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2004: The Year of the Pea

The National Garden Bureau Celebrates 2004 as the Year of the Pea

Get an early start on the gardening season by growing peas. Just when you are beginning to doubt that spring will ever come, you can trek out to the garden and sow seeds of a vegetable that loves the cold a lot more than you do. And what a vegetable! With small white or purple flowers, dainty-looking (but strong) tendrils, and bright green pendulous pods, peas bring surprise to the garden. They are hardy, vigorous, and chock-full of good things, like flavor, crunch, and healthy fiber, vitamins and minerals. They come in sizes suitable for any garden, from a diminutive 12 inches tall to a burgeoning 5 feet or more. Peas demand little attention after you sow them, except to pick the bounty frequently. The National Garden Bureau designates 2004 as the "Year of the Pea" and suggests you take a look at the following pages to find out some of the plant’s history and to learn how to grow and harvest your own crop successfully.

Who doesn’t remember learning in school about Gregor Mendel and his experiments with peas? Well, peas in cultivation go much farther back in history than his 19th century discoveries about genetics. Archaeologists have found peas in ancient tombs, at Troy (1450 BC) and at Thebes, but no one knows for a fact exactly when people began cultivating them. It may have been as early as the Stone Age. Records indicate that by the Bronze Age (3000 BC), some variety of peas was part of the diet. According to legend, the Chinese believe that emperor Shen Nung (called the Chinese Father of Agriculture) discovered the pea nearly 5000 years ago. By the Middle Ages, peas were stored, dried, used for Lenten eating and as a hedge against food shortage and famine. Because the dried pea kept indefinitely, it accompanied the English colonists on their way to America. It was one of the first crops planted by the colonists. Late in the 17th century, colonists began to regularly eat peas fresh.
The garden pea as we know it today was developed in England -- thus the name "English pea." Although not much is known about early breeding, it probably came about through selection and through deliberate crossing, even though peas do not lend themselves easily to crossing. Due to the configuration of the flower, most blooms self-pollinate while still in bud. According to Lyman White, in Heirlooms & Genetics, "We know that Mendel made deliberate crosses of peas and there is no indication that there was anything new about this at the time."
Work in England and in the United States dealt mainly with English peas (listed in catalogs as either standard or shelling peas), those with wrinkled seeds (or berries, as they are known in the trade). Varieties with wrinkled seeds are supposedly sweeter than smooth seeds, but the plants that produce them are not quite as hardy. Very low temperatures and damp soil lead to rot of wrinkled seeds. Some of the best-known English peas include dwarf ‘Little Gem,’ listed in the 1888 catalog of Burpee Seeds, and ‘American Wonder,’ introduced in 1876. In the 1870s, ‘Telephone’ originated in England. It was touted for its sweetness and for its prolific abundance. Brought to America in the early 1880s, it remained popular until around 1930, when the original stock ceased to exist and subsequent plants became ‘Alderman,’ still available today. England also gave the world ‘Little Marvel’ in 1908.
Vigorous breeding programs in Europe and the United States led to peas with improved vigor, disease resistance, flavor, keeping qualities, and higher yields. The biggest advance, however, occurred in 1970, when Calvin Lamborn, a Ph.D. plant scientist working on breeding new shell peas for commercial food processors, discovered an unusual pea plant in his field, what would come to be called a snap pea. Lamborn saved some of the seeds and continued to select from the subsequent plants. After undergoing rigorous testing in All-America Selections trials, ‘Sugar Snap’ won a Gold Medal in 1979 for its introducers, Gallatine Valley Seed/Rogers NK. This plant type is named edible-podded peas or snap peas. What is so great about ‘Sugar Snap’ and the snap peas that followed? The tender, sweet pods taste great raw, out-of-hand or in salads, and in stir-fries, like snow peas. You can snap the pods into bite-size lengths, like snap beans, and cook them. The pods retain their tenderness and increase in flavor as they mature, and the dark green peas can be shelled and eaten like English peas.
Breeders continue to come up with new, improved varieties. In 2000, AAS introduced English pea 'Mr. Big' named for the large pod size of 4 to 6 inches.

