Pea planting heralds a new spring

George Bria The Associated Press
Friday March 23, 2001

POUND RIDGE, N.Y. — The weather may still feel wintry, with snow barely gone, but gardeners gladly ignore the wind chill factor to celebrate a first rite of spring – planting peas. 

And seed catalogs spur the early-bird enthusiasm by featuring newer and newer variations of a vegetable esteemed for its taste, the delicate beauty of its flowers and its antiquity. Pea seeds have been found on the site of the ancient city of Troy and in mud where Swiss lake people lived 5,000 years ago. 

They boast a page in science, too, and another in fable. Breeding peas gave Austrian monk Gregor Johann Mendel his 19th century breakthrough in genetics. And everyone remembers Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale where a princess proved she had the delicate skin of royalty because she felt a pea through 20 mattresses and 20 more feather beds. 

Peas are small, but the plants that bear them may be short or tall, bushes or vines. Many are best grown on trellises. All show lovely flowers, but the loveliest, the sweet pea, is a plant that is cultivated widely just for its masses of blooms. 

Here in the Northeast, St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, is the traditional day for sowing peas, but deep snow often will cause delays of even a few weeks. The point is that the pea is one of few seeds that can germinate in soil as cold as 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The fava, or Windsor bean, is another. So you sow them as early as you can in trenches about 1 1/2 inches deep. 

Pat down earth on them. In about three weeks, the sprouting seeds break ground and, if all goes well, you should be eating your first peas in June. 

As gardeners soon discover, they need to shell a lot of peas just to provide a few meals for a couple of people, not to mention a family of four. The varieties that you eat pod-and-all make peas rewarding even in small gardens. So snow peas and sugar snaps have become very popular. 

A French heirloom type of snow pea called Carouby de Mausanne caught my eye, and I’m trying some.  

It is featured as growing 6 to 8 feet tall on a trellis and blossoming with exquisite purple flowers before producing sweet flat pods excellent for fresh or stir fry eating. 

For years, I’ve had great success with a snow pea called Norli, also purple-flowering, which grows about 5 feet tall and yields abundantly. 

Conventionally, the best way to eat snow peas is when the incipient seeds barely show in the pods. But often I’ve left the pods on the vine to over-ripen and swell. Then I shelled them, discarded the toughened pods and found that the salvaged peas were pretty good cooked. 

Another edible pod variety, the sugar snap pea, preserves a crunchy, tasty pod even when the peas inside reach full size. That would seem like the best of possible worlds, but aficionados of the snow pea say its flat pod is more of a gourmet delicacy.  

If you don’t have room for both, breeders have come to the rescue by developing a “snow snap” that’s a cross of a snow and a snap. It is called Sugar Snow and, according to the catalog, you can pick them young and flat or let the peas get plump and sweeter. 

Despite the excitement over edible pod peas, some gardeners still like to grow traditional peas inside inedible pods even if space limits them to token harvests. Of these shelling peas, an old-timer named Lincoln has a loyal following for its 7-9 peas per pod, but it is not as disease-resistant as some newer varieties like Mr. Big. This is an All-America winner bearing 9-10 peas per pod. And there is also Rondo, a double-podded variety averaging 10 per pod. 


A delicacy favored by many are petits pois, French for “little peas.” Shepherd’s offers a variety called Precovelle. Steamed briefly and buttered, the tiny peas, about half the size of a regular pea, melt in the mouth. 


EDITOR’S NOTE: George Bria retired from the AP in 1981 after 40 years that included coverage of World War II from Italy. 

End advance for Thursday, March 22