We take many things for granted today, often not fully appreciating the amount of research, hard work or even the fascinating history behind some of our garden plants. Take the garden pea for example. Our parents and grandparents planted them but their history dates back a bit farther – pea seeds were found in an Egyptian tomb at Thebes.
Garden peas or Pisum sativum, are thought to have originated in the area around Pisa, Italy where they grew wild. The Greeks and Romans served boiled peas as a light refreshment during intermissions at their theatre presentations. It was a favourite early vegetable among Europeans and various cultures adapted legends about peas. In Britain, a pod containing nine peas was considered lucky. Peas were also used as one of the many cures for warts. Each wart was supposed to be touched with a pea, that was then wrapped in paper and buried. As the pea decayed in the ground, the wart was supposed to disappear. In the language of flowers, the pea is a symbol of respect and it’s the birthday flower of February 17th. The garden pea we all know and enjoy today, was developed in England and was one of the first crops planted in the New World.
Garden peas are one of the most widely grown and most healthy of all garden vegetables. They are rich in nutrients, containing phosphorus, potassium and vitamins A, B and C. Peas are high in carbohydrates but fortunately, low in calories. One cup of peas has only 45 calories. They also contain nutritious amounts of fibre, folic acid, amino acids and protein.
Peas are a cool-crop vegetable and as soon as all danger of heavy frost has passed, they can be planted. In Scotland, peas were never sown until the first swallow appeared, while in England, an old ditty advises to “Sow beans and peas on David and Chad (March 1st and 2nd), be the weather good or bad”. Although many good gardeners plant peas early, you can space the plantings out to enjoy peas right through the summer.
Peas prefer a well-drained, shallow, sandy soil that both dries out and warms up quickly. They also like a new location in the garden each year, if possible. Peas do not thrive in acid soil and an application of Dolomite lime is essential for both peas and beans. Also, avoid using compost. Many seed companies are promoting the use of nitrogen inoculants with pea crops. These are simply granules of live nitrogen-fixing bacteria. In general, they improve the growth of peas and increase crop yields.
Peas should be planted about 2 inches deep and about 2 inches apart. For maximum space usage, plant in wide 3-foot rows, keeping each row about 18 inches apart. Raised beds are beneficial to many garden vegetables and peas are no exception. Soil levels, raised 6 to 8 inches above ground level, will raise the temperature of the soil from 8 to 13 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are a number of good pea varieties and it can take you several years to try them all. I’ve seen many old-timers grow beautiful crops of tall Telephone Peas on poles, which makes a fine garden feature but most of us simply don’t have enough room in a small garden. ‘Little Marvel’ is an old dwarf pea that requires very little staking. I think, however, that the best dwarf peas are the ‘Sugar Snap’ varieties. ‘Sugar Ann’, ‘Sugar Snap Pole’, ‘Super Sugar Snap’ and ‘Cascadia’ all have superb flavour. The great feature of these peas is the fact that you eat the pod and all and they never get bitter or old tasting.
Although peas are an early cool crop, this long cold spring has certainly delayed their start in many gardens. The good news is they can be planted now and with a bit of better weather they will grow quickly to provide you with their uniquely delicious flavour.