Jane McLeod: The inside and out of peas

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— There are two types of peas: shelling and edible-pod.

Shelling peas create a lot of vines and a lot of pods, but after time spent removing the peas from the pod, or shelling, there are not very many peas.

To my mind, edible-pod varieties give better satisfaction. Varieties include snow peas and sugar, or snap, peas, whose tender pods taste as good as their contents, raw or cooked. You also can count on a much bigger harvest volume than you get with shelling peas, when you have to throw away the pods. With our short growing season here in the Yampa Valley, volume counts.

Peas, for the most part, are climbers that grow by sending out thin tendrils from leaves. The tendrils coil around any available support, so gardeners benefit by creating or using something for them to climb up and along.

I have a pleasing, long and loose A-frame structure made of willow branches and string — lots of string — that my husband created by drawing on long-dormant Boy Scout training.

I plant the seeds on both sides of the structure. Once the vines grab onto string or a willow whip, and get a little help to work their way upward, not much else needs to be done. The vines are rather delicate, however, and mounding soil around the plant’s base keeps the roots cool and supports the stems at the beginning. Weed around the plant very carefully.

Peas thrive in cool, high-altitude areas and grow best at temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees. Plant them in a sunny to partially shady spot in spring, as soon as the soil can be worked. The seeds will germinate in a wide range of soil temperatures, from 50 degrees and warmer, and can even tolerate a light frost.

The young vines also are surprisingly weather-tolerant, but they won’t endure a frost. Plant in soil that is light and very rich in organic matter, but limited in nitrogen. Too much nitrogen will result in lots of lush foliage but not many pods. Good drainage also is essential.

Peas are heavy feeders, so soil enriched with well-rotted manure, compost or a balanced fertilizer is important. The seeds are big and should be planted about an inch deep and 1 to 2 inches apart. Poke them in with your finger, cover with soil and keep them moist until the sprouts appear. Many cultivars reach maturity in about 60 days.

The snow pea pods are flat and ready young. They’re at their most tender just as the seeds form and are barely visible. In the sugar varieties, pods become plump and cylindrical but still are eaten young, before the peas inside develop.

Pick peas promptly, as left too long on the vine they lose their sweetness and flavor, as the sugar inside turns to starch. Sugar-to-starch also happens immediately after being picked, so timing is important. Either refrigerate promptly to slow down the process, or, even better, move peas directly from the garden to a pan to a plate. They also freeze well.

Pea vines produce from the bottom up, so harvest the pods at the bottom first. Harvest regularly to keep the vine productive.

Peas are beyond versatile in the kitchen and are good for you, too, as a low-calorie source of protein, iron, fiber and vitamins, especially C and A.

Peas love our cool nights, but their moment of glory in the garden can be brief if very hot weather hits and endures, so pay attention and pick your peas, please.

Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Routt County Cooperative Extension Office. Call 970-879-0825 with gardening questions.

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