My parents were great gardeners. As children of the Great Depression, they had gardened their whole lives and grew a lot of the food we ate. The first vegetables from the garden in spring were radishes, which my dad and I made into sandwiches with butter and white bread; lettuces, which my mother made into salad with bacon and a little sugar…yum…and peas. These were shelling peas, also called English or garden peas. We just called them “peas” because snow peas and snap peas were not available. We planted Little Marvel, a bush pea that is called an heirloom now in catalogues. They were delicious! And peas were my favorite vegetable. What a treat they were when served at dinner in the winter.
I remember several times that my sisters and I were surprised when we woke up to a bushel of peas waiting for us under the weeping willow tree. It seemed to us that shelling the bushel would take all day. Mom suggested that we get right to it when my younger sister pointed this out to her! Any peas we did not eat in summer were stowed away in the deep freezer.
Peas do not grow in hot weather so they are planted very early in the spring. St Patrick’s Day is supposed to be the day to plant them but not this year. The soil, while cold, must be thawed and dry. This year I was thinking the end of March at the earliest, now is a good time. Peas can also be planted in late summer for a late fall harvest. Peas will not grow and, in fact, will die, in hot weather.
Peas grow as bushes or vines. Bushes grow to 2 feet to 3 feet and, in my experience need pea sticks (short branches, perhaps leftover from spring pruning) to hold them up. Tomato cages can also be used. Vine peas need a trellis to cling to as they can grow to 6’. You will need to help the young tendrils to begin growing on the trellis. Bushes produce one large crop of peas, so weekly plantings for about three weeks will prolong harvests. Vines produce more peas over a longer time. The seed catalogue or package will tell you if they are vines or bushes. When you plant vines, put a row of seeds on each side of the trellis. Read the package for further planting instructions. Do not apply fertilizer but do apply seedless straw mulch. Weeds should be pulled as peas have shallow roots that can be destroyed with cultivation.
The plants will need to be watered only when the soil becomes dry and then only about 1” per week. Water only the soil and avoid getting water on the plants. (Hence the advantage of soaker hoses. No vegetables like to be watered from overhead.)
The three kinds of peas most often planted now are shelling, sugar snap and snow peas. The entire pods of sugar snap and snow peas are eaten. Sugar snaps are ready when they are waxy on their surface and the pods are plump. Snow peas are ready when the pods are long and the peas inside are just beginning to form. Shelling peas are ready when the pods are shiny green and look full. The pods of over-ripe pods will look completely swollen and matt green. They will taste sour if you eat them from the vine. The best way to determine the readiness of any peas is to just try one right from the vine, my very favorite way to eat peas. Over-ripe shelling peas can be dried and used in soup.
All peas should be picked using two hands to avoid breaking the tendrils and they should be cooled immediately after picking. They can be refrigerated for up to a week.
When the plants have ceased production, I pull them and lay them on the garden soil as mulch for the next crop. They can also be added to the compost pile. Chickens love them.
If you do not have a vegetable garden, you can plant some peas among your flower garden plants and grow a few pods and shoots for salads.
Jeanelle Myers is a professional gardener, landscaper and consultant. For gardening discussion you can call her at 631-434-5067. jeanellemyersfinegardening.com