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Growing sustainable peas and beans in the Kitchen Garden

Date: 30 May 2024

Author: Hilary Theaker

May is one of the busiest months in the Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace. Our gardeners will be planting out seedlings, weeding, sowing the next successions of vegetables and harvesting them for sale, including ‘legumes’ or peas and beans.

Kitchen Garden and Vine Keeper Hilary Theaker delves into the importance of planting peas and beans in the garden, the unusual yet tasty varieties that can be found, and explores the vegetable-growing history of Hampton Court.

How climate change affects the Kitchen Garden

The Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace under a bright blue sky.. Showing varieties of planting.

Image: Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace. © Historic Royal Palaces

Peas and beans have been a vital food crop throughout history and in the present day. Globally they are an important protein source and enrich the soil by adding nitrogen, making them a useful part of crop rotation. As climate change leads to unpredictable weather patterns, we can improve the resilience of the garden by growing a wide variety of vegetables so that if one crop fails, another will be successful.

For example, 2022 was a very hot and dry summer which meant we were able to grow lots of wonderful aubergines, peppers and melons. In 2023, the summer was cooler and wetter, so we didn’t get much from these crops, but others such as spinach and kale were more successful.

Legumes give us an opportunity to easily trial different crops, so if we have a hot summer, one of the more unusual varieties might yield a positive result.

One of the most delicious vegetables in spring has got to be fresh peas. We start by sowing them in the greenhouse in the nursery to give them an extra head start, then plant them outside as soon as the weather is warm enough.

We build supports for the plants to climb up using hazel that has been coppiced (a pruning technique where a tree or shrub is cut to a stump, allowing a new plant to grow from the base) from the estate. As the peas grow, we cover them with netting to keep the birds off - they love to eat the peas and can tell exactly when they are ready!

A history of growing peas at Hampton Court Palace

Sugar snap peas, close up detail of green peas growing in a garden.

Image: Sugar snap peas, which also grow in the Kitchen Garden. © Historic Royal Palaces

We try and grow some crops that are historically relevant for Hampton Court, and peas would certainly have been grown in the Kitchen Garden in the Georgian era. Dried peas had been a vital winter food source in the medieval period, but by the 17th Century a fashion for fresh peas was spreading from France.

They were seen as a decadent snack, since only the very rich could afford to eat them fresh rather than saving them for the winter, which is why growers started to select peas that were the sweetest to eat fresh, rather than for their qualities as dried peas.

The peas we are growing this year include ‘Feltham first’, which would have been grown nearby the palace when it was agricultural land. We are also growing ‘Boddington’s Soup Pea’ and ‘Champion of England’, both rare heritage cultivars that grow into tall plants that are no longer grown commercially, and ‘Carlin’ peas whichdate back even further to the 12th century.

From chickpeas to edamame: Growing beans in the garden

‘Sunshine’ French beans in the Kitchen Garden at the Hampton Court

Image: ‘Sunshine’ French beans in the Kitchen Garden at the Hampton Court. © Historic Royal Palaces.

We grow lots of different types of beans each year in the Kitchen Garden. Runner beans are the classic vegetable patch crop, and types like ‘Firestorm’ have fantastic red flowers and special exhibition types like ‘Enorma’ produce huge beans. ‘Painted lady’ is a particularly old cultivar which has been grown since the 17th century.

Unusual yellow and purple podded French beans like ‘Marvel of Piemonte’, ‘Sunshine’ and ‘Purple Queen’ add a splash of colour and look great when sold together on the veg market stall.

Many people wouldn't imagine chickpeas to be a traditional vegetable in Britain, but they are mentioned in the 1653 book Culpepper’s Complete Herbal (available on The Project Gutenberg website) where they are described as being ‘less windy than beans, but nourish more’. We have found them to be quick and easy to grow, producing a lot within a small area. Edamame beans generally perform well for us too, the small plants grow quickly and are loaded with pods full of delicious beans in late summer.

Purple magnolia pea flowers in the Kitchen Garden

Image: Purple magnolia pea flowers in the Kitchen Garden. © Historic Royal Palaces

Just like peas, dried beans have been an important part of people’s diets throughout history, so we include these in our legume area. The season here is just long enough to get two sowings of legumes in each bedso we can grow early peas or overwintered broad beans, then clear them away and sow some drying beans like ‘Borlotto’, or the beautiful ‘Yin-yang’ beans – if there isn’t an early frost, then there is just enough time to get that extra harvest.

A couple of the more unusual beans that we’re trying this year are hyacinth beans, which have beautiful purple flowers, and the ridiculous looking ‘yard long bean’. This plant produces extremely long pods. We won first prize with these in the 2023 RHS Flower Show in the 'Autumn Fruit and Vegetable Competition', and another competitor remarked that ‘I’ve never seen anything like it in my life!’

Visit the Kitchen Garden at Hampton Court Palace

The peas and beans are just one small group of the plants that we grow, so why not visit the Kitchen Garden and see what else is growing this season?

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