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'Sweet' Peas

Botanically speaking, peas are fruits, which explains a few things. The pods are the fruits by definition, the peas inside the pods are legumes, also by definition. But, because peas are green and herbacious, we quite naturally consider them garden variety vegetables.

Beautiful Sugar Snap Peas are easy to grow and can be eaten whole or shelled, raw, cooked, or preserved.

Peas are fun, iconic even in their representation of a bygone, front porch and rocking chair way of life. Peas are the stuff of legend, imbued with mighty powers even - remember The Princess and the Pea?

And children love peas. They love picking the child-size banana-like pods, cracking them open with a gentle squeeze or a quick tug on the cleverly designed built-in zipper pull, then popping the tiny sweet orbs of deliciousness straight into their mouths.

Nature was very clever in designing this annual plant, so lovely and enchanting, yet so delicious and, as far as snacks go, hyper nutritious. There are three main types of 'food' peas, namely garden peas (also known as sweet peas or English peas), sugar peas, and field peas, but most home gardeners would be familiar with the garden/sweet and sugar varieties. Within these latter two types of peas, a variety of flat and pod peas, both vining and bush type are available, with growth habits that vary from dwarf (for containers) to aggressive climbers (for poles and trellises). In short, there is a pea for every pot and/or garden.

Hardening off container-sown Alderman Peas, outdoors and undercover, before planting in raised beds

Pound for pound, shelling peas (round green peas from pods) are low in calories and high in the good stuff. They are sweetest just after picking, but if quick-frozen soon after harvest they maintain their sweetness. Peas are high in complex carbohydrates (starches), which makes them a valuable, staple food source. Peas come in many colours - purple, yellow, black, but green is by far the most popular in North America. Compared to many other vegetables, peas are high in protein; they are also packed with beneficial vitamins, minerals, and polyphenol antioxidants. According the Healthline, a single 1/2 cup serving of green peas offers:

  • Calories: 62

  • Carbs: 11 grams

  • Fiber: 4 grams

  • Protein: 4 grams

  • Vitamin A: 34% of the RDI

  • Vitamin K: 24% of the RDI

  • Vitamin C: 13% of the RDI

  • Thiamine: 15% of the RDI

  • Folate: 12% of the RDI

  • Manganese: 11% of the RDI

  • Iron: 7% of the RDI

  • Phosphorus: 6% of the RDI

How great is it then when our children snack on peas instead of sugary candy, chips, or other highly processed snacks that offer nothing but empty calories and, very often, a pathway to diabetes and heart disease.

Homegrown or store-bought frozen peas should be considered home pantry staples, as they can be used to prepare countless simple, inexpensive and delicious meals. Dried green peas too can be re-hydrated in soups, stews, baking, side and main dishes. I don't own an Instant Pot, but my friends who do love the short work they make of cooking up dried peas and beans. Slow cookers too, love peas.

Kids and adults alike love carrot sticks and homegrown radishes dipped in mild spring pea hummus. Recipe below.

Back to the garden. I started garden peas and two varieties of sugar peas from seed on February 21st this year, in containers, for transplanting this month. If all goes well, I will be enjoying my first harvest as early as late April. I am just getting to transplanting this week, as I've been preparing a new area of the garden for pea and vining vegetable experimentation.

We took down a section of very old, 15 foot tall by eight foot wide laurel hedge that was planted some 70 years ago, and replaced it with about 35 linear feet of eight foot high cedar fence. The hedge was unproductive in that particular spot, and did little but consume ridiculous amounts of water and valuable yard space. Hedge removal created space for a small nursery garden in which to transition and harden off container-sown seedlings. The new fence will receive sun for much of the day during spring and fall (perfect for peas) and for most of the day during the summer (perfect for vining squash). Deep but narrow raised cedar beds along the bottom of the fence should remain somewhat cool, as they are in the shadow of the house most of the year. We shall see.

Newly planted Alderman Peas, a.k.a. 'Tall Telephone' seedlings climbing a DIY sisal twine trellis against a sunny fence.

Traditionally in the U.K., where peas are loved almost as much as potatoes — mushy peas, peas and mash, pea soup, pease pudding, pease porridge, etc — are direct sown on March 17th, St. Patrick's Day. I am starting to think that indeed the luck of the Irish plays a role in pea seedling happiness, at least insofar as charming the weather goes.

Climate change has brought even more rain to the already sodden temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, ensuring that pea planting in the spring is equal parts adventure and experiment. Last year my spring peas under-performed due to too much rain, but two subsequent plantings fared very well, most particularly the late summer sown sugar snap variety.

