Thursday, April 18, 2013

Peas - an early, cool weather crop

Different kinds of peas for my garden

Peas are a wonderful early crop that you can grow here in the north. They like the cold, and even tolerate the occasional snow shower with aplomb. As long as more than half your nights are above freezing, and your soil has defrosted enough to allow you to work it, you can plant peas. In fact, the only time you want to avoid planting peas is in the heat of summer, because they do not like warm weather at all. The moist, cool days of spring are best for these hardy vegetables.

The raised bed - before
There are three basic types of peas: pod or shell peas, sugar pod or snap peas, and snow peas. Both shell and snap peas can be dehydrated and used in soups and stews later, but snow peas are best eaten fresh, or frozen quickly when they come out of the garden. There are also peas that are high in starch that are designed to be dehydrated, and they are generally a sub-category of shell peas.

The raised bed - after
Shell peas are the ones you buy at the store in cans or frozen, that have large, plump peas and no pod at all. They're great for use in soups, stews, salads of all kinds, and as a side dish. They can be canned, frozen, or dehydrated for use throughout the year. They can be eaten fresh off the vine. I love using shell peas for all sorts of things, and for me they're like popcorn on a summer evening. I can while away the time during a movie by popping the pods open and devouring the sweet treat within. I always plant a type of shell pea, and I prefer Lincoln peas because of their heritage and open germinating status, as well as their superior flavor and size.

The second type of pea that I love to plant are snap peas. These are edible podded, but with juicy little peas inside. They work best when eaten fresh or frozen for later use, and don't stand up as well to canning or dehydrating. If you have a garden that contains broccoli and cauliflower and carrots, you can freeze all four ingredients together to make something similar to the store-bought California mix, which defrosts well and cooks up quite nicely.

Marking a straight row
Snow peas are the ones we think of as being in Oriental foods. They are flat, and if they have peas inside they're minuscule. The pod is the tasty part of snow peas, and they're best served fresh. Pick snow peas in the morning, right after the sun has come up and dried the dew off them, and you'll get them at the height of flavor. Toss them in salads, serve in stir-fry, or just eat them with a bit of your favorite salad dressing.

Peas are a vegetable high in nutrient value. A whole cup of peas will rack up only 134 calories. They have no fat, incredibly low sodium, and 9 full grams of fiber per cup. They're a great source of Protein, Vitamin A, Riboflavin, Niacin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Magnesium, Phosphorus and Copper, and a very good source of Dietary Fiber, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Thiamin and Manganese (from SelfNutritionalData).

Peas laid out in the garden
From a gardening point of view, peas are in the easy category. There's no thinning to do, and short of giving them no water at all, they tolerate being wet, dry, and cold fairly well. As soon as your ground can be hoed or rototilled, you want to get your pea seeds into the ground. Generally, this will be when daytime temperatures reach into the 60F range, and evenings move between 30F and 50F.

Plant the seeds an inch deep (to the first knuckle on your thumb) and about two inches apart, in a straight row. Generally you would plant two rows about six inches apart, and then put a pea fence in between the rows. This allows the pea vines to grow upward and support themselves. This year, I've decided to plant one ten foot row of Lincoln peas, and one ten foot row of Oregon Sugar Pod peas, on either side of a pea fence. I'm told they won't cross-pollinate, so I'm crossing my fingers!

Peas are a quick crop, taking about 60-70 days to grow to maturity. Planting them in mid-April means that my peas will be ready by mid-June, and I'll probably start harvesting them at the beginning of June. By mid-July, they'll be done giving me peas, and I can transplant fall crops like pumpkin and such into their place. Don't pull up your peas, though. They have a lot of nitrogen in their roots, and if you snip off the vines at the soil line, they will continue to amend the soil and improve it. You can plant your next crop in place around the roots of the peas.

Clearly marked rows
Once peas start producing pods, you need to keep up on harvesting them. Go out every single day and pick peas, and you will have vines that continue to produce more and more pods. Remember that a plant's job is to create seed to carry on its genes, and so by picking the pods daily, you're telling the plant that it hasn't yet fulfilled its purpose. It will continue to produce seed pods for as long as the weather and soil allow it to, in an attempt to reproduce itself.

If you want to collect your own pea seeds for next year, simply let a plant or two at the end of your row keep its pods until they turn yellowish brown and dry out. The dried pods can be collected and opened, and the peas set out in a sunny window for a couple of weeks to dry thoroughly. Dry pea seeds should be stored in a cool, dark place. I like to seal mine into vacuum seal baggies, ensuring they're kept as dry as possible.

Have you ever grown peas in your garden? What's your favorite type? Do you only plant enough to eat them fresh, or do you like to preserve your peas for the year?

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