More Peas, Please


March 27, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

As a kid, I hated peas. What child doesn't? Peas and I were enemies locked in mortal combat. When I looked at my dinner plate, I didn't see a pile of peas. I saw a mound of tiny cannonballs being fired at my stomach.

Kids will do anything to keep from eating peas. When no one was looking, I'd feed them to the dog, drop them in my brother's milk or bury them beneath a cloud of mashed potatoes.

Once, I even asked Mom to peel my peas, on the theory that they were hollow and I wouldn't have to eat the skin. It didn't work.

Times change; so do taste buds. I've outgrown my phobia for peas. In fact, this nifty little legume has become one of my favorite vegetables. Gardening had something to do with it. Peas are relatively easy to grow, and folks tend to develop a liking for crops they can raise themselves. Except for brussels sprouts.

Peas caught my fancy about the time I started planting them. I marveled at these mundane morsels and the clinging vines on which they grow.

Did you know that pea plants can feed themselves? It's true. The plants are tiny green factories that take nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into food. Most plants cannot do this. But wait! Peas do more. Besides fixing dinner for themselves, they leave little doggie bags of nitrogen behind, in the soil, for the garden's next tenants.

Peas come in two sizes: dwarf and vining. Mutt and Jeff. There's no in-between. My pea plants grow 6 feet tall and need trellises on which to grow. The vines climb them via wispy green tendrils that seize each rung with alarming ferocity. I watch the tendrils claw toward the top of the trellis and wonder if tonight I should latch the bedroom windows. Just in case.

Another neat thing about peas: They are easy to plant. The seeds are large enough that one needn't squint to sow a row in the garden. Soaking the seeds in water overnight makes them larger still; it also hastens germination by softening the seed coats.

We've learned a lot about growing peas since our ancestors domesticated them 12,000 years ago. Few crops have been cultivated for so long. Peas dating to 10,000 B.C. have been found in a cave in southeast Asia, where they were probably stashed by some cave kids.

Peas were raised by the Romans, who took bags of them, fried, to Coliseum events. Mostly, they were dried. For centuries no one ate fresh peas. They were thought poisonous by farmers, who left them in fields for rabbits to eat.

Small wonder Rome fell.

The pea's roots go deep in man's psyche, but not the soil. Plant peas in good garden loam in early spring, as soon as the ground can be worked. Weed plants carefully to avoid damaging shallow roots.

Most varieties need some growing support. A line of Y-shaped branches placed in the ground between planting rows suits dwarf peas just fine. Taller types require more substantial trellising. I pound 8-foot posts into the garden every few feet, and run thin hardware wire horizontally between the posts. As the plants climb, I add more rows of wire.

Sometimes a vine can't find the wire and just hangs there, tendrils groping in midair. I must rescue the lost vine, weaving it gently onto the trellis until it stays put.

It's like throwing the plant a life preserver.

There are dozens of varieties of peas from which to choose. My favorite is Sugar Snap, whose towering plants yield buckets of succulent peas in edible pods. By contrast, old-fashioned English peas must be shelled. What a bore. Why bother shelling them when, with snap peas, you can eat the container as well?

Harvest peas daily, lest the crops stop coming. And pray that daily temperatures stay below 80 degrees. Peas hate warm weather, and several days of intense heat will bring pod production screeching to a halt.

Sugar Snaps are prolific bearers. The trick is finding the fat, juicy pods, which are nestled behind the leaves, concealed by foliage. Give the vines a gentle shake and watch for movement: The pods jiggle for several seconds, revealing their hiding places.

Harvesting these peas is a joy. I amble down one side of the trellis, nibbling on half the pods I pick. On the other side of the trellis, my partner isn't faring as well. She's woofing down every pea in sight. Moreover, she's plucking them off the vine with her teeth.

Now here's a dog who's not going to wait for some kid to pass her the peas under the dinner table.

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