Peas are enchanting. And reason enough to have a garden. Their delicate nature, the fact that they start to lose their natural sugars once they’re picked, and their small window of availability makes growing your own a great way to insure that you don’t miss out on this early, rare treat of the garden year. And such lovely short term guests they are. So dainty and welcome with their pretty paired wing-like leaves, their sweet pale flowers, and their curlique tendrils. Those tendrils kill me. The way they seek and find and twine and draw themselves ever upwards. Emblems of curiosity and vitality. Like hope. In cursive.
Circumnutation is the term used to describe this motion. It was coined by Darwin himself who was also fascinated by tendrils.
Peas, (Pisum sativum – sativum is Latin for cultivated) are one of the earliest domesticated plants (8000 BCE!). They also have the broadest range geographically and climactically of any legume, although they weren’t eaten fresh until the 16th century. These days a lot of fresh peas don’t even make it out of the garden, especially if my niece is around. (If you manage to end up with a glut of peas, please let me know.)
And because they express their genes consistently, Gregor Mendel used them in his experiments between 1856 – 1863 which laid the foundation for modern genetics. So, thanks again peas.
The science of phenology tells us that the time to plant your peas is when the forsythia blooms. According to the Aldo Leopold Foundation (http://www.aldoleopold.org/Programs/phenology.shtml), “Phenology is a segment of ecology focusing on the study of periodic plant and animal life-cycle events that are influenced by climate and seasonal change in the environment.” Aldo kept records of the first occurrences of everything from blooms to migrating bird arrivals on his land in Wisconsin from 1935-1948 and these are chronicled in his seminal conservation treatise A Sand County Almanac (1949). His daughter Nina took up the work and kept detailed records of her own from 1976 until her death in 2011. These records, spanning 70 years, show that the first occurrences of certain songbirds and plant blooms are now up to three weeks earlier than when Aldo first began his observations. These records, and many more like them, kept by observant, organized, and generous souls, have important implications for the study of climate change, as well as for farmers, gardeners, and nature lovers. It’s fascinating, crucial stuff. Looking to nature for cues reminds me to be observant, as well as grateful, for the deep connection we share with every living thing. Turn,turn,turn.
These days we recognize three kinds of peas. English, or shelling peas, which are the familiar peas in a pod type from which the peas are removed and eaten. Snow peas, (P.sativum var. saccharatum), which are flat and eaten whole and are sometimes called Chinese peas because they are so often found in stir frys. And snap peas (P. sativum var. macrocarpon), which are a relatively recent cross of the two. Snap peas have sweet edible pods with fat round peas visible inside. These latter two are sometimes called mangetouts, or French for “eat all.”
This year I’m trying two kinds of English peas. Lincoln is a high-yielding, heat-tolerant, delicious pea that was introduced in 1908. I saved seeds last year, so I’m hopeful that these will perpetuate themselves. I’m also trying Iona Petit Pois which are tiny French peas, about half the size of regular shelling peas and are reported to be an exceptional treat. I can’t wait to find out. I’m also trying Sugar snap peas for the first time. This variety was an AAS winner in 1979, with 5-6′ vines and exceptionally sweet pods. Snap peas are reportedly more heat tolerant than English peas, so hopefully that will extend my season of peas.
All peas are incredibly nutritious. They are good sources of protein and fiber while being low in calories. They have high concentration of vitamins A, C, K, and folic acid, as well as phytonutrients, anti-oxidants, and minerals such as calcium, iron, copper, zinc, manganese, and phosphorus. The edible pod types are even lower in calories, but hold more vitamins and minerals than the shellers. The shoots, which include the leaves, stems, flowers, and tendrils are also edible and nutritious and can be lightly steamed or sautéed, or eaten raw in salads. Shelled peas can be eaten raw or tossed into rapidly boiling water for a mere three minutes. If you manage to resist eating them, they can be added to salads or risotto. Or you could make a lovely spring soup.
Well, the forsythia is blooming so it’s time to plant some peas! I planted mine close together against my garden fence, in two rows about 2″ apart and 1″ deep. I had planned to make some supports perpendicular to the fence, but David got worried about shade, so we’re just going to let them climb up the fence and give them something more to climb on later if they need it. Pea vines are very delicate, so I’m going to leave them alone to do their thing. The favas are already planted in front of them, so I’ll have no reason to disturb their ascent. I just hope they appreciate all this rain and don’t decide to rot!
I also planted some sweet peas. Flora Norton are clear blue sweet peas with an intoxicating fragrance. I saved these from last year and planted them all along the garden fence behind the perennial beds. They make a delightful cut flower too.
When it’s time to harvest peas, I’ll start from the bottom up, since that’s how they mature. It’s important to keep up with them because they can start to lose their sweetness quickly, plus harvesting speeds up production. I’ll use my trusty harvesting scissors to avoid damaging the delicate vines, and I’ll get definitely get my niece in on the action.