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At odds: Timing, temperature complicate pea planting |

At odds: Timing, temperature complicate pea planting

Christine Kindl
| Sunday, March 28, 2004 12:00 a.m

Peas, please

Fresh peas are a sweet treat: As much as 25 percent of a ripe pea’s weight is sugar. Like corn, peas should be cooked and eaten soon after they are picked. Within hours, those natural sugars form a less flavorful starch.

Three types of peas ( Pisum sativum ) can be found in western Pennsylvania gardens:

  • Garden peas (also called English or green peas) are grown for their soft-hulled seeds. Harvest when pods are plump and well filled, but before the peas inside get starchy and tough. Garden peas must be shelled before they are eaten fresh, canned or frozen. The pods are inedible, lined with a tough membrane that contracts as they ripen. Left on the vine, the pods will “dehisce,” or twist open, spilling the seeds.

    Varieties include classic ‘Wando,’ productive ‘Mr. Big,’ and ‘Survivor,’ a “leafless” type that produces masses of tendrils and needs no support.

  • Snap peas produce round, edible pods with small, sweet peas inside. Harvest when pods first begin to fill out and pods break crisply, like a fresh green bean. (Once the peas inside are fully mature, they lose their sweetness and the pods get tough.) Snap peas may be eaten fresh or lightly steamed; some varieties have tough strings that must be peeled from the “seam” of the pod.

    Varieties include tall ‘Sugar Snap,’ bush-type ‘Sugar Bon’ and early ‘Sugar Sprint.’

  • Snow peas (also called sugar peas) are grown for their flat, crisp pods. Harvest before the peas begin to fill out and eat fresh, lightly steamed or stir-fried. Some varieties have strings that must be removed; all get tough if left too long on the vine.

    Snow peas are a staple of Asian cuisine. Varieties include old-fashioned ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’ and ‘Oregon Sugar Pod No. 2.’

    If the garden guides can be believed, everybody’s growing peas.

    My hand-me-down copy of “America’s Garden Book,” published in 1939, lists English peas among those plants “essential for the home garden.”

    A Colorado State University Cooperative Extension bulletin, issued last year, puts it even more bluntly: “Peas are rich in fiber, folic acid and vitamin A. We should all be eating them, and we should all be growing them.”

    Well, I’m as fond of fresh peas as anybody, and I’m quite aware of their benefits. But peas are a “sometimes” crop for me.

    To be more specific, I order pea seeds almost every year. Whether I actually get them planted is another story.

    One problem with peas is their timing. Like other cool-weather plants, they are best sown early in spring.

    When the temperature’s right, though, my garden is not. In early April, the recommended planting time, the soil in my vegetable plot still may be stiff with frost. If not, it’s likely too wet to be spaded.

    Sometimes I tiptoe along one edge of the patch, poking seeds into damp, chilly soil.

    Usually, though, I wait a few weeks before planting — until my clogs no longer leave shiny, wet footprints in the garden, and a handful of earth crumbles in my fist.

    Wet soil compacts if it’s spaded or tilled, forming clods as hard as concrete. I won’t risk turning the pea patch to rock.

    In a good year, the ground dries out enough to work while the earth and air are still cool. I can loosen a bed, dig in some compost and tuck the pea seeds about an inch deep.

    They’ll sprout in soil as cold as 40 degrees, although warmer ground gets them going faster. Green shoots will lengthen and tendrils twine when the weather is downright chilly. Even a late-spring snow does no harm.

    But if April showers soak the garden, pea-planting season can slip right by while my spade sits unused in the tool shed.

    Sometimes a wet spring forces me to plant late or — if warm weather too closely follows the rain — to plan on a late-summer sowing. But late-season harvests are typically small and, in August, my vegetable patch overflows.

    If there’s no room for peas, I throw up my hands and store the seeds, which stay viable for two or three years.

    They sprout just fine the following spring — if I can find the packet.

    Once planting is done, there’s more trouble. The minute my seedlings begin to appear, hungry songbirds descend.

    One pea-less spring I watched a robin hop lightly along the row, pulling each tender seedling in turn.

    Now I swath the bed in a lightweight row cover, anchored with bricks, when the first bit of green breaks through.

    For a few weeks, the pea patch looks like it’s wrapped in damp tissue. The cover comes off when the shoots have grown tougher, and the songbirds leave them alone.

    Then it’s time for a trellis.

    Most books suggest growing peas the English way, on twiggy branches stuck into the ground. (The 1939 guide advises using birch twigs, specifically. I have no idea why.)

    I tried twigs once, years ago, but the garden looked like a mess. Besides, since then I’ve almost always grown snap peas, the type with edible pods. They’re more productive than garden peas, and more versatile in the kitchen. But I’d need a 6-foot brush pile, enough for a bonfire, to hold up the classic ‘Sugar Snap.’

    A lath or wood trellis won’t do either, unless it’s especially fine. Pea vines climb with tendrils, specialized leaves that wrap like springs around a slender support.

    I’ve had success growing peas up black nylon netting stretched on a square, wood frame. The “picture frame” sets off the vines, and the netting is nearly invisible from just a few feet away.

    It’s even easier to pound sturdy stakes at both ends of the row, then zigzag twine between them. At season’s end the woven trellis — warp and woof, strings and vines — can be cut down and thrown in the compost heap.

    With peas, all this fiddling around comes at the start of the season. Then it’s smooth sailing until harvest time, when two simple rules apply:

    Use both hands when picking peas: one to support the delicate vine, the other to pluck the pod.

    And try not to eat them all before you get back to the kitchen.

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