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To me peas were pale yellow-green, they were mushy, and they came in a metal can from the grocery store shelves. It wasn't until I was a teenager that I remember experiencing frozen peas. What a difference the absence of high-pressure cooking makes in the color, flavor, and texture of a pea! Peas are now one of my favorite foods to eat. A favorite, that is, unless you put them in front of me pale yellow-green and mushy from a metal can. Then I'm likely to hide them under my napkin or slip them to the dog.
Peas find their way to the dinner table in our house several nights a week, so frequently that I don't have the freezer space to store enough to feed our family from last harvest one year to first harvest the following year. But peas are a fun and easy crop to grow and that's all the motivation I need.
There are three types of peas typically grown in a home garden depending on what you want to put on your table.
Shell peas, also called English peas, are what most of us think of when we hear the word pea. With shell peas, the little round green pea is removed from the pod, and the pod is disposed of. Shell peas are ready for harvest when the pods are just beginning to look full and plump and the surface of the pod smooth, as seen in the photo above. Wait too long and the peas become starchy and lose their sweetness.
Snap peas are eaten whole, pod and all. You get more bang for your buck because, since there is no waste, what you pick from your plants goes farther in feeding your crew. These are best harvested when you can still see the shape of each pea distinctly through the pod. Once they are large enough to touch one another and produce a smooth surface on the pod they are better harvested to be used as shell peas and the pods discarded.
Snow peas are grown for their pods, not the actual pea. Snow peas are probably most notorious for being used in stir-fries but they can also be eaten in salads or even alone. They are harvested when the pods are full in length but before the peas get any larger than a BB.
Peas prefer cool weather so they are one of the first crops you can put into the ground as spring approaches. They do not do well in hot weather so ideally seeds should be sown about 4-6 weeks prior to the last frost.
Peas, however, are not strictly a spring crop. When you are harvesting your late summer tomatoes and clearing out the debris from spent cucumber plants, you can also be anticipating a fall harvest of peas. A timely late summer sowing of pea seeds means that as you are beginning to pull out the wool sweaters, mittens, and hot cocoa mugs you can still be harvesting goodness from the garden!
Fall peas should be sown about 8 weeks prior to the average date of the first fall frost in your area. It is important to pay attention to the "days to harvest" notation on the packet of seeds you choose. The packets for some varieties I've planted indicate they are ready for harvest in as few as 52 days and some varieties as late as 80 days. While pea plants can survive below-freezing temperatures, at 28 degrees Fahrenheit the pods can become damaged and mushy and the blooms will fall off the plants. So while you might still have pretty plants for a while after really cold weather hits, you are at risk of losing your harvest without putting a protective covering over your plants on nights the temperature falls below freezing.
There are a few things you can do when sowing your seeds to help increase your harvest. Pea plants perform best when supported by a trellis. The seeds can be sown very close together (2 inches apart) and on both sides of a trellis without the need for thinning which means a substantial crop can be grown in a small area. Better success with germination can be obtained by soaking the seeds overnight to soften them before planting. If you are planting pea seeds in an area where legumes have not previously grown, coating them with an inoculant powder prior to planting will assist the plant with the process of absorbing nitrogen from the air. This will increase your yield at harvest time. It is a good idea to check with your local extension office for recommendations on the best varieties of peas to grow in your area to minimize problems with diseases.
Once harvested, peas are best eaten raw, cooked, or refrigerated immediately. They will keep for 2-3 days in the refrigerator and should be canned, frozen, or dried prior to that if they can't be eaten fresh. The sooner they are eaten or preserved after harvest, the sweeter the flavor.
While canned peas may not be my preference, if they are yours I encourage you to try your hand at growing peas and canning them yourself. Pulling a jar of fruit or vegetables you grew and canned yourself from your cupboard or pantry in the middle of February gives you such a satisfying feeling, and it keeps the hope of fresh, nutritious, organic produce from your next garden alive.