By Sara Malone, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Peas are cool-season, frost hardy plants, making them an ideal part of the Sonoma County winter vegetable garden. We are fortunate here in that even when we have frost, it is extremely rare that the ground is too hard to work. It is sometimes too wet to work, as immediately after rain, but if you avoid the soggy times you can start peas in the County any time between late November and late February.
There are several types of peas: garden peas, snap peas and sugar peas (snow peas). The pods on the latter two are edible when picked when the peas are still immature and small; the garden pea varieties are those that need shelling before eating. All are delicious – especially when fresh from the garden. Anyone who thinks that he doesn’t like peas should grow them and see - peas are like tomatoes in that the fresh ones don’t even remotely resemble the sad specimens presented at most groceries or restaurants.
Peas generally need something to climb on – your tomato structures can often be put to use in their off-season for this purpose. Wrap some plastic netting around the tomato cages and you have a perfectly adequate structure for peas. You can also string netting between fenceposts. Peas, unlike tomatoes, are not heavy plants and just need something to attach themselves to. I have also planted peas in rows and then interspersed the rows with multi-branched leafless twigs of a foot or so in length – the plants scramble happily over the ‘cage’ that the twigs make. They are a bit harder to harvest this way, but it works! There are also pea varieties which are short and don’t require a climbing structure – read your seed package labels carefully.
Sow peas directly into fertile, loosened soil. It works best if you work some compost in before you plant. They should generally be planted about 1-1.5” deep, in either single or double rows, depending on your climbing structure. I plant several plantings 2 weeks apart, to extend the growing – and eating! – season. Peas are attractive plants with decorative ‘curlicues’ that they use to cling to the netting or wire. Peas will produce as long as the plants are healthy and the weather stays cool – and at my house as long as I can protect them from marauding rabbits, who love the tender green shoots. I use a temporary low fence of chicken wire, which usually does the trick.
Pick your peas according to what type you have planted – garden peas should be picked when the pods swell and you can discern the peas inside, and they feel firm. Experiment a bit at first – don’t wait too long to pick or they will be starchy. Snap peas should be picked earlier – when the pods have started to swell, but the peas inside are smaller. If you wait too long on these you’ll really be sorry – the pods will get stringy and unpleasant to eat and you’ll have to shell them just like garden peas. Pick snap peas every couple of days – there is not a lot of margin for error here. Snow peas should be picked even earlier – when you can barely discern the peas inside. They’ll look just like the snow peas that you buy at the grocery store or eat in restaurant dishes – it will be pretty obvious when to pick them.
No matter which type you plant, be sure to treat them delicately in the kitchen and don’t overcook them. Lightly steamed and served plain they are absolutely sweet and delicious. You can really go to town and top with a little butter or lemon and salt and pepper, or puree them or make fresh pea soup, a classic early spring first course. Or, you can eat them my favorite way – peas are the winter version of cherry tomatoes. I can’t help thinking that they taste best right off the vine while I am out ostensibly ‘working’ in the garden.
Pea seeds are available at garden centers, nurseries and mail-order or internet specialty seed sources. Experiment with a few varieties to see which you prefer. You may even find starts in six-packs at nurseries such as Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners