“Got your peas in yet?”
So far it is a question asked in jest, a poke at the impatience of gardeners. No one dares to assume that spring has arrived. But if there is one garden crop that begs to be sown as soon as daytime temperatures creep close to 50 degrees, it is garden peas.
It is a celebration that begins with poking holes in cold, wet soil, using your fingers, then dropping a plump, soaked seed into each hole, gently raking soil over the seeds, pushing birch-branch pea stakes into the ground on both sides of each row, covering the bed with a thin straw mulch, each step performed slowly, full of purpose, and when done you lean on the rake and think about pea tendrils coiled around thin twigs and the dog, Reilly, tugging at a pod until it pulls free of the vine. You feel the sun on the back of your neck and a chill breeze on your face.
But not yet. The soil, as well as the air, must be at 50 degrees before sowing peas. Pea seeds will rot in cold, wet soil. The catalogs say, “sow in early spring as soon as the soil can be worked,” which means waiting until you can turn over the soil with a spade without forming clumps.
Peas appreciate an abundance of phosphorous and potassium in the soil and a soil pH above 6.0. Wood ashes are high in potassium and help maintain the soil pH at a proper level, so during the winter, when the wood ash pail needs emptying, I spread a generous layer over the bed that will grow peas come spring. They can also be applied to the bed in the spring, just before sowing. For most garden soils, 20 pounds (about a 5-gallon pail) per 1,000 square feet (equivalent to about 6 pounds of ground limestone) can be applied safely each year.
When it comes to pea varieties, gardeners have an abundance of choices within each of three variety groups. Our favorites are the snap peas that you can eat raw, pod and all, when the peas are plump but before they reach full size. We snack on them as we work in the garden and those that make it to the kitchen are used in salads and stir-frys.
For the last few years we have grown Sugar Ann (available from Johnnys’ Selected Seeds, www.johnnyseeds.com), a sweet, crisp snap pea on vines that only grow 2 feet tall — just the right height for Reilly. The catalogs will tell you that they do not need support, but we stake them with birch branches to make the harvest easier.
Snow peas, also called sugar peas and edible-pod peas, are grown for their sweet-tasting pods. Harvested before the tiny seeds begin to swell, they can be steamed or used in stir-frys. Snow Sweet (also from Johnny’s) is a currently popular variety with pods that remain tender longer than other varieties.
Estancia is a new variety of snow pea that is recommended for canning and freezing. I found it in The Cook’s Garden catalog (www.cooksgarden.com). It has an unusual growth habit, the pods growing on plants with fewer leaves that other varieties, making harvest easier. Reilly is very excited about the possibilities and I’m tempted to grow it just to see the difference.
Shelling peas, removed from their pods, are the traditional peas of soups and “peas and carrots,” rolling around your plate as your mother shouted, “Eat your peas!” There are plenty of varieties from which to choose, all too much work for my taste.
By early July, the pea harvest is over. We dig the spent vines into the soil and let them decompose over the next few weeks, returning their nitrogen to the soil. By August the bed is ready for a late-season crop of broccoli or a cover crop. Reilly turns her attention to the ripening tomatoes.
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