The Real Dirt Planting Peas? It's A Snap

March 22, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Before I plant my peas, I'd like to ask a Q.

Is this the perfect garden vegetable, or what?

Pea seeds are big and easy to sow; the plants are remarkably simple to grow; and nothing attacks peas except for a crow who hops down the row dodging stones that I throw.

My favorite variety of garden pea, sugar snap, has an edible pod, a little green suitcase you can eat. All you throw away is the zipper.

Peas are so popular in America that they trail only corn in crop production. Peas and corn are two vegetables that taste infinitely sweeter when picked fresh from the garden, rather than from a roadside stand or (ugh) the supermarket. Upon harvesting, their natural sugars begin changing to starch until they start to taste like a shirt collar.

That's why I grow peas.

Another reason I grow peas is because they're a joy to plant. Th seeds are huge. This is important to middle-aged gardeners like me who can no longer eyeball most seeds into the ground without wearing our !! reading glasses. Planting peas is different. Planting peas is like relaxing with a large-type newspaper.

If pea-planting is a treat for old-timers, it is also fun for the young. Beth, our 10-year-old, has been sowing peas for half her life. Sometimes she plants the little pea balls while wearing mittens. Try doing that with tiny seeds like carrots and you end up with "carrot condos," a hundred seedlings trying to grow on top of each other, in 1 inch of space.

The first springlike day, Beth and I head for the garden armed with a Mason jar full of pea seeds that soaked in water overnight. The water loosens the thick seed coats and hastens germination. It also makes the seeds swell to an even bigger size, making me deliriously happy.

Peas are the only crop Beth and I will plant when there is snow on the ground. It's certainly the only one that will survive subfreezing temperatures (to 19 degrees), although some varieties, such as sugar snap, prefer warmer germinating conditions.

We've gone sledding the same day we popped peas into th ground. Normally we plant them in a raised-bed garden, which warms more quickly and drains better than regular plots. (Peas hate wet feet.) So we tramp down the row in our boots, dropping the peas in furrows prepared the previous fall. We plant them 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart. Before covering them, Beth likes to crown each seed with a pinch of snow.

Snow peas, she calls them.

Plant peas as early in spring as the ground can be worked. They'll come up when they're ready. If they don't rise up in about three weeks, or if germination is spotty, I resow the whole row. The second planting often catches up with the first one.

When the seedlings emerge, I cover them with Reemay, a floating row cover resembling white gauze, which is impervious to birds, but not sunlight or water. Crows can wipe out an unprotected crop in minutes. Trust me.

Unlike most vegetables, it is better to plant peas too early than too late, since production tails off in hot weather. A warm spell of 80-degree days can bring the vines to a screeching halt.

Sugar snap peas will start bearing in 2 1/2 months. The vines, which grow 8 feet tall, begin producing tasty 3-inch pods from the bottom up. Kneeling to find those first sweet peas is like looking for Christmas presents beneath the tree, but more rewarding.

My vines are supported by hardware wire strung horizontally along a row of 8-foot metal stakes. By early summer, I'm picking peas twice a day, eating some raw and tossing a few to Katydid, our pea-brained dog, who sits patiently on her haunches, waiting for a handout.

Peas originated in Asia more than 10,000 years ago. Archaeologists have found peas in both Egyptian tombs and caves dating to 9750 B.C. (Some "fresh" peas in the produce section of our supermarket look older than that.)

Columbus planted peas in the New World right after he planted the Spanish flag there. Thomas Jefferson, a fairly level-headed president, went bonkers over peas, raising 30 different varieties in his garden at Monticello.

Had Jefferson known about sugar snaps, I believe he'd have grown just one.

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