Peas are very easy to grow and they love cool weather, so in many parts of the US and Canada, now is the time to get sowing or at least get ready. As soon as the ground is workable in the spring, peas can be planted. A slight frost or even snow after planting won't do any harm to seeds buried one-inch below the surface of the soil. Peas don't love wet feet, which means they do love well-drained soil. Keep this in mind when planting in the ground, in raised beds, or in containers. I plant peas in raised beds only, which helps with drainage.

Spring makeover of a winter beet bed makes room for obelisk trellised Sugar Snap Peas, covered briefly to harden off.

I've noticed that a slight breeze, even cold ones, helps keep pea plants dry and free of downy mildew, that powdery grey, dusty coating that takes hold during damp conditions, and can kill your plants. I've noticed too that the mildew starts at the bottom of the plant and works its way upwards. Keeping plants separated so that air can circulate, helps keep the mildew at bay, as does thinning the rows if necessary. Affected leaves should be removed and put in the garbage, not the compost, as the pathogen will persist otherwise.

Non-chemical powdery mildew treatment suggestions include sprays made from baking soda and water, and/or vegetable oil and/or Murphy's Oil Soap. Alternatively, vinegar and water works for some. I haven't tried the baking soda remedy yet, but may do this spring if the rains continue. Aphids can be a pea problem for some gardeners as well, though I have not experienced this personally. I plant nasturtium flowers nearby and in raised beds directly, which is an effective, inexpensive, all-natural, and beautiful way of baiting aphids away from the vegetables and fruit trees they love to snack on. So far, so good.

Powdery mildew treatment suggestions (apply during dry weather when the air is still):

  • Dissolve one tablespoon baking soda in one gallon cool water. Spray on affected areas.

  • Dissolve one tablespoon baking soda in one gallon cool water, and add one tablespoon olive oil. Spray on affected areas. The oil helps the solution stick, especially in damp weather.

  • Dissolve two tablespoons of lemon juice in one gallon of cool water. Spray on affected areas.

  • A Google search will turn up ideas for using milk, mouthwash, vinegar, etc, but I would advise against any of those unless you know someone who has had success with them.

Sugar Snap Peas showing signs of powdery mildew. Remove affected leaves and destroy/throw them away.

Peas are natural climbers. Some varieties have better tendrilling (self-gripping) skills than others, but to be honest, young pea plants typically need a bit of help 'initially' grabbing on to whatever trellis, netting, pole, or twine you plant them next to. Garden variety twine, loosely twisted bread bag ties, velcro tape, etc., all work well. I purchased a 45'-long roll of green velco garden tape from Home Depot for $5 several years ago. I cut 270 two-inch lengths of soft and reusable garden tape from the roll, and I use them over and over again to tie everything from tomatoes to cucumbers, to peas. Inexpensive sisal string is great for peas too, as their tiny tendrils can grip sisal's rough surface easily, and hang on without slipping.

This season I am planting:

  • Alderman Shelling Peas: an heirloom variety also known as Tall Telephone peas. I will be planting these in front of that new section of 8ft high cedar fence. I opted to trellis the peas on sisal string threaded through eye hooks screwed into the fence. I was going to use pea netting, but birds can and do get tangled in netting, leaving them vulnerable to attack by owls (it's happened) and raccoons, and that just breaks my heart. Alderman peas are hardy and produce largish pods of many peas for eating fresh and for freezing. If I leave the pods on past their prime, the peas won't be lovely and sweet, but for sure I can dry them for storage.

  • Super Sugar Snap Peas are super performers in my garden. They don't love wet feet though, so a sodden spring can dampen production. I planted these lovelies in a raised bed alongside some fall-sown beets that were under heavy row cover until just yesterday. I removed the PVC hoops and fleece, placed the trellises in the planter, planted the pea seedlings, and then loosely wrapped the row cover around them for a few days, just to harden them off. Peas prefer to be direct-sown, so I've chosen to baby my container-sown plants for a bit, just because. I tied some waxed black craft string around the trellises, to give the peas extra grab space. These particular obelisk trellises are more beautiful than they are functional, to be honest.

Snap Peas Little Crunch are perfect for patio pots and container gardens; plant eight seedling per small tomato cage.
  • Snap Peas Little Crunch: a delicious new snap pea developed especially for growing in containers; 24-30 inch vines with lots of chubby, crunchy-sweet pods. I am starting these peas for a friend to grow in his seaside container garden. The container started seedlings are doing very well so far. I will transplant them soon into two-gallon pots, using small-size tomato trellises to support a half-dozen plants per pot. This should give them a bush-like growth habit and still provide critical breathing space between vines. When my friend's large container beds are ready, I can easily transplant the entire arrangement, trellis and all, without harming the plants. I do this pre-staking/pre-trellising with tomatoes sometimes too, when their forever home isn't quit ready.

