How to grow your own peas

When it comes to the pick of the patch, Mat Pember goes weak at the peas. To harvest or not to harvest is the question.

Sautéed fresh peas with mint and jamón
We all have our Achilles heel. For a politician it might be taking a helicopter. For Derek Zoolander it's turning left. Mine is picking peas before they've grown beyond a bite-sized pod because they're the ultimate vegetable snackage.
There are few tastier times in the patch than when peas are in full bloom and those sweet, crunchy snacks litter the foliage.
Their bounty aside, peas also provide benefits to the garden by injecting the soil with nitrogen. After those greedy summer vegetables - tomatoes, sweetcorn, zucchini - the soil is depleted of that essential element and in need of replenishment.
Planting peas in the spaces that these crops once occupied helps redress the balance because, along with broad beans and other legumes, peas produce nitrogen as they grow. So, by planting peas in May, you're repairing the patch's soil for the next spring-summer assault. They therefore deserve a special place in the garden.
Don't overwork the soil before planting peas; the most important job is ensuring it's free-draining, and add only a moderate amount of compost to reinvigorate it. The other main task is establishing a trellis structure for pea tendrils to climb. Without a suitable framework, their growth will be stunted, as will the growing success.
Choose a sunny space for peas. They produce flowers to form their pods, so their need for light is greater than other cool-season contenders such as brassicas, roots and leafy greens. Try to place peas at the back of a north-facing patch, the sun now being lower on the horizon. This ensures that smaller plants aren't shaded, much like placing taller people at the back of the concert hall and shorter people towards the front, so nobody misses the action.
Before planting the seeds, soak them in water overnight. This helps loosen the hard coating and gives the seed a reserve of moisture to draw upon during germination. Sow them in holes two to three centimetres deep and about 15 centimetres apart, planting two seeds per hole in case one fails to sprout. If both seeds germinate, cull the weakest once it's big enough to be pulled out without disturbing the other plant.
Water thoroughly upon planting, and every second day after that. Unlike smaller seeds that sit closer to the surface and need frequent small bursts of water, peas sit deeper in the soil and are therefore more incubated. Overwatering heightens the risk of the seed rotting, making them susceptible to rodents as a tasty midnight snack.
When the plants are three to four weeks old, add three to five centimetres of sugarcane mulch to lock in moisture and keep the soil temperature even. As with any vegetable, the cosier the soil environment, the better peas grow, and the timing of mulching plays an important role here.
As peas grow, they may need a little help hanging on to the trellis. Sometimes tendrils will attach themselves easily, but they may flail about looking for support. Some gentle guidance is all that's necessary - the tendrils will do the rest.
After two or three months of growth, the peas flower and start to form pods. A splash of liquid potash aids this process. The other option is to snip off the highest tendrils to help the plant focus energy on production rather than more growth.
The difference between a tiny bite-sized pod and a mouthful is about two weeks, making the compromise between taste and yield tricky. But harvesting frees up your plants to produce more, so pluck a few pods to keep the good times rolling.
Tip of the month: Possum Protection
They're late-night party animals with opposable thumbs and the neighbours are getting sick of your dog's midnight howling. Ah yes, we're talking about possums - stealth assassins in the vegetable patch. To safeguard your garden's precious assets - and your relationship with your neighbours - the answer is quite simple.
Humankind has spent a lot of energy trying to invent the definitive possum deterrent, sonar devices (that freak out your dog) and funky sprays among them. Yet we realise now that possums are a lot like us - they're quick to evolve. That's right, possums now love chillies, and the chilli sprays that used to sting the critters are now a spicy aphrodisiac. What this tells us is that we need to keep evolving, too, or resort to an impenetrable form of defence.
Netting is the best barrier between possums and your patch. While notoriously clumsy and unsightly, our system has now evolved so it looks good and is more user-friendly.