Peas are certainly one of the most joyous vegetables of Spring. They should be planted early when the weather is still cool. Their emergence from the seed through topsoil is one of such strength and energy during what are normally pretty dreadful months weatherwise. Peas are plants of hope.
Not only are peas a nutritious early vegetable, but the plant itself is important to your garden. It belongs to the Leguminocea family of plants, or legumes, many of which host bacteria known as rhizobia in their root nodules in a symbiotic relationship. These bacteria take airborne nitrogen gas and convert it into a form usable by the plant in a process called nitrogen fixation. In English, peas fix nitrogen in the soil. Higher nitrogen absorption makes legume seed higher in protein than non-legumes. The legume family includes some plants that you are familiar with such as beans, peas, clover, alfalfa and lupines, and some you may be amazed at such as mesquite and acacia. The importance of the Leguminocea family, which is the third largest plant family, is a perfect example of the idea of plant guilds, where every plant has a different purpose that helps the other plants in its guild. When I think of mesquite, I think of Westerns and deserts. I’m in wonder at the idea of this beautiful hardy plant fixing nitrogen in the sandy soil. Legumes can be used for crop rotation to boost poor soil, or as in the case of clover and vetch, turned under as a green manure. So growing peas in your garden benefits your soil, as long as you leave the roots in the ground when pea season is finished. In fact, you can just turn under the whole plant, and before long it will have composted.
Preparing peas brings to mind stories of the women-folk sitting on their front porches in rocking chairs shelling hundreds of peas. Quaint, but perhaps not practical for many time-challenged people. Although picking and shelling peas does take time, it is quiet time, a time for reflection and planning. Peeling open a fat pea pod and scooping out the sweet, slightly starchy bright green treasures inside is as much a pleasure as biting into the first tomato of the season. There are, of course, alternatives to shelling peas.
Snow peas have a tender, crisp shell and the inner seeds don’t swell significantly enough to shell. Found mostly in Asian cooking, snow peas can be added to any dish or salad. They are much better fresh than the stringy, hard green sheaths found in many frozen vegetable mixes. Of course, there are shell peas, which you leave on the vine until the pods are nice and fat, then string the pod and scoop out the inner seeds to eat, composting the pod. A wonderful compromise is the edible-podded shell pea. It can be eaten small, like a snow pea, but if you leave it on the vine the peas inside the pod will swell and you can eat it like that or shell them. Since once peas get started emerging, there seems to be no end of them of all sizes for awhile, the edible-podded shell pea is a less harsh taskmaster . My favorite way of cooking pea pods is to stir-fry them in hot olive oil for just a couple of minutes. Or they can be steamed, or added directly to soups. They are also good to use as dip scoops along with other fresh vegetables.
Large edible-podded or snow peas need a little preparation. Their bud-end should be snapped off, and if there is any string down the side, it can be pulled off in the same movement.
Pea tendrils are edible, too, and are sometimes found as the new fancy food in magazines. I’ve tried them and wasn’t impressed. The flavor was green and the feel of the little tendrils in my mouth wasn’t comfortable. Watching tendrils seek a support, then grab on and pull the plant over in a tight grasp, has always impressed me as such intelligent behavior that I feel funny about snipping them off and cooking and eating them!
Speaking of grabbing tendrils, peas need support in your garden.
They usually grow about three feet high, so train them up string, wire, thin stakes, or whatever your imagination cooks up. Since harvesting peas takes a little time, plant the peas close to the edge of your bed, or where you can comfortably reach the pods without tearing out the whole plant or wrecking your back.
Peas are bright green with pretty, easily accessible (to bees) flowers, and make a handsome addition to your garden. This year I
planted fresh organic seed, and then because I had several very old packets of peas left, planted them around too. Of course, they all came up! I planned to turn the extra under as green manure, but didn’t have the heart. The extra peas that I can’t immediately eat I’m blanching and freezing. Blanching is to take a vegetable and immerse it in boiling water for no more than a couple of minutes, then immediately dip in cold water to stop the cooking process. The vegetable should be dried then frozen in freezer-proof bags or containers. Blanching doesn’t take long, can be done with water boiled for pasta or steaming vegetables for dinner.