Palate-Pleasing Peas

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Photo courtesy Lynn Karlin
Fresh or frozen, peas are among the most versatile of all
vegetables. They are naturals for Asian stir-fried dishes
laced with ginger, garlic and sesame oil, and their vibrant
green adds color to pasta dishes. Peas also can be used to
make a delicious puréed soup, or you can enjoy them
in fruit-and-vegetable salads composed of peas and
pineapple or orange sections, dressed with a sesame-scented
vinaigrette. And of course there are the classic veggie
pairings: peas with carrots, peas with cauliflower, peas
with pearl onions.

It is but a happy accident that peas’ fine flavor and
vibrant good looks are matched by great nutrition. All peas
are a good source of calcium, iron and vitamins A and C,
and those with edible pods provide plenty of dietary fiber
and make terrific snack food.

The “homegrown” difference between fresh and
not-so-fresh peas must be tasted to be believed. Only
gardeners and their customers know the sweet, crisp flavor
of fresh peas, be they shell peas, snow peas or plump snap
peas. If you grow all three types or buy them from your
local farmer’s market, you’ll have everything
you need to explore pea cuisine — the source of
several crazes in the history of food. In 1696, Madame de
Maintenon, wife of French King Louis XIV, recorded that
“Some ladies, even after having supped at the Royal
Table, and well supped too, returning to their homes, at
the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas
before going to bed. It is both a fashion and a
madness.”

The peas she mentioned were early strains of English shell
peas, so-named because English breeders developed many
fine-flavored varieties in the centuries that followed.
Today, in addition to shell peas, we can also enjoy the
edible pods of snow and snap peas. Often associated with
Asian food, snow peas have flat pods, while snap peas
feature thicker pods that are more round than flat. Snap
peas are now available in the frozen food section of every
major supermarket, and because they produce more food per
square foot than other peas and freeze beautifully, they
are the favorite of many gardeners.

Market gardeners love them, too. “They sell very
easily if you give people samples, and it’s great to
hear the crunch as they bite into them,” says Kevin
Wilson of Powell River, British Columbia, who harvested 27
pounds of snap peas from a 20-foot quadruple row last
spring, and then sold them at a farmer’s market by
the pint. Snow peas yield lower because the pods are not as
fat, but they, too, can make a profitable crop, and the
young leaves of some snow peas are good to eat in salads.
The pods of English peas are too tough to eat, so the
harvest is limited to the plants’ succulent immature
seeds, which are so far superior to canned peas that
there’s hardly a way to compare them.

More Productive Peas

Peas require cool temperatures, below 80 degrees, so they
grow best in areas where cool spring weather lasts well
into early summer. Maine, Wisconsin and the Pacific
Northwest have the best climates for peas, but anyone who
plants promptly in early spring can grow a good crop. To
make sure peas mature before the weather turns hot, plant
them three or more weeks before the last spring frost.
Young pea plants have no trouble surviving late cold snaps,
and the seeds often are willing to germinate under late
snow.

Peas are nitrogen-fixing legumes, a miracle that involves
an interaction between pea roots and several strains of
soil-borne bacteria. As long as the soil is reasonably
fertile and contains a little nitrogen left from the
previous crop, no further feeding is normally needed. An
appropriate soil pH of about 6.5 is important for smooth
operation of the nitrogen-fixing process, and the bacteria
need to be present, too. They usually are present in soil
where peas have been grown previously, but it’s cheap
and easy to inoculate pea seed with N-fixing bacteria. You
can buy the inoculant at garden centers (it works with
beans, too). Just wet the seeds, then shake them in a jar
with the powdered inoculant before planting. However,
it’s always wise to amend the soil with a half inch
to 1 inch of compost before planting peas.

Peas benefit from dense planting, in which the plants are
only 2 inches apart in the row. Wilson plants peas in
quadruple rows, with two rows of peas on each side of a
trellis in a 3-foot-wide bed. At Peregrine Farm in Alamance
County, N.C., organic farmers Alex and Betsy Hitt use the
quadruple-row strategy to grow big crops of snap peas;
their approach will work with other types of peas, as well.

“Our standard pea-planting method is two rows of a
tall pea, like ‘Sugar Snap,’ with rows of a
shorter variety on either side,” Alex Hitt says.
“A trellis goes down the middle, between the two rows
of ‘Sugar Snaps.’ This arrangement helps the
tall variety stay upright until it begins to tendril and
grab the trellis. Because the tall variety does not really
produce any peas below 24 inches, this gives us production
lower down, and a few days earlier, from the shorter
variety.” Hitt doesn’t think much of short
varieties in terms of flavor or productivity, but he
believes they help tall varieties grow better.

