seed catalogues, you’ll find both round and wrinkled types. These, if left to grow tall, are grown for the peas in their pods. The round seeds are a traditionally tougher, so sown earlier, but at this time of year it’s safe to grow both.
The French heritage pea Douce Provence is a personal favourite. Kelvedon Wonder is startlingly quick to grow. Mangetout and sugarsnap peas, the flat thin pods you eat all at once, are particularly good for their shoots - look out for Oregon Sugar Pod.
If you’re growing peas, the taller varieties all need support. They strain upwards, sending out their fine tendrils, so crave something to cling to. Collect a stash of ‘pea sticks’ – large twigs with criss-crossing branches to create a climbing frame.
Remember, peas and their shoots are one crop best eaten straight away. They quickly lose their natural sugars – a reason why fresh peas in shops are a waste of your cash. There’s no greater joy than eating a freshly podded pea – or shoot! – that you’ve grown yourself.