Early spring is pea-planting time — if your garden is ready.
Some people use St. Patrick’s Day as a marker for putting in the peas and new potatoes, but of course that depends on the weather and the condition of the garden soil. There is still a good window of opportunity to plant these legumes. Pea planting can be something of a family tradition.
The seeds are big enough that even the smaller children can handle them well enough to take part in planting them. Of course the ideal planting pattern would systematically place the seeds a couple of inches apart, but eyeballing that spacing is a little advanced for small kids. Some families make do with a rule that none of the seeds can touch one another — even the little ones can understand that concept. The seed ends up somewhat erratically spaced down a furrow but the kids can proudly say “I helped,” and the erratic method can still produce a crop.
Peas seem to have no single place of origin. Wild peas grow in Afghanistan and India, the Near East and the plateaus and mountains of Ethiopia. From these areas they have made their way around the world and have provided food for millennia.
Archeologists exploring the Spirit Cave, located on the border between Burma and Thailand, found peas, which were probably wild varieties that were gathered rather than cultivated. Carbon dating placed their origins at 9,750 B.C. More have been discovered in northwestern Iraq dated between 7,000 and 6,000 B.C. The archeological remains of Bronze Age villages in Switzerland contain early traces of peas dating back to 3,000 B.C.
Archeologists discovered something that resembled peas in ancient Egyptian tombs. It was not the familiar variety of peas we enjoy at our dinner tables, but a smaller variety unfamiliar to western botanists. Called the oasis pea, this legume grows in the Sahara Desert, is presently cultivated in Algeria, and is thought to be native to Egypt.
The Persians introduced peas to the Romans and the Greeks. During the Norman Conquests, they were carried to England. Twelfth Century records say that green peas for Lent were stored in a nunnery near London. However, they did not receive detailed written descriptions until the French described them in 1536. Europe was also familiar with edible podded peas at that time.
By the end of the 1700s, pea cultivation and development began to spread. Botanists in Belgium, Germany and England described peas of all sizes, shapes and seed appearance.
The English developed some of the most flavorful varieties, and as a result, common shelled peas are often referred to as English peas. In the southern United States the word peas often refers to cowpeas, which are actually beans. The vegetable well known throughout the rest of the United States as common green peas is referred to as English peas in the South.
They may be a ho-hum vegetable tucked into the dinner plate today, but at the end of the 17th Century, peas were considered a delicacy and indulgence among the wealthy and aristocracy of France. Edible peas include all varieties that can be eaten shelled or unshelled. Some common varieties include English peas, snow peas, sugar peas and snap peas. All types are tender and relatively sweet when eaten fresh. They require the same garden treatment, but they are harvested and used differently.
If the soil can be worked, plant them soon. The ideal soil temperature for germination is about 50 degrees. Use fungicide treated seeds to prevent them from rotting in the soil. Peas produce a better crop in cool weather. Hot weather stops them from bearing. However, pea pods and vines can tolerate a light frost. Peas are a cool-climate crop with optimum growing temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees. Plant peas in cool weather by about five weeks before the date of the last frost, or anytime before May 15. For a fall harvest, plant peas again in midsummer to produce during the cooler temperatures of fall.
Some gardeners have had success in planting peas in late fall so the seeds will germinate when the weather warms in the spring. Yields may be reduced as some of the seed will rot in the soil. When planting in rows, place seeds 2 inches deep and 2 inches apart in double rows 3 to 6 inches apart. Allow 18 to 24 inches between the double rows.
Pea vines vary widely in height. Dwarf plants grow 1 to 2 feet high, semi-dwarf plants grow 2 to 3 feet high and tall varieties can reach 6 feet. Snow peas tend to grow to the taller heights. Taller plants should be trellised. Dwarf varieties are well suited to wide row planting, as the growing plants provide support for one another.
When planting peas in containers, allow 6 inches in each direction for the plant and stake it to support its growth. Provide peas with a complete fertilizer when planting just to get them started. The plants are legumes which get nitrogen from the air and fix it in the soil, so they will not need additional nitrogen as the growing season progresses. Mulch the soil to control weeds and conserve moisture. Monitor irrigation and apply 1 to 2 inches of water each week on established plants as the soil dries out. Do not overwater. Allow 45 to 55 days from emergence to harvest. In cooler springs, allow 60 days. Cultivate carefully to avoid damaging shallow roots.
Pick English or shell peas when they reach full size and the pods are plump and peas are fully developed, but before the pods take on a grayish cast and the peas get too large. Large peas are tough and less sweet. They are tasty either raw or cooked. Many people raise peas primarily to eat raw because it takes a lot of peas to get a freezer full. Favorite shell peas include Patriot Banquet, Lincoln and Early Frosty.
Snow peas are harvested while the pod is quite flat. These are eaten pod and all and are often used in stir fry dishes. Snow peas include Snowflake, Little Sweetie and Oregon Sugar Pod II.
The pods on snap or sugar snap peas are crisp and sweet and they can be eaten with the peas inside or shelled like English peas. Some favorite sugar snap varieties are Sugar Daddy, Sugar Ann and Early Snap.
Harvesting peas every three to five days will prevent over maturity and stimulate the plants to continue to produce new pods. Harvested peas should be rapidly cooled to 32 to 34 degrees. Optimum storage conditions are between 32 and 36 degrees, and 90 to 98 percent relative humidity.