A pea trellis does not need to be fancy, but even short
peas need something to grab onto with their curling
tendrils. If you plan to follow peas with a nonvining crop,
a simple string trellis attached to posts is great because
you can cut it down and compost the string and spent vines
together. Nylon or plastic net trellising (sold by garden
supply companies for less than $10 for a 5-by-15-foot
piece) attached to posts also works well. Many gardeners
follow peas with cucumbers, pole beans or another vining
crop, so they install a secure trellis made of wire mesh,
and keep it in service all summer long.

A super low-maintenance trellising idea comes from David
Fisher and Anna Maclay, owners of Natural Roots organic
farm in Conway, Mass. They grow peas on upright oats: Using
a walk-behind seeder, they plant one oat seed for every
five or six peas. “The oats and peas grow at the same
rate, and reach the same height of about 30 inches,”
Fisher says. The method works with shell, snow and snap
peas, and later on, the farm’s livestock get to clean
up the row.

And then there’s the old practice of supporting peas
with small limbs gleaned from early spring fruit tree
pruning. This type of twig trellis works fine with peas
that grow less than 30 inches tall, but taller varieties
require more substantial support.

Harvesting Peas

When planted in cool, rich soil and given something to
climb on, peas pretty much grow themselves. Then comes the
fun part, picking the peas — which is not without its
challenges. The sugar content of peas increases as pods
approach ripeness and quickly converts to starch as the
seeds become mature. With snow peas and snap peas, overripe
specimens also get tough and stringy, so check your peas
daily when you think they’re almost ripe.

Harvest English peas before the pods become waxy and when
the peas are plump and sweet. Pick snow peas when the
little peas just begin to swell in the pods. With snap
peas, do not be misled by the flat pods sometimes found in
your supermarket. Young specimens store and ship well, but
they do not have the high sugar content of perfectly ripe
snap peas. “It’s a mistake to harvest snap peas
too early or too late,” Hitt says. “Pick them
when they have begun to show the individual swell of each
pea in the pod. Before that, they have not produced the
maximum amount of sugar, and after that, they become tough
and pithy.”

The dried peas used to make pea soup are grown just like
other peas, and then allowed to mature until the pods begin
to dry. A few seed companies still sell the
‘Alaska’ variety, but many more choices bear
brown, yellow or green peas, and some bear pretty purple
pods.an Jason at Salt Spring Seeds on Salt Spring Island,
British Columbia, keeps one of the best selections. Salt
Spring’s online catalog is available at
www.saltspringseeds.com, or you can write to Salt Spring
Seeds, Box 444, Ganges, Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada
V8K2W1.

Storing Peas

Peas cook so quickly that their flavor suffers when they
are canned, but they are a cinch to freeze. If you grow a
nice crop or find them at a farmer’s market, freezing
is a simple matter of dumping the cleaned peas or pods into
boiling water for a minute, scooping them out and putting
them into a bowl of ice water, and then packing them into
containers. Fill freezer bags with blanched, cooled peas
and then lay the filled bags flat on a cookie sheet in the
freezer. When the bags are frozen hard, they can be neatly
stacked into their permanent place in the freezer. When
frozen, English peas and snap peas keep well for a year,
but snow peas are best used within a few months.

Eat Your Pea Greens

When Washington State University (WSU) Extension
researchers noticed pea vines selling for several dollars a
pound at Pike Place Market in Seattle, they launched a
two-year study to evaluate the edibility of various types
of pea foliage. After looking at a dozen varieties,
including shell, snap, snow, split and marrowfat peas (the
type of pea that is fried into snack food puffs), a tasting
panel of chefs, farmers and Extension agents agreed that
4-inch-long tops from young snow peas produced the best
greens. “Pea shoots make a great addition to salad
mix, which is the most popular way of eating shoots in the
United States right now,” says Dr. Carol Miles, the
WSU agricultural systems specialist who directed the study.
Miles says you can lightly cook pea shoots, too, or they
can be used as an edible garnish.

Picking Pea Varieties

There are a few things to look for as you shop for pea
seed. If you live in a climate where spring is short,
choose fast-maturing varieties such as ‘Sugar
Sprint’ snap pea, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’
snow pea or ‘Dakota’ shell pea, all of which
mature about 60 days after seeding. Powdery mildew
resistance is easy to come by, but if you live in the
Northwest also look for resistance to Pea Enation Mosaic
Virus, available in ‘Cascadia’ snap pea,
‘Oregon Giant’ snow pea and many others.
Small-space gardeners will get more peas per square foot
with taller varieties such as ‘Super Sugar
Snap,’ but shorter ones bear all at once, which is
helpful if you plan to freeze your peas.

The following seed companies offer large selections, including collections that let you sample several
varieties in a season:

Johnny’s Selected Seeds
955 Benton Ave.
Winslow, ME 04910

Nichols Garden Nursery
1190 Old Salem Road N.E.
Albany, OR 97321

Park Seed
1 Parkton Ave.
Greenwood, SC 29647

Territorial Seed
P.O. Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424

Willhite Seed
P.O. Box 23
Poolville, TX 76487