Peas used to be called pease, from Middle English. As our language evolved, that "s" sound was interpreted as plural, so the singular "pea" came into common usage. There are three types of peas and the difference among them lies in the way you eat them. The types are English peas, snow peas, and snap peas. Botanically, they all are varieties of Pisum sativum(Pie-sum suh-tie-vum) and belong to the legume family, Leguminosae (as do beans). Pisum comes from the Latin for pea; sativum refers to cultivated. Snow peas, grown in Asia for centuries and always popular for their flat, edible pods, are P. sativum var. macrocarpon. Snap peas, such as the original ‘Sugar Snap,’ may be the result of a fortuitous, natural cross between snow peas and English peas.
While all three pea types need the same growing conditions, the harvest and eating differ. To produce English peas or shelling peas, gardeners allow the peas in the pod to fully ripen. The pea pods with plump, round peas are opened, removing the peas. The act of removing the peas is called shelling. The peas are then cooked without the pod. The snow pea is harvested when the peas inside the pod are immature. The entire snow pea pod is eaten either cooked or quickly stir fried. Many snow pea varieties are available. 'Mammoth Melting Sugar' is a popular old-fashioned variety with wilt resistance. The fast growing plants produce sugar-sweet pods in 72 days. The snap pea can be harvested when the peas are immature (like the snow pea) and eaten raw or cooked. The snap pea is more versatile because if the immature pods are left on the vine and peas form inside, the pod can be harvested, shelled, and the peas eaten like an "English pea." In spite of its maturity the pod is still tender and tasty so that the entire pod and peas can be eaten. There is little wasted when growing snap peas.
* Height. Dwarf, or bush-type, peas grow 1 to 2 feet tall. Semi-dwarf peas reach 2 to 3 feet in height. Tall varieties attain a height of 3 feet to 6 feet or more.
* Harvest Times. For a continuous supply of peas from spring until the heat of summer spoils the crop (mid-July to early August, depending on your garden Zone), plan to sow a selection of early, midseason and late varieties.

For your vegetable garden, select a site in full sun, one that receives at least six hours of direct sun daily. An area with full, unobstructed sun works best, although in the deep South, you should provide some shade from the midday sun.
Peas grow well in almost any kind of soil but they do best in a fertile, somewhat sandy soil with good drainage. They prefer a soil with a neutral or slightly alkaline pH. Improve the soil, if necessary, before sowing by digging to a depth of 6 to 8 inches and incorporating organic matter, such as compost or dried manure. Be sparing with the manure because too much nitrogen encourages more leaf production than pods. Add lime if your soil has a low pH.

Peas, like beans, are legumes. Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, which makes that important nutrient readily available to other plants. With the help of a bacterium that lives in a symbiotic relationship in nodules formed on the roots of the plants, the plants "fix" the nitrogen. The nodules store any excess nitrogen and, as the roots decay, release it into the soil, benefiting plants growing nearby. Pea plants also produce long root systems, which help to loosen the soil as they reach out for moisture. Spent plants decompose into organic matter to further enrich the soil. At the end of the season, simply dig the plants into the soil -- no need to add them to a separate compost pile.

The best way to grow peas is to sow seed directly into prepared garden soil according to the National Garden Bureau. Because they are frost tolerant and germinate best in cool weather and soil, sow them in early spring as soon as you can work the soil. An easy way to calculate your sowing date is to count back four to six weeks from the last expected frost. In most areas that means in March, traditionally on or close to St. Patrick’s Day. If the soil is too cold (below 40 degrees), the seeds take much longer to germinate and may rot. In the South, Zones 8 and warmer, where early heat tends to make growing peas problematic, sow seeds in early fall for a winter crop.
* Sow seeds of dwarf and semi-dwarf peas 1 to 2 inches deep in wide beds, single rows, or double rows. For double rows, allow 3 to 4 inches between the pair of rows and set pea fencing or brush between the plantings. Separate each double-row by 2 feet. In wide beds or single rows, to make harvesting easy and to ensure healthy pods, place brush (from your shrub or tree prunings) amid the planting to provide enough support for the plants to vine upwards.
* Sow seeds of taller varieties 1 to 2 inches apart along an A-frame trellis or next to the wire fence you use to enclose your garden.
* As you sow the seed, not in advance, sprinkle an inoculant in the row to help increase the nitrogen-fixing ability—and therefore growth. Inoculants are available at garden centers and from mail-order companies.
* Cover seeds with soil and water well.
* Seeds germinate in 7 to 10 days. You do not need to thin the seedlings. The lush growth shades the soil, which helps to prevent weeds from germinating and keeps the soil cool.
* If plants are growing on a trellis or fence, you may want to help them to twine their tendrils around the support by guiding and tying the young stems at first. The tendrils will soon find their way up.
Sowing Indoors. The only reason to start seeds indoors is that nature may not accommodate your schedule. If frozen or snow-covered soil holds up your spring planting, you can sow seeds in peat or other biodegradable pots indoors. Handle the plants carefully when transplanting outdoors because peas resent having their roots disturbed. Set both seedling and its pot in the ground to minimize trauma.

For a longer harvest, sow a succession of seeds every one to two weeks until around the middle of May. Or you can save yourself that task by planting early, midseason, and late varieties all at once.
* Mulch. To maintain a cool and moist soil, cover the surface with a layer of straw, compost, or leaves; run a mower over the latter to chop them up before applying.
* Fertilize. Peas are light feeders. If you want to fertilize, do so sparingly and use a fertilizer low in nitrogen.
* Water. Almost all plants require at least an inch of water weekly. When you water (if nature fails to take care of that chore), water deeply, preferably with a soaker hose or drip irrigation system. Plants are most drought sensitive when they are flowering and producing pods. As the temperatures rise towards midsummer, you may need to water almost daily.
* Pest and Diseases. Aside from the ubiquitous rabbits, and other four-footed creatures, the only bothersome pest is aphids. Wash aphids off the plants as soon as you notice them with a hard spray of water from a garden hose. If they get a head start on you, use an insectidical soap spray. The most troublesome disease is powdery mildew, although other possible diseases sometimes present problems -- fusarium wilt and root rot, for example. Prevention is the best defense. Plant resistant varieties (seed packets provide this information), plant early, and rotate your crops on a three-year cycle so you do not plant peas in the same bed each year.
* Fall Harvests. Prepare for the cooler and wetter weather of autumn by sowing a fall crop around mid August. To find a more exact date, look at the days to maturity on the seed packet and count backwards from the average first frost date in your area; that allows you to harvest before a hard freeze kills the plants. Sow the seeds thickly at least 2 inches deep and keep the bed well watered.

If you lack space or even a backyard garden, grow peas in containers on a deck, terrace, or patio. The harvest will not be as bountiful, of course, but some peas are better than no peas at all! To make up for the smaller daily harvest, store shelled peas in a plastic bag in the freezer until you have gathered enough for a meal. Scatter a handful of washed snow or snap peas in salads or perk up a stir-fry with the few you pick. The AAS Winner, 'Sugar Ann' (1984) is a short bushy plant bred for containers. This snap pea is early. Start picking pods in about 56 days.
Select large containers, 12 to 24 inches in diameter, a rectangular planter, or a half-barrel. Fill it with good packaged potting soil; add water-absorbing crystals, if you want to cut down on your watering chores.
Sow peas at the same depth you do in the ground –1 to 2 inches deep – but more thickly. Think of the container as a miniature wide bed. Use a selection of early, midseason and late varieties, as you do in the ground.
Set some brush in the center or along the length of the pot to provide support for the peas to climb. Alternatively, create a decorative trellis with twine and short (2- to 3-foot) bamboo poles or relatively straight branches from your shrub and tree prunings.
Mulch the soil surface with a layer of compost or wood chips. Water when the soil dries to a depth of 2 to 3 inches, depending on the size of the pot. Large containers cut down on the frequency of watering; the soil in small pots dries out quickly in the heat of summer. Fertilize once or twice with a low-nitrogen fertilizer. Practice succession planting with the containers, replacing the spent pea plants with a later crop, such as patio or bush tomatoes or peppers.

How do you know if the crop is ready to harvest? Judge by color and touch. For English peas, look for nicely rounded, bright green pods that feel velvety and show the peas (called berries) inside beginning to swell. If the pod is dull green and the peas make definite, large ridges on the pod, the peas have passed their prime. (Remove them anyway to keep the vine producing new pods.) For snow peas, harvest before the peas begin to fill the pod. Pick snap peas anytime. The pods of snap peas remain edible at any stage, whether immature, like snow peas, or mature, when the seeds fill out the pods and they actually reach their full flavor.
To harvest, pick carefully. Grasp the vine in one hand and pinch the pod off with the other, so you do not damage the plant in the process. Harvest frequently -- every other day when the crop starts maturing -- to keep the vines producing new pods, increasing your yield.
Harvest just before using, if possible, because the sugars turn quickly to starch. Shell English peas when you are ready to prepare them, not in advance. Like other vegetables, peas begin to lose their nutritive value when cooked in water, so steam or stir-fry them instead.
Peas taste best fresh, but they also freeze well for winter storage. You can shell and dry peas (in a dehydrator) for use in soups, but they lose textural quality. To freeze English peas, shell them as soon as you pick them (discard pods); then blanch the peas for one to two minutes in boiling water, drain, and dip in ice water to stop the cooking process. Drain again and store in plastic bags or containers in the freezer. Consume them within six to seven months.
Wash snow peas and snap peas; remove any strings if necessary. Then blanch and freeze as above.

Peas contain many nutrients. They are a rich source of vitamins and minerals: phosphorus, potassium, vitamin A (aids growth of new cells), B (thiamin, which promotes a healthy nervous system), and C (helps fight infection and contributes to tissue repair and general health). They are high in carbohydrates, but, fortunately, rather low in calories (1 cup of snap peas contains about 45 calories). They also contain nutritious amounts of fiber, folic acid, amino acids, and protein. The amino acids, broken down from protein during digestion, are the "building blocks" of the body, and folacin, or folic acid, contributes to cell growth and the formation of red blood cells as well as to digestion and the nervous system.

Information and Photograph courtesy of National Garden Bureau.

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