I like cooking. If people are coming to supper, I pull out the recipe books, make lists, go shopping. But for ourselves, meals more often grow from leftovers in the larder, or fruit and veg in the garden, or things lurking around in the back of the fridge. That last bit doesn't sound appealing, but for a quick supper this week, the back of the fridge produced a packet and a half of feta cheese, both galloping towards their best-by dates. I broke the slabs into bits and put them on to a square of foil with the remains of a packet of black olives, a dozen cherry tomatoes from the greenhouse and a few sprigs of thyme.
While the foil package was baking in the Aga, I gathered peas. Cooked for just a few minutes, and served alongside, they turned the cheesy mixture into something rather good. We finished off with nectarines, also from the greenhouse. So although there's been a lot of moaning about growing conditions this summer, I'd say that some things (like the peas) have benefited. All the pods I picked were packed full and the crops have been exceptionally heavy.
Some say that it's not worth growing peas, because frozen ones are so good. Yes, perhaps frozen peas are slightly more like the real thing than frozen beans, but a taste of fresh picked peas reminds you there is nothing like your own, cooked fast and finished with a generous knob of butter (well, you've got to die of something and a heart attack has the merit of being quick).
We don't grow food on anything like the scale that we used to in our old garden. But outside the wooden hut where I now work, there's a useful strip of ground, where we have a block of sweetcorn, wigwams of sweet peas and climbing beans, courgettes, a big clump of rhubarb... and the peas.
The strip is only a metre wide but it has proved very productive. All the crops (except the rhubarb, of course) are cleared off by late October and each winter, the strip gets mulched heavily with mushroom compost.
It's never been dug. The crops that f grow there are set out as young plants, not sown direct in the ground from seed, and the mushroom compost, which would be a problem if you were trying to make a seedbed, doesn't get in the way of planting.
The peas grow round a circle of pig netting. This is strong stuff, about a metre in height, made up of squares of wire 15cm across. We made the circle to fit the width of the strip and anchored it with bamboo canes. I started off the peas the same way I do sweet peas, putting five seeds in 8cm pots of compost and germinating them in the unheated greenhouse. They'll germinate just as well outside or in a cold frame, but with us, mice are more of a problem there.
For the first crop, I chose 'Bingo' (£1.99), a new variety introduced this year by Thompson & Morgan, which you can sow from March onwards. Ours were sown in April and planted out in May, each potful of plants put in together, not separated out. But the crop I'm picking now is the old favourite 'Hurst Green Shaft' (T&M £2.99), which I sowed in early June and planted out in July. It grows no more than 70-75cm tall, just right for the pig netting, and has produced an outstanding number of pods, 10-12cm long, all packed with peas. The flavour is brilliant.
Like potatoes, peas are divided into earlies and main crops. 'Hurst Green Shaft' is a maincrop pea, and at planting-out time, I just set the new potfuls in the spaces in between the potfuls of the 'Bingo' peas, which at that time had just started to crop. By choosing the right varieties, you can have peas coming on all summer.
In The Vegetable Garden (1905) the Edwardian gardener William Robinson of Gravetye Manor in Sussex, makes the point that wrinkle-seeded peas do not germinate so well as round-seeded ones. Certainly that was the case with my 'Hurst Green Shaft' which has wrinkled seeds. But by initially sowing five seeds to a pot, you are allowing for the failure of some of them. Though few pots will sprout five little plants, most will have at least three for planting out and that is plenty. Wrinkle-seeded peas have more flavour than the round-seeded varieties. The advantage of the round-seeded types is that you can sow them earlier in the year.
As for the tomatoes that I chucked in the parcel with the feta cheese, they were 'Sungold' (T&M £2.99), "voted by gardeners as the sweetest tomato ever from seed" says the catalogue. They are growing in pots, both in the greenhouse and outside and, although the outside ones started cropping later, at least they didn't get blight. In a summer as wet as this, I would have expected them to have collapsed ages ago.
I sowed the tomatoes (there are only 10 seeds in a packet) in a 12cm pot of compost in the unheated greenhouse on 27 March. The seedlings were pricked out into individual 8cm pots when they'd got their first proper leaves and then moved on into 28cm pots when they were about 20cm tall. They grow cordon-style, so you need to tie them on to a bamboo stake as they grow. I tie the tops of the stakes to a wire stretched across the roof of the greenhouse, which stops the pots toppling over at this stage of the summer, when they are massively top-heavy. As with all cordon types of tomato, you need to pinch out the side-shoots that grow where the leaves join the main stem.
Of all home-grown crops, tomatoes are perhaps the most fun, because, in pots, you can squeeze them in anywhere. And the fruits, compared with the cotton-wool varieties you buy, are sensational. Unless you want to, you don't even have to mess around with seed. In late spring, garden centres are full of young plants, ready to set out. A greenhouse certainly helps, as I've discovered in the few years since we made ours, but I got some good crops, too, in the old garden, where all the tomatoes were grown outside. This year, despite the weather, we're in for a bumper harvest.
Thompson & Morgan, Poplar Lane, Ipswich, Suffolk IP8 3BU, 0844 573 1818, thompson-morgan.com