Peas are grown worldwide, and in fact are one of the earliest known cultivated crops. Read on to learn a little more about these popular little legumes!
Did you know that the pea, that humble legume Pisum savitum, is botanically considered a fruit, even though they are generally treated as a vegetable in the kitchen? Peapods are considered a fruit because they contain seeds that are formed from the ovary of the blossom that forms on the pea plant. However, if you ask the typical home gardener or even a preschooler, I'm sure you'll immediately be assured that peas are vegetables!
Historically, peas were allowed to fully ripen and dry in the pods, and were stored dried for use over the long winters when no fresh vegetables were available. Split pea soup is still a comforting cold-weather standby, and most children grow up familiar with the rhyme, "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot, nine days old!" In the 1700s, however, the trend turned toward eating the immature peas, or green peas.
The three most commonly grown varieties of peas for home gardeners in the United States are English peas, snow peas, and sugar snap peas. I have grown all three varieties in my garden, and appreciate the differences between them.
English peas are the type grown for shelling. The pods tend to be thin-walled, and are picked when the peas are still young and juicy, before they turn primarily to starch. The pods are popped open, and the little round peas removed from the pod. I have loved fresh, raw English peas since my childhood. Whenever my mother thought I hadn't been eating enough vegetables, she would sit me down on the back stoop with a bowl of peas to shell. She knew she could count on me to eat at least as many as I placed in the bowl for later. I much preferred them raw to cooked, and after experiencing fresh, sweet, juicy raw peas, I couldn't bring myself to eat the mushy, olive-green paste of overcooked canned peas that the school cafeteria served. I did, however, go through a stage in second grade where I requested split pea soup in my thermos for lunch every single day throughout the winter!
One popular and visually attractive way to serve shelled peas is to mix them with diced carrots. This humble dish even made it into our cultural canon by way of the movie character Forrest Gump, who proclaimed, "Me and Jenny goes together like peas and carrots."
Snow peas, Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon or var. saccharatum, are also sometimes called Asian peas, or Chinese peas. These peas have edible pods, and are harvested before the peas inside fill out. Sometimes the interior seeds are barely discernible through the flat, crisp pods. These are common in stir-fry vegetable mixes, and are also good eaten raw. The pods have a very "green" flavor, and are best barely cooked. Some are fairly flat and straight, while other varieties have a wavy shape to the pods. The pod walls tend to be very thin and tender, and cook very quickly.
Sugar snap peas, Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon, also have edible pods, though they are harvested a little later in the developmental stage than snow peas. The pods have thicker, juicier, less-fibrous walls, and the peas inside are smaller than English peas. These are also good stir-fried or steamed, or eaten raw with a little hummus or other dip. I like to put several into my salads, to add a little extra crunch and flavor. The flavor of sugar snap peas is sweeter than snow peas, as well. One of my children loves to eat them whole, pod and all, but the other insists on shelling them and only eating the immature peas inside.
In terms of etiquette, there is some debate as to what is the proper method of eating peas. It is difficult to keep shelled peas on your fork, especially for children who have not developed dexterity. You can try spearing the peas on the tines of the fork, but you risk shooting them at your tablemates. You can try to mash them with your fork, but I hate to destroy the fine texture of a fresh pea. I used to try to scoop them up with some mashed potatoes, much to my younger sister's dismay. I like the humor of an anonymous poet, who wrote:
I eat my peas with honey; I've done it all my life. It makes the peas taste funny, But it keeps them on the knife.
In the garden, peas are a cool-season crop. I plant mine in early spring, as soon as the soil temperatures reach around 45 degrees F. I prefer to plant several short double rows of peas, and drive stakes in the ground to support wire fencing between each double set of rows, so that each length of fencing supports a row of peas on both sides. I plant my double rows with about 12 inches between the paired sets of rows. As the pea plants emerge, they send out clinging tendrils that wrap themselves around the wire fencing, supporting the pea plant as it grows.
Peas are best when harvested immediately before you prepare them, as the sugars in the peas begin rapidly turning to starches once they are picked. Refrigeration will slow the process a little, but they are best eaten within a couple of hours after picking. My grandmother always told me to pick them early in the morning before the day heated up, for the sweetest peas. When picking peas, hold onto the pea vine with one hand, and gently pull the pod off with the other. Too many times, I have tried to harvest a pea pod one-handed, and inadvertently pulled the whole plant up by its very shallow roots. I have learned to set my bucket or bowl on the ground and dedicate both hands to gently removing the pods from the vine. Pods closest to the ground will ripen first. I generally get three batches from my pea plants, ripening only a couple of days apart. If I start planting early enough, I plant a couple of double rows every 5-7 days over about 3 weeks, to extend my harvest season, but then I have a hard time getting enough peas ripe at one time to make up a decent serving for my family. If you miss harvesting a batch at their peak of ripeness, you should still pick them off the vines to encourage the plant to continue producing.
As a nitrogen-fixing crop, peas are beneficial to your garden soil. Rotating peas through different sections of your garden in successive years can improve the fertility of your soil, especially if you till the spent vines under. Since they have a relatively short growing season, I plant peas very early in the spring, and then plant other vegetables in their place once they are finished producing. It is great to get two separate crops out of the same patch of ground! I have tried planting peas again in the fall, when the temperature has begun to cool down again, but without much success.
Some of my favorite varieties for my growing zone, 5a, are:
Different varieties may be more suitable for your growing conditions, so see what is available and recommended at your garden center! When choosing seed, look for the wrinkled seed varieties, as they will produce a pea with a higher sugar content. If the seed is smooth and round, more like you would expect from a bean, it is probably a variety more suitable for drying than eating fresh.
I find I have to plant a lot of peas to get enough for a few meals for my family of four, and we rarely have any left over to preserve. On the rare occasion that I've had a bumper crop, I quickly blanched the peas in boiling water, about 2 minutes for shelled peas and 4 minutes for peas in the pod, and then plunged them immediately into ice water. Once cooled, I dried them quickly, then lined a jelly roll pan (a shallow pan with 1" sides) with parchment paper. I spread the peas in a single layer to freeze, and then bagged them up into heavy freezer-grade plastic bags. This allowed me to remove only as much as I wanted for a single meal, instead of allowing them all to freeze together into a large clump in the bag.
Nutritionally, peas are an excellent addition to the diet! They are a good source of fiber, especially those with edible pods, and contain many phytonutrients, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Thumbnail of snowpea on the vine: courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, by sleepyneko. Some rights reserved.
English peas in the pod: Jodie Gardner, all rights reserved. Used with permission.
Peas and carrots: Angela Carson, all rights reserved.
Snow pea pods: Angela Carson, all rights reserved.
Sugar snap pea pods in bowl: courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, by chiot's run. Some rights reserved.
Peas growing up the trellis: courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, by craigsyboo. Some rights reserved.
Shelling peas: courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons, by kightp. Some rights reserved.
Wrinkled pea seeds: Angela Carson, all rights reserved.
About Angela Carson
I was bitten hard by the gardening bug when I was just a child, and have been doing my best to infect as many people as possible ever since! I particularly have a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which I am teaching the next generation how to preserve. My two sons have obviously inherited my interest in growing things, and my husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for my latest schemes!