Thursday, March 19, 2015

When the Earth Says "Peas"

For me, the planting season begins with peas.
Oh, sure, I've got broccoli, kale and onion seedlings in little pots started back in January, but peas are the first seeds I stick in the actual garden soil. Long rows of peas, because I could almost live on them when they are in production.

I'm talking about snap peas, of course. These succulent, sweet little edible-pod peas are what I crave most when growing season starts. If I plant enough, bags of these peas will go into the freezer to toss into stir-fry or any other dish that begs for the green pods. But the best way to eat them is fresh and the best time is while standing in the garden picking peas.

Because peas begin to lose sweetness the moment you pluck them from the vine. All those sugars begin to morph into starches, which are sustenance, but not nearly as tasty. This happens quite rapidly, and by the time you've filled your basket and gone indoors, much of the sugars are gone. So eat while you pick, I say. There is no better way to satisfy the craving.

Of course, it's impossible to eat them all while I'm in the garden (though I've tried). The rest go into a bag and in the fridge to nosh with any meal and inbetween.
Unless you will eat them in two or three days, better freeze them while they are as sweet as they can be. Steam blanch or boiling water blanch (cook briefly, that is), cool and spread on a cookie sheet to freeze. Once they are hard, bag 'em. They won't stick together so much that way.

Peas really are pretty easy to grow, once they've gotten beyond the point where cutworms and hungry bunnies nibble at them. After that, I don't notice much pest damage. They like a little water when it gets dry, but since they grow during the wetter part of our summer, I don't usually need to water them. They grow best in the cooler part of the season, which is why I plant them in early to mid-March; however, we can plant them to mid-April here.

 If the weather is favorable, I pick my first sweet pods in late May. The harvest lasts well into June, sometimes lasting into the first part of July. But by then, powdery mildew has coated every leaf and stem and starts to pock the pods. I take powdery mildew as just part of life. When the weather turns too hot for the peas, the fungus kicks in. Preventive measures can be taken by spraying with baking soda (1 tablespoon per gallon of water and few drops of mild soap) or milk (one part milk to 10 parts water). That must be done about once a week -- before the mildew shows up.

Some varieties are less susceptible to others, but none of the snap peas I've grown escape forever. Snow peas, aka Sugar Pod Peas, the flat Oriental peas that you know from restaurant stir fry, are a bit more tolerant of heat, but not much. I plant those, too, but not as many. They also seem more productive, but maybe I just don't eat quite as many while I am picking.

Snow peas apparently are one of the oldest cultivated vegetables. Evidence of snow pea cultivation has been found in sites 12,000 years old. The snap pea, however, is relatively new, being developed in the 1960s when two guys, Dr. Calvin Lamborn and Dr. M.C. Parker of Twin Falls, Idaho, crossbred a snow pea variety with a garden pea. I am so glad they did. My life would be quite dull without the snap pea.

A number of snap pea varieties exist, some with more mildew resistance, some with long vines, some with shorter vines. The variety I planted this year is Cascadian. A few years ago, I found myself eager to plant a pink-podded variety. It wasn't as sweet as the regular snap peas. At least one catalog this year listed a yellow-podded variety. I'll stick with green, though, thanks. As far as snow peas go, I've stuck with Oregon Sugar Pod II. I don't see too many other varieties offered.

These edible pod peas contain less protein than other peas, but are still highly nutritious, containing iron and vitamin C, as well as fiber. We all need our fiber.

I love snap peas so much, and I'm betting other people do, too. So I've planted another row, with plans to sell them at a tiny farmers market nearby. If no one buys them, well, I will have plenty of freezer space by then.

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