Wednesday, 14 March 2007

Support for tall peas

Tall peas growing on a simple wigwam made of 6ft twigs lashed together at the top

In my huge post on pea-growing I didn't think to mention the issue of how to support tall peas. It's another topic that often isn't covered adequately in gardening books, probably because most readily available pea seeds in the shops and catalogues are not tall varieties.

Picture yourself in the situation of a market gardener or farmer. You're faced with the task of planting a profitable crop of peas. Are you going to go through the whole field putting sturdy staking structures over all the plants? Of course not. You're going to want to plant something which only grows a couple of feet high and doesn't need support. You also won't want to be picking the crop by hand, so you'll choose a variety which ripens all its pods in one go, then you can mow the whole lot with a tractor and have done with it. If it was a tall variety you'd have to go and pull out all the supports before harvest, and it would still get itself tangled up in the tractor, but if it's a shortie you can just stick one wheel either side of it and gung ho.

That's why tall peas have gone out of fashion. Seed companies and plant breeders make way more profit from commercial growers than from gardeners, so there isn't much incentive for them to introduce new varieties specially bred for the garden. They mostly focus on steering gardeners towards the same shortie commercial varieties they're already selling to farmers. There's also not much of a market for F1 hybrid peas at the moment because they're not very practical to produce, and as F1 hybrids are the seed companies' main moneyspinners, they have a tighter profit margin on peas.

There's nothing wrong with growing commercial pea varieties in the garden, but they have some disadvantages. You don't want a glut of pods all ripening in one go, you want to be harvesting them in manageable amounts over several weeks. You don't particularly want short plants that set their pods low down where they get spattered with mud and snail trails either. And it would be nice not to have to bend over to pick them.

This is where the old-fashioned tall varieties come into their own. They are still there in the catalogues, you just have to look a bit harder for them. The Organic Gardening Catalogue have six tall varieties (plus 20 shorties) and Thompson and Morgan have ... er ... one out of 16 (well it's better than nothing). I define tall varieties as anything over 3ft. One of those offered by the Organic Gardening Catalogue is Alderman, which I bought from them a couple of years ago and found to be the most gorgeous voluptuous high-yielding ambrosial-tasting pea I'd ever encountered in my life, and I was an instant convert to the joy of tall peas and have collected many more since.

But you do have to stake the buggers, or they'll keel over.

My Alderman crop outgrows me ... and its bamboo frame. It went on to grow about another two feet.

I think the ideal solution for supporting tall peas is to get some very long, very straight and very sturdy brushwood with plenty of rough spiky bits on, and set them upright in the ground at an angle, in pairs, with the tops crossed over and lashed together. Each pair about a foot apart. But I don't have this option myself because I don't have access to that kind of brushwood, and even if I did I probably wouldn't have the physical strength to set it deep enough in the ground to keep it sturdy.

I do have some shorter branches and twigs though, because I have several trees which need pruning every year. I use damson and lilac branches to make pea sticks up to 5ft tall and twigs from the ceanothus tree to provide shorter, spikier support nearer ground level. It isn't very strong on its own though, so I often make a basic structure out of bamboo canes and then fill it in with spiky twigs. Peas don't twist around poles the same way beans do, they put out tendrils which coil round sticky-out twiggy bits and hold the plant up as it grows. So bamboo canes are not much cop on their own because they're too slippy for the tendrils to grip and too fat for them to coil round. That's why I generally combine the two.

You can use the bamboo and twig combination in lots of different ways: wigwams, crossed poles, square frames ... as long as they're tall enough for whatever variety you're growing on them. If they outgrow their supports, the tops will flop over.

A favourite method of mine is the homemade bamboo frame which I described in an earlier post. It works brilliantly for peas up to 5ft tall. I had a slight problem last year when I grew Alderman in one of these (see photo above) as it's supposed to be a 5ft variety but managed to reach between 7 and 8ft, at which point the wind caught the top of it and I ended up with an Alderman avalanche at one end and a creaking frame underneath only just holding it up. But for a less rampant variety it's ideal.

Another method I used last year and found very worthy was this large salvaged plastic trellis (my friend Roz found it in a skip and thought of me) held up with a series of crossed bamboo canes. It's very sturdy and flexible and gives the peas plenty to hang on to, although I did end up putting spiky twigs in the ground as well to help start them off.