Row-7 Seed Company pea seeds; designed and created by chefs and specialty growers.
  • Beauregarde (purple) Snow Peas and the Trial Snow Pea Mix from Row-7 Seeds. Row 7 represents a collaborative between chefs and growers - a cross-pollination - based on the belief that flavour can succeed where commodification has failed. I will be direct sowing these shortly, and cannot wait to experiment with them in the kitchen.

  • Slocan Snow Peas, as part of a citizen/urban farmer seed trial with FarmFolk CityFolk. I will receive the trial seeds and instructions by mail later in the spring.

Ways to enjoy shelled fresh green peas:

  • Fresh, right off the vine. Remember to pull the pods off gently with one hand, while holding the stalk with the other, to prevent breaking the plant (same for tomatoes).

  • Freeze them immediately after shelling, removing as much air as possible from the freezer bag or container.

  • Steam them only briefly, before drizzling with olive oil or melted butter, and some sea salt.

  • Mash them alone or into boiled potatoes, and finish as above.

  • Roast them for snacking. On a baking sheet at 375F for 45-60 minutes, until crispy. Toss one cup of fresh peas in one teaspoon of olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt, and arrange on tray. Check often to ensure they don't over-dry. Experiment with different seasoning blends and flavoured salts, chili or curry powder, etc.

  • Make hummus. Whiz together in a small food processor or blender - one cup of fresh peas together with one or two cloves fresh garlic, a pinch of sea salt, two tablespoons or so of olive oil, juice of one-quarter lemon, and a pinch of cayenne pepper. Drizzle with best quality olive oil to finish. It's too early for garden-fresh basil, and it's not needed for this recipe. Mint makes a lovely edition though, so add a few leaves if they are sprouting already in your garden.

Delicious and nutritious Lucky Spring Pea and Winter Greens Soup; quick and easy to make for one or for four.
  • Make my Lucky Spring Pea and Winter Greens Soup to serve hot or fashionably chilled. This recipe was originally conceived for St. Patrick's Day, and in honour of the elusive lucky four leaf clover, it leans heavily on fours. You will need about four cups of fresh peas (fresh frozen peas work super well too - use a 750gr bag of baby peas). Dice four small shallots (two large), and saute in four teaspoons of olive oil, in a medium wide-bottom pot. When the shallots are translucent (five min), add four small cloves minced garlic (two large), four cups (one one-litre tetra pack) of low-sodium vegetable or chicken stock (any light coloured stock will do), four cups or large handfuls of greens of choice (arugula, spinach, kale, Swiss chard) from the store or your garden, and a pinch of salt. Simmer just until peas are tender. Let cool slightly and then blitz with a hand-held immersion blender, or in a traditional blender (hold lid on with a towel). Garnish with a drizzle of olive oil and/or aioli (as above), and if you like - chopped herbs, edible flowers, pesto, toasted seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, etc). I like to finish vegetable soups with fresh lemon juice, but I always wait until just before serving so the acid doesn't turn the greens to brown.

  • Pickle whole sugar snap pea pods as you would carrots or beets. Add whole pods to a clean jar, then top with a hot brine made from 1/2 cup each of any variety of vinegar and water, with 1 teaspoon salt and 1 tablespoon honey or sugar. Let cool, cover and refrigerate. Add a few peppercorns, chili flakes, coriander seeds, or a peeled clove of garlic to the mix if you like. Let them 'pickle' for at least one day before eating. They will be be gone before their 30-day best before date. Pea pod pickles make stellar low-ball cocktail swizzle sticks.

Homegrown pea, cucumber, bell pepper, tomato, fennel salad. Surplus peas get quick pickled.
  • Add a handful of fresh green peas to salads.

  • Slice sugar snap pea pods into green salads, or make a pea salad as a side, adding fennel or dill fronds to the mix.

  • Add flat, young sugar peas to sandwiches as you would lettuce or cucumber. Peas hold their crunch nicely, unlike most lettuces which can become soggy from condiments.

  • You tell me. I would love to know what you love about peas

So that's it for this week, my passionate pea pitch. I hope I have convinced you to try them, or love them, or try them again in new and different ways.

*An important note for new gardeners - the colourful flowering annual plants known as 'sweet peas' do produce seeds in pods, but while they look similar to food pea pods, they are poisonous and definitely not for eating.

Happy growing!

To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.

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