Fresh peas are a thing of beauty. Ready to eat in early summer, peas are some of the season’s first tastes of green. Winters are long up north where I live, and eating fresh from the garden is a welcome treat. Peas are delicious, fast-growing, and conducive to cold climates — the perfect plant for a northern garden. If you have not tried peas in your own backyard, I encourage you to do so.
I have compiled some information about peas out of my favorite seed catalogs, as well as from Andrea Chesman’s cookbook Serving up the Harvest. Read on for a few interesting facts about the wonderful pea plant and some great tips on how to grow them and enjoy a bountiful harvest.
People have been enjoying fresh peas since as early as the 1600s. These hardy legumes were brought to North America by European settlers and were Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable at his Monticello garden. (His preference: the English pea.) Peas like cool moist conditions and usually do poorly in hot dry weather. They grow best in northern climates, but with a little extra care can be grown as far south as Virginia and possibly beyond.
These delectable vegetables can be enjoyed raw, steamed, stir-fried, in salads, and as out-of-hand snacks. Soups, casseroles, pasta and even smoothies are enhanced by the inclusion of peas. My own favorite is a quick risotto concoction of rice and peas called “risi e bisi.”
Peas are high in protein and fiber, and contain vitamins A, B, C and K. They are 25 percent sucrose and lose up to half of their sugar content within six hours of picking at room temperature. Sugar loss can be slowed in the refrigerator, but it is best to enjoy them as soon as possible. Some of the super-sweet varieties retain sweetness longer and can be left out for all-day snacking.
To de-string peas which are to be eaten pod and all, start at the tip and pull the string off around the seams of the pea. To remove the peas from the shell, squeeze the pod at the seams until it pops, and push the peas out with your thumb.
Most peas fall into one of three basic categories, plus a few unique varieties:
- Shell/shelling peas, or garden peas, are the types that are meant to be removed from the pod—or shell—before eating. The pods of shell peas are usually discarded or fed to livestock. Shell peas are tender and sweet but are labor-intensive to prepare for the table.
- Snow peas, or edible podded peas, are the ones eaten primarily for the pods. They are meant to be picked before peas develop inside. I sometimes have trouble remembering which type of pea is which, so I remind myself that with snow peas there’s no peas. (Say it out loud to hear what I mean.) They are a favorite of Asian cuisine and in salads.
- Snap peas, or sugar snap peas, are somewhere between shell peas and snow peas. They are usually super-sweet varieties of small peas which are supposed to be eaten pod and all, often raw as snacks and in salads.
- Almost all peas are green, but a few purple and golden cultivars are available. There are also “tendril” peas on the market — sugar snap types with edible tendrils — which replace some of the plant’s leaves with tendrils and are said to help protect the pea plants from disease.
Peas do best in well-drained soil with a pH of between 6.0 and 7.5. If soil is more acidic than that — which is often the case in my region — then it can be neutralized with limestone or wood ash. Avoid too much nitrogen, as peas — like most legumes — can fix their own. To encourage formation of high-nitrogen nodules on the plants, some experts recommend using an “inoculant,” which is available at garden stores and applied to the seeds before planting.
Most peas need a trellis — some kind of fence or climbing support. A few varieties are sold as “bush types,” and can support themselves without a fence, but they are generally the exception. It is advisable to install the trellis at the time of planting, so as to not disturb the delicate young seedlings after they have sprouted. Peas can take a while to sprout from the soil — two weeks or more if it is quite cold — but they grow fast once they emerge and will start looking for something to climb on right away.
Plant peas in spring, as soon as the soil is able to be worked. It is key to get them going in time for harvest before the summer’s heat shuts them down. Some regions allow for a second planting for a fall harvest, but the timing can be tricky. Frost stops production in the blossom and pod stages, so the seeds must go into the ground early enough to beat the frost. Peas do not like heat, so planting them in the heat of July is potentially risky. Preparing the bed with mulch to cool the soil before planting, or planting the seeds in the shade of taller plants, may be helpful. But if autumn days in your region usually reach 75 degrees, it may not be cool enough for a fall crop.
It is important to harvest regularly, and pick before they get stringy. A pound of fresh peas in the pod will yield a cup or so of shelled peas, and a pound of fresh snap peas equals four to five cups.
What you cannot eat fresh can be preserved easily. To freeze, blanch for 2-4 minutes — less for shelled peas and more for in-the-pod — in boiling water, plunge into ice water to cool, and dry on towels or in a salad spinner.
Peas can also be dried much the same way as beans, by leaving them on the vine until dry and leathery, or even pulling the entire plant and hanging it indoors upside down. A dehydrator would work just fine, too.
There are a few pea diseases to watch out for. Powdery mildew strikes in hot weather and looks like someone doused the plant with baby powder. The best way to prevent this affliction it to use varieties resistant to it. Once powdery mildew has occurred, pick peas in early mornings when dew is still on the plants to help mitigate spread of the disease.
A more common disease is pea root rot, or fusarium. This can remain in the soil, so rotating out of legumes with brassicas is a good strategy. Other helpful methods to control fusarium include using well-drained soil and choosing resistant varieties.
Pea seeds save well for up to five years. They are self-pollinating, but crosses can occur when pollinators move from one variety to the next. To be sure, give 25-50 feet between types.
If you give peas a try in your own garden, you will be glad you did. Rich, sweet, nutritious peas in early summer are heaven on earth, and the tasty rewards are unsurpassed.
What advice would you add on growing peas? Share your tips in the section below: