By Catherine Winter
Did you know that throughout the United Kingdom and parts of the USA, it’s considered lucky to sow peas on St. Patrick’s Day? In temperate areas like Ireland and most of the United States (let’s say hardiness zones 5b or 6 and higher), the ground has thawed enough by March 17th that peas can be planted, and sowing early will ensure a bountiful spring/early summer harvest.
For those of you who live in colder growing zones, aim for four weeks before your last frost date: peas tolerate frosts well and thrive in cooler temperatures, so it’s okay if there’s a light dusting of snow after you’ve popped your peas into the ground. In fact, there’s a cute way to gauge the perfect time to plant your peas: when the leaves on local lilac bushes and trees are the size of mouse ears (roughly the size of your pinky fingernail). How adorable is that, seriously?
Back to peas. These lovely, sweet legumes love to climb, so be sure to use some type of trellising so they can stretch out and grow to their little green hearts’ content. You can plant your peas along a fence so they can use that to brace themselves as they grow, but you can also hang netting along the side of your house and they’ll climb that just as eagerly. Untreated household twine strung over some sort of frame can work like a charm (I did that over an old gazebo last year), and you can also gather long branches and lash them into a tipi.
Growing Your Peas
There are many different pea varieties to choose from, and you’re certain to find one (or three) that are best suited to your zone and growing space. These are just a few:
- Green Arrow – my favourite
- Little Marvel
- Kelvedon Wonder – a short variety perfect for small spaces like balcony gardens
- Risser Sickle – beautiful heirloom petit pois
- Alaska – great for short seasons, ideal for soup
- Laxton’s Progress
- Lando – more heat resistant: can be planted later, and in warmer zones
Although peas are happiest in fertile, loamy soil, they’ll do fairly well in almost any soil type except compacted clay, or that with overly high sand content. It’s best if you soak them in water for a couple of hours before planting to speed up germination, but it’s not necessary to do so. Peas are resistant to most diseases and practically thrive with neglect, so you’ll just need to water them regularly and then ignore them until it’s time to harvest ’em. Be sure not to over-fertilize your peas, either! They’re very light feeders, and any fertilizer with a high nitrogen content can do more damage than good. If you feel that your soil is really depleted and you absolutely have to add some kind of fertilizer, go for a very weak compost tea.
Peas grow quite quickly, and unless your plants are destroyed by eager wildlife (I’m looking at you, rabbits, groundhogs, and deer), you’ll have beautiful, pollinator-attracting flowers followed by an abundant harvest in no time.
Remember that pea plants are very delicate and have shallow roots, so when you pick your pods, use one hand to hold the stalk in place, and the other to break the pod off gently. If you’d like to make absolutely sure that you don’t damage or uproot the main stalk, you can even use small scissors to snip the pods off instead of plucking them. You can dry your peas for use in soups and stews later, but they really are best fresh: just cook them lightly, making sure you don’t boil them as that will destroy their sugars and delicate flavour. Serve with a bit of butter (dairy or vegan), a pinch of salt, and even some finely chopped mint, if you’re so inclined.