The Good Life: Get entrenched with podfuls of goodness
They might be in every supermarket, but nothing beats home-grown peas
You have to admit that when it comes to frozen peas, the modern food market serves up a pretty wonderful product – an enormous big bag of perfect little peas.
As a grower, when I look into the pack, I am always struck by one overwhelming thought: "Wow, I would need to grow a hell of a lot of pea plants and do a serious shed load of shelling to produce a bag of peas this size."
It would also be pretty difficult to argue that home-grown peas represent good value for money.
A single, 1kg bag of 'leading brand' frozen peas will cost about €2.50 in a supermarket. You would need roughly a 1m long bed of pea plants to produce the same amount.
But I still try to grow as many peas as I can each year, and here's why:
First of all, sampling the first peas of the season is one of the great delights of any growing year – in fact it is one of a triumvirate of great GIY experiences as far as I am concerned, the other two being the first tomato of the season and the first spuds.
Secondly, home-grown peas are a taste sensation. It's just about impossible to sample peas at the peak of their freshness and flavour unless you grow them yourself.
The sugars in the peas start to convert to starch as soon as they're picked, so they are losing sweetness almost immediately.
No matter how fine-tuned the commercial manufacturers get their processes, they simply can't compete with the freshness of peas that are picked just before cooking.
Splitting open a bursting pea pod and plucking out the seven or eight peas with your thumb is an absolutely wonderful experience – so much so that it can be a challenge to get them to the kitchen without the whole lot being scoffed on the way.
Our kids have discovered that the experience is all the more joyous if it happens right there in the veg patch.
One year I couldn't understand why there were no peas below a certain height on the plants, until I realised that was the height that the kids could reach up to.
You can't really complain of course – I mean, would you really stop them from eating fresh peas? I would love to be able to grow sufficient peas to be able to eat them fresh all summer long and then freeze enough to see us through the winter months.
Alas, this remains challenging because of the space that would be required.
I do two sowings of peas – the first around now and the second in late May.
I sow my peas directly in the soil by making a shallow trench (about 5cm deep and 25cm wide) and then placing the peas in a zig-zag line along the trench with about 10cm between peas.
Then simply rake soil over the trench to cover them.
You need to leave 60-70cm between rows so, generally speaking, I get two rows of peas in a standard-width bed.
Peas are a little bit fussier to grow. While easy to get going, your crop will be pretty abysmal if you don't put them in good soil.
They like good soil structure, which means that when you sow them or transplant you need to make sure the ground is good and firm, otherwise they will become displaced.
While the soil needs to be good and fertile, you don't need to over-manure – too much nitrogen will do them more harm than good.
We get a good dose of manure into the beds that will take the peas in the winter, and then leave it at that.
Peas are incredible plants. As they grow they send out delicate, yet strong, tendrils, which wrap around whatever support you have left for them – old branches, netting, trellis etc – to give the necessary support to the main stem.
How the tendrils sense that there is something near them to curl around is one of nature's undiscovered secrets.
In the early stages, they don't like too much cold so protect them from frosts if you have to.
Those tendrils are currently incredibly trendy in the culinary world, and fantastic in salads – they taste a lot like a mild spinach, but there is that definite taste of pea there too.
Pea plants do need support – don't be fooled by the cutesy little plants at this time of the year.
By the summer they are substantial and will fall or blow over in the wind if they are not supported.
I put some canes or narrow fence posts in the ground at either end of the bed, and attach a length of chicken wire between the posts.
I then grow plants on either side of the netting and the tendrils will grasp the chicken wire as they grow.
Peas really dislike dry weather, and letting the plants dry out has a disastrous impact.
If the plants are noticeably dry it's probably too late to save them. So it's a good idea to mulch them to try and retain water, but you will need to check the soil beneath the mulch to ensure that it is still wet enough.
In dry weather, give them a good soaking, particularly when they are coming close to flowering, and when the pods are fattening up with peas.
Clearly, having soil that's too dry for peas hasn't been an issue for many a year – but we live in hope.
Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY
Health & Living