Remember singing the old nursery rhyme about pease porridge? It’s a traditional English dish made with split dried yellow peas, cooked with water, salt, spices and bacon. You can also substitute ham hocks or a ham bone. In the days before refrigeration, when people were working hard and lived in unheated houses, they needed substantial, filling food that would keep for a few days before it spoiled. Pease porridge fit the bill.
Like beans, peas are members of the legume family, but spring growers that prefer cool weather. That doesn’t mean cold soil, however. They’ll germinate more readily with air temperatures between 60 and 70 degrees, when the soil has started to warm up. At colder temperatures, you may lose seeds to rot. However, if you have plenty of seeds and want to get them in early, go ahead and sow. In addition to getting the earliest possible crop, if you save the seeds, you’ll be selecting for the peas that can handle this growing method. Peas can handle cold weather. In my part of the country, you grow them early or not at all – peas are really an English climate sort of crop, and my climate is about as far from England as you can get. One year I sowed them in January during a warm snap when I just couldn’t stand it and had to scratch my gardening itch. They were about four inches high when we got 14 inches of snow and still went on to make a fine crop.
Vines or Bush?
Peas come in four main categories: shell peas, snow peas, edible podded peas and dried peas. Most of these come in both bush and vine types. The vines are more brittle and delicate than beans, so treat them gently or they’ll break. The term “bush pea, no support needed” really means they’ll tangle around each other and get in a snarl. I grow my bush peas on tomato cages as this minimizes breakage and makes the peas easier to harvest. I must also confess that although I’ve grown shell peas, I think edible podded peas taste better than regular shell peas. I’d rather just chop or shell the edible podded varieties so I don’t have to bother with both kinds.
Peas will often germinate better if you soak the seeds overnight before you plant, as they have an extra-hard seed coat. Rubbing them with sand paper or nicking the shell very slightly with a file is also supposed to help with germination. I say that’s excessive work for the busy ranch wife, who has more than enough to do. Some people sprout them before sowing. I find it works just as well to scoop out a trench, about 2 inches deep. Fill the trench with water and let it soak in. Repeat. Now, plant the peas in the bottom of the trench. Fill the trench with water and let it soak in. Repeat at least twice. Cover with soil and tamp down lightly. Water again with a fine spray until the soil is well-saturated. Unless it’s really dry and windy, you shouldn’t need to water for about a week, and by then, the peas will probably be sprouting if the conditions are right.
Before I get into pea varieties, I’d like to take a moment to mention Jim Baggett, who was a horticulturist and plant breeder at Oregon State University. Born in 1928, Baggett was a farm boy who earned a PhD in horticulture. He was a stanch supporter of the idea that plants should not be patented, and that plant geoplasm belongs to everybody. Baggett held to that conviction despite a tremendous amount of pressure from OSU higher-ups. Refusal to patent meant lost prestige and money, because common domain seeds can’t be entered for All America Selection (AAS) awards. This “coveted” classification requires that the winners pay a percentage of seed sales in royalties to the organization – but you have to patent the seeds to prevent anyone else from selling them. Jim basically told the higher-ups to take a flying leap. It is thanks to Jim Baggett that the cool Willamette Valley of Oregon now has a four-month pea season, because Jim bred varieties with resistance to pea wilt, powdery mildew, and pea enation mosaic virus. When you eat Oregon Sugar Pod, Oregon Sugar Pod II, Oregon Giant Sugar, Cascadia or Oregon Trail, you can thank Jim Baggett.
- Tall Telephone – also called Alderman, it was introduced in 1878. Nice tall vines and good flavor. A shelling pea.
- Mammoth Melting Sugar – This is a snow pea, and one of the few pole varieties still available. Very sweet and yields over a long period. It is a real climber, with vines easily over six feet and more in good soil. If you’re vertically challenged, you’ll want to take a step stool to harvest.
- Sugar Snap – this is the best of the edible-podded varieties, in my opinion. This was supposedly the first one, too, introduced in 1979. Sugar Snap was created by a couple of researchers in Twin Falls, Idaho, who crossed snow peas with a mutant shell pea.
- Amish Snap – very similar to Sugar Snap and probably predates it. I’ve found this one can actually be used as a snow, snap or shell pea; it’s just a matter of maturity. Harvest at about three inches to use as a snow pea, and when the pods have started to fill out to use as an edible-podded pea. Once the pods are completely full, you can shell them. They may have been around since the 1700’s, when people first started eating fresh (as opposed to dried) peas. The other nice thing about this pea is that you don’t have to pick them daily, which you darned well better for all other peas unless you like tough peas. These have about a two-day window and if you want to shell them, can even go a couple of days more.
- Blauwschokker (Blue Podded) peas are dark purple. The flowers are ornamental as well, standing out against bright green vines in various shades of red and violet. Bred by Capuchin monks in Holland and northern Germany several centuries ago, they are also sometimes known as Capuchjiners. They can be eaten whole as young peas or shelled when they are a little more mature.
- Other pea varieties (none of which I’ve grown because none of the family members will eat them) include black-eyed peas, crowder peas and lentils.
If I could only have one pea, I would probably go with Amish Snap. It’s got a longer track record than the more recent Sugar Snap. The small peas make good snow pea substitutes, the middle size makes a good edible-podded pea, and if you let them go a few more days, you can shell them just as you would regular peas. Prolific is an understatement with these and they will easily grow six feet or more. They also keep producing in my garden for several weeks after it starts to get hot (by which I mean temps into the upper 80s and lower 90s).
Green peas have lots of fiber (especially the edible-podded varieties) and protein, as well as vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B1, vitamin B6 vitamin B2, niacin, folate and choline. They are mineral-rich, containing manganese, copper, phosphorus, molybdenum, zinc, magnesium, iron and potassium.