I‘ve always been a keen vegetable gardener. As I boy I would grow lettuces and radishes, then around ten or eleven I used to ‘help’ our gardener, Joe Aylott. Joe was a member of a rapidly vanishing species: Hertfordshire countrymen. Today, the part of the county where I grew up, in the chalk hills near Baldock and Letchworth, is prime upwardly-mobile commuter country. Houses that I remember used to have old bikes leaning against their gates are now graced by Mercs and expensive German hatchbacks. Gardens have sprouted trendy London gas lamps, swanky garages, and block-paved pull-ins; large decked patios are now as common as the rabbit hutches of my youth – but in those days the bunnies were usually destined for the pot, rather than petting. Joe was a good gardener, but he wasn’t obsessive. Put another way, he liked his tea breaks too. Make no mistake, Joe was no rustic simpleton and there was another side to him: we used to have long chats about life in general and it was Joe who introduced me to Evelyn Waugh – I still have the copy of Decline and Fall he gave me when I was about 12. Anyhow, I learned nothing more practically useful from Joe than how to set a good strong set of pea sticks. Our garden wasn’t particularly sheltered, so the pea sticks had to be able to withstand the sometimes fierce storms of springtime – not to mention the impacts of flying dogs, footballs and children. In those days kids were allowed – no encouraged – to run free. Cars had yet to dominate life in the country.
Back in the 1950s it was still possible to have freshly cut and springy hazel delivered to your door by the coppicers who then still worked the woods in March. Today, I cut mine from the woods we planted back in 1992. If you can’t get hazel, I’ve found that dogwood, field maple, sycamore, even birch and oak – and at a pinch, ash, will also do. But hazel is by far and away the best. But whatever you use, it must all be flexible and freshly cut. That’s absolutely essential. In the woods I try to cut the stems with an oblique slice, as this makes it easier to push them into the ground in a dry year, such as this.
The first step is to soak your peas for a couple of hours before planting. The variety I normally grow is Hurst Greenshaft – they’re reliable, productive, but most important they have a wonderful flavour. They also freeze well – and most of our crop is destined for the freezer. I rake-out an open shallow trench about 4 – 6 inches wide and sprinkle the peas along it, making sure I have a good even cover. One year I lost nearly all of them to mice, so now I follow a neighbour’s advice and pour a tablespoon of ordinary paraffin over them after they’re drained. The smell’s pretty unpleasant and mice appear to detest it; so it seems to have done the trick.
After I’ve carefully covered the peas with about an inch or so of soil, I select out the larger pea sticks and push them into the ground, having first carefully marked out the edges of the shallow trench with short canes. This is the important bit: I push them in at an angle, so that they cross with the sticks on the other side, in a sort of X-shape. Once I’ve set a few, I then pull them back so that they actually butt up against their opposite number. This is also when I weave-in any straggly bits. The result is a sturdy, tall, but surprisingly narrow, hazel framework.
Having finished the row, I then weave a series of long, thin hazel rods a few inches below the eventual top of the pea-sticks. This rod binds the higher, whippy sticks in place. It also straightens out any obvious wiggles. In the past I used to try and make this line absolutely horizontal – as it looked a bit smarter: more Chelsea, more professional. But now I allow it to wander up and down a bit, to where the sticks are weakest. Then I select smaller branches and insert them into any gaps. Finally, I take my secateurs and trim the top and sides into shape, sticking the off-cuts into the ground for the very young peas to scramble onto. This forest of sticks and twigs at ground level deters cats, sparrows, blackbirds and pheasants very effectively.
I know it all sounds rather daunting, and the job usually takes me about three hours. But it always seems like a few minutes: it’s strange the way time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. Then, at the end of the day I sit back, admire my handiwork – and anticipate the treat to come.