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Urban Gardener: Please Plant Peas

Saturday, April 05, 2014

 

The pea, the old fashioned humble plant.

Urban gardeners must utilize every square inch and few vegetables offer as much for so little as peas. Our connection with this legume disappears into the mists of pre-history and is one of the first domesticated crops. Native to the old world, Roger Williams and the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation brought them to New England as a food staple. Peas are ideal for cultivation and soil improvement. They are cold tolerant and are both spring and fall crops. Most people know this lovely green plant as a spring vegetable and their endearing blooms. A perennial cultivar, sweet peas, are well known in the herbaceous border. Their fragrance and bloom enchant.

Growing peas, it’s a snap

Peas thrive in well drained fertile soil high in humus content. They will tolerate unimproved soils on the neutral side of the PH scale and give outstanding yields from garden soils improved with organic matter and common amendments such as limestone, bonemeal and dried blood. Tradition associates planting with St. Patrick’s Day, one must be flexible on this benchmark. The hidden truth is that peas love cool weather and will tolerate frost. Plant the large seeds as soon as the soil is thawed. Squeeze a handful of soil and if it forms a ball in the hand, it’s ok to plant. Peas love sunshine and must have as much sunlight as possible.

My garden has permanent mulch. Simply pull aside the mulch to reveal soil. It is best practice to move plantings from place to place in the garden rather than cultivate the same plant in the same place year after year. Each plant absorbs nutrients from soil in different manners. Move annual plantings in rotation to avail favored nutrients. Those diseases and pests that prey upon crops are thwarted from forming infestations when crops are relocated each planting. This technique offers yet another delightful challenge to gardeners who tire easily of routine and repetition. Peas offer many opportunities to not only produce tasty and nutritious food. They are so worthy that along with food, these legumes also fix atmospheric nitrogen in symbiotic relationship with micro-organisms in root nodules. Once the luxuriant crops have surrendered to hot weather, the entire plant can be turned into the soil. The garden has not only produced tasty and abundant yields but also replaces an essential nutrient for future crops.

Nitrogen is a primary ingredient in fertilizers. Usually it is a product of agricultural industrialism. Cultivating legumes such as peas allows the gardener to increase nitrogen in the soil in a natural manner predating the petrochemical driven production of nitrogen fertilizers. This is a prime example of gardening as complimentary to natural cycles. Some gardeners plant peas as a cover crop to improve the soil. Before the introduction of chemical fertilizers in the 1840’s, all agriculture relied upon close observance of crop rotations. Complex schemes often as long as seven years were developed in Europe to keep soils in best tilth and pests under control. Happily, peas are virtually pest free and produce abundant crops for people and at one time fodder for grazing animals.

The lovely green pea plant does best supported on low trellises. These can be as simple as the branches from an old Christmas tree or the trimmings from branches. I prefer to use affordable wire fencing widely available. Wire fences last for years. Easily stored and enduring wire fences have many applications in the garden. Standard 48-inch widths are perfect for any number of plants that do best with support. This is important not only for the health of the plants but also adapts well to the needs of the urban gardener. Vertical aspects are as important as the footprint. We must be flexible with limited space and utilize spaces that gardeners with more land ignore. I grow lots of peas for their delicious taste and also as the first step in a succession of crops in the same location. Peas take advantage of both the space above and beneath the ground.

Edible podded peas

Our grandparents knew humble peas as a vegetable known to challenge children learning to eat with forks and spoons. These round bursts of flavor were standard in the West for centuries. However we also grow edible podded peas originally from Asia. This radical expansion in taste and use is a game changer. An old favorite has new clothes and style. Peas are an outstanding example of cultural pluralism and the cross pollination of culture and cuisine. Let’s take a look at edible podded peas.

They are grown in the same manner as peas in a pod. Rather than allowed to ripen and dry naturally on the vine for people and fodder for animals, edible podded peas are harvested soon after the blooms are pollinated. Choice tender pods are eaten whole. The focus expands from the peas themselves to the seed cases as well. Sugar snap and snow peas indicate the flavor and cool weather environment favored by these versatile plants. Once the province of the field and the commonplace, peas have evolved in America to become ever more prosperous and better for gardeners. Snap peas, snow peas, and their cousins increase the joy of gardening manifold.

Finding common ground

Children and older gardeners find common ground with peas. The large seeds are easy to handle by small fingers and also those whose fingers and eyesight are not as nimble and keen. Much love and knowledge recall the symbiotic nature of this popular legume. Companionship is welcome in the garden. Parents and children speak the same language as they prepare the ground, erect trellises, and plant the large seeds. Don’t stop with one planting. If possible, sow peas in succession, once a week during late March and April for hearty harvests starting around Memorial Day. Families can harvest the crop together. Love springs from making our corner of the world a better place as well as a healthy one. But then, isn’t love the visible expression of our working together towards a common goal?

Improved soils, abundant crops, lovely green foliage, many white flowers, and nutritious meals are all contained within that old fashioned humble plant, the pea. Grow a patch or more for good health and soil to sustain future plantings. Spring appeals to most people and nothing satisfies the urge to plant spring gardens in quite the same manner as peas. Be open minded and try different cultivars. Success is likely. Learn new ways to prepare this ancient ingredient. Eat straight off the plant. Or if you prefer, stir fry or steaming only improve the brilliant green of peas. Their flavor is divine. Peas most notable quality, their good keeping qualities, are still strong. Gardeners are confident of successfully freezing peas. I still have a small bit of frozen snow peas from last year. With a smile on the lips and a song within the heart, young and old can participate in spring ritual and plant peas with confidence and joy. Grow these humble plants for health and success.

 

Leonard Moorehead is a life- long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence R.I. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor istractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees

 

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