This is what I do with my module-sown peas. It works for me, but you may have a different experience in your garden, so follow your own instincts. The first thing I do is give the soil a good digging over to break up the lumps and get some air and movement into it. If you can see some grass blades in the picture, it's because a week or so ago I dug in a sprinkle of lawn clippings ... not too many though 'cause they're high in nitrogen! Any organic material or compost is helpful. I then put up the main structure of whatever support I'm using. If it's a bamboo frame, I bed it in deeply over the newly dug plot and put a row of tall twiggy sticks down the middle.

After that I dig a wide trench on each side of the frame and dig a shovel or two of compost or manure into the bottom of it. Maybe some bonemeal if I can be bothered to trek back to the shed for it. A scoop or two of old pea roots from last year's crop, to help build up rhizobia in the soil. Then I plant the pea modules fairly randomly within the space.

Once they're snugly in the ground I start putting more sticks in, making sure all the plants have a bit of twig within easy reach of a tendril. It's quite labour intensive, but peas seem to have an instinct to hold back unless they can feel there's something there for them to climb up. Push a few twigs against the tendrils and they will soon grab a firm hold and then start growing much faster. They don't usually need tying in because they can do that for themselves.

This is what Rootrainers should do. See how the ridged edges have guided the roots straight down. Slide the plants upwards out of the module to get them out.

If it's an early crop I attach an old net curtain to the frame with clothes pegs, on whichever side the cold blustery winds tend to come from. You have to be vigilant though because given half a chance the tendrils will attach themselves to the curtain and start growing through it, and then you'll never get it off.


Mike said...

A good friend of mine has a good technique for staking things like peas, though it does take some initial "capital investment". He has set up a shoulder-high, 4-strand, wire fence running the length of a few of his beds, and weaves thin sticks vertically through the wire. Works extremely well for peas and climbing squashes and cucumbers.

cyndy said...

Thank you for this post!
Each year, I try a new method of trellis, or stakes to support my tall varieties...and each year, I come away thinking that the branches and twigs are the best method....

Once I tried to copy an illustration I had seen - with an overhead pole, parallel to the row below with a height of 6 feet. From the pole, one was to tie a length of string (from the pole- down) to each individual pea plant. This worked rather well, until the peas were about 5 feet tall, at which point I had to start adding more string to support the sides, and then the peas began to tendril to themselves and grew way beyond the 6 foot pole - flopping over and breaking in the rainstorms.

...for all the trouble, I still wind up wanting the tall peas ;-)

John Curtin said...

I'm growing Alderman for the first time this year and have just got some 8 foot poles! I've set aside some dogwood cuttings to get them scrambling up but will probably have to use some old netting as they are only a few feet tall.

Your Mr Bethells have poked through the soil - I direct sowed before reading your post on bringing them on in pots. Hopefully they'll survive this cold snap.

Rebsie Fairholm said...

Thanks Mike and Cyndy for your contributions, it's great to hear about your experiences with alternative methods.

John, your Alderman should be very happy with that arrangement. And you may find you have no problems with direct sown peas ... it doesn't work in my garden because I have too many critters that eat them, but everyone's plot is different.

Blackswamp_Girl said...

Rebsie, I found your blog via a link on Cold Climate Gardening... and have been enjoying my visit immensely. I look forward to following along more throughout the year!

By the way, I use the coir blocks that you mentioned for seed starting, too. I find that mixing in some good compost is ideal so that it retains moisture better and I don't have to fertilize... but then, I mostly winter sow outside instead of sowing inside, so I don't have to worry about compost and damping off, etc.

Joe said...

Thanks(!) for your blog on the Tall Alderman / Telephone peas + how to support.

This is my first year on attempting to grow a tall variety and your articles have both encouraged me, as well as warned me to have taller + sturdier support than what I normally run (a poly-woven 4-ft 1x2" checkerboard fence supported with 6-ft stakes).

I probably need something taller to support these as they continue to climb!

Thanks again!

A reader in KY (USA)

Anonymous said...

6' tall portable wire fencing used by builders around building sites are ideal for pea frames. Get hold of enough stabilisers too.