Whether you prefer them still in the pod, shelled, or just the pods, spring peas (Pisum sativum) are a welcome treat after a long winter. They prefer cool conditions, grow quickly and enrich the soil for later crops. They're pretty much a perfect vegetable. Actually, peas are technically a fruit since the pods are produced when the ovary of the flower is pollinated. This isn't the only vegetable/fruit that people commonly miss-identify, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash and okra are also technically fruits.
History of peas
Up until Medieval times peas were only harvested after they matured and the pods dried. The peas were used to make porridge and considered a wintertime staple. It wasn't until some time in the 17th Century that it became fashionable to eat peas fresh. The French soon tagged them with the name mange-tout, which means, 'eat it all' and the modern love affair with fresh spring peas began. It was some time later (1835) that the children's story, The Princess and the Pea was penned by Hans Christian Andersen. To prove she was a princess, the mother of the prince placed a pea under 20 mattresses that the girl slept upon. She complained the next morning that something under her mattresses kept her awake all night, so the old queen knew that the girl's claim was true, since only a princess would be that sensitive. Peas were popular in England during this time and many new varieties were developed. Peas also came across the Atlantic with settlers to the New World and were a popular crop there as well. It is said that Thomas Jefferson loved peas so much he grew no less than 30 varieties in his vast gardens at his Monticello estate. Peas also played an important part in genetics research as every 6th grader knows. Gregor Mendel and his experiments proving dominate and recessive genes is required reading for every middle school science class.
Peas are good nutrition
Peas are quite nutritious and most people should consider including them in their diets. The only people who should limit them are those who are taking blood thinners since they must avoid foods containing Vitamin K. Diabetics can even have peas in moderation. They rank low on the glycemic index scale and contain fiber and protein which slows digestion and helps maintain good blood sugar levels. They also contain significant amounts of Vitamin A, B1 and C along with iron, zinc and manganese. They have antioxidant and anti inflammatory properties which can reduce the risk of cancer when eaten regularly. The pea pods are best eaten fresh, lightly steamed or in stir frys. Shelled peas are also good when prepared in this manner, however including them in soups and casseroles is tasty too. I like peas and pea pods stir fried with pieces of sweet pepper, spiralized zucchini and a few carrots. I toss with a bit of soy sauce, balsamic vinegar, honey and Dijon mustard and add a few strips of pork chop that I've seared. It makes for a tasty light supper and the image above is what this looks like.
Plant spring peas
Early spring is the best time to plant peas. Some old-timers declare that they need to be planted on Valentine's Day, even going do far as to take a pick to the frozen ground. However, mid-March is better for those of us in the middle part of the country. Here in west Kentucky most of our below freezing temperatures are behind us and the frosts, light freezes and even light snow won't hurt them. I tend to advise folks to plant their peas about a month before their last frost date. That is April 15th here in my area. Plant peas where they receive at least 8 hours of full sunlight, in well-worked ground with some organic compost mixed in. The seeds should be spaced about 2 inches apart and 1 inch deep. If you have access to wood ashes, that's a great source of phosphorus and great for them as well. Just avoid too much nitrogen. You'll have lots of pretty vines and leaves, however your harvest will be small since nitrogen promotes foliage growth instead of fruits. For climbing types, make sure to provide some type of trellis material. Many gardeners simply push pruned branches into the ground beside their plants. This keeps them off the ground and makes the peas easier to see. It takes between 6 and 8 weeks after planting for peas to start producing. When it is time to harvest peas, pick them carefully. Hold the pea in one hand and support the vine with the other so you do not damage the plant. Store in the refrigerator and use within 3 or 4 days. Peas are an early crop and once they are finished, gardeners have the luxury of planting something else in their place for the remainder of the season. Since they secure nitrogen in the soil like all legumes, it is free fertilizer for nitrogen-hungry plants. Just a few of those would be broccoli, corn, cabbage, leeks, spinach and Swiss chard.
Spring means green and there's nothing greener than early peas. They're easy to grow, nutritious and produce a quick crop, so there's no excuse for not planting some.