Reap what you sow: It's not as difficult as you think to grow peas and squash


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The Independent Online

One warm, still evening in mid-July I picked the first peas, the first cucumber and the first courgette. My husband was away sailing in the Shetlands. The booty was mine, all mine. I made fat batons of the cucumber and ate them, dipped in hummus, as I sat outside shelling the peas. In the fading light, the rooks sailed in overhead, hundreds of them, chattering, clattering, making for their roost in the alder trees below the house.

Those peas, dashed into boiling water, buried for ever the notion that a frozen pea is a decent substitute for the real thing. Fresh peas, with lashings of farm butter melting on top, a quick half turn of the pepper mill. Supper done.

Unfortunately my pea harvest is now over, but I'm already thinking that next year I'll try and push it on a bit (or start it earlier) by making three successional plantings rather than two, which is what I did this year. The first lot (a maincrop variety, 'Hurst Green Shaft') were sown in mid-April, the second 10 days later.

The peas grow round circles of pig netting. This is strong stuff, about one metre in height, made up of squares of wire 15cm across. We made the circles to fit a strip of ground just a metre wide, which is where I grow most of our veg. Anchored with bamboo canes, the netting is very stable.

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.

The plants were ready to set out in May, a potful for each square of netting. 'Hurst Green Shaft' (Thompson & Morgan, £2.99 for 250 seeds) grows no more than 70-75cm tall, just right for the pig netting, and produces 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. So if I sowed an early variety such as 'Twinkle' (T&M, £2.69 for 250 seeds) or 'Meteor' (T&M, £2.29 for 250 seeds) I could be picking peas by June rather than in July. For an early crop I'd have to sow in March rather than April. Or I could stick with maincrop varieties and use 'Ambassador' (T&M, £2.19 for 300 seeds) for a third, later sowing. The problem with late crops is powdery mildew. But 'Ambassador' has good resistance to that particular disease and will produce fat double pods right into early September.

In the end, my choice will be dictated by what space I've got in the greenhouse. It's not that germinating peas need heat (and the greenhouse, anyway, is only frost-free), but if I put the pots in the cold frames, the mice will eat the seeds. And if I plant them direct in the strip, something else will eat them. I start off most crops in pots to transplant when they are growing strongly. With peas, you've a wide window for sowing, stretching from March through till June.

Wrinkle-seeded maincrop peas like 'Hurst Green Shaft' do not germinate so readily as round-seeded early ones. 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.

Next year, too, I'll return to growing squash as well as courgettes. I grew them when we first came to this house, using a steep south-facing bit of ground that is now part of the flower garden. But this year, having run out of space in the veg strip, I planted a spare courgette on the compost heap, where it has done brilliantly. So that's where I'm going to put the squash.

The two compost bins are built side by side out of railway sleepers. The sleepers dictate the proportions, each bin being roughly two metres square, with open fronts. Every year one is being filled, the other emptied. In late May there was still a bank of compost we hadn't yet dug out at the back of the one bin and that's where I put the courgette.

A couple of summers ago, the Royal Horticultural Society organised a trial of butternut squash and gave Awards of Garden Merit to 'Cobnut' (Suttons, £4.25 for 12 seeds), 'Harrier' (DT Brown, £1.79 for 10 seeds), 'Hawk' (Mr Fothergill's,f £2.55 for 10 seeds) and 'Hunter' (Suttons, £3.65 for 12 seeds). The problem with squash used to be that, like sweetcorn, they did not ripen in British summers. Breeders have got round that difficulty with squash as well as sweetcorn, but the need for a longer growing season than we can provide is the reason that the popular American variety 'Waltham' failed to get an AGM in the trials.

'Cobnut' needs to be sown early as it takes 18-20 weeks to mature, but in the trial produced good crops of big, ridged fruit. 'Harrier' produces pale, bell-shaped fruit which in a good season can be ready for picking three months after sowing. 'Hawk' is relatively compact in growth and ripened early in the RHS trials, producing a good crop of sweet squash weighing roughly 700g each. 'Hunter' has long, trailing growth and cropped best of all in the trial with buff-coloured fruit weighing up to a kg each.

They are not difficult to grow, but need space. Start seeds off inside, setting one seed in an 8cm pot of compost. Sow as early as you dare, bearing in mind that the plants won't be able to go outside until all danger of frost has passed. Mid April is safe, as after three weeks you may already have a plant big enough to pot on. Then, after another three weeks, it will be lusty enough to set outside.

By that time it will be late May. Give it all the sun you can find. Don't worry about the mildew which will surely be creeping over the foliage by August. This acts as a natural brake on new leaf growth, which is what you want, because by this stage, the plant needs to concentrate on ripening its fruit.