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Archive for Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Peas should be a staple in the garden

April 20, 2005

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Considering its popularity on the dinner table, the pea gets relatively little attention from vegetable gardeners in this part of the world. Most gardeners seem perfectly content to leave pea-growing to Green Giant and to reserve garden space for other vegetables that appear to be less troublesome.

This is not to say that no one out there is growing peas, nor do I mean to treat all varieties of peas the same. However, after observing what many people plant year in and year out, it strikes me that something is missing from many area vegetable gardens.

When Midwesterners think of peas, we generally imagine the little round green legumes that are purchased frozen or canned. These are sugar peas -- sometimes called table peas, green peas or English peas. Like other kinds of peas, this most common type of pea must be planted in early spring and requires cooler weather in order for the sweet flavor to mature.

The early growing season probably turns off some gardeners, but problems with spring winds are undoubtedly an issue, too. Particularly with long-vining peas, the wind can damage the plants and inhibit growth. Although the seed breeders have developed dwarf varieties, which have a shorter growth habit, these mini-vines sometimes produce fewer pods.

These obstacles aside, for gardeners who are willing to battle the elements to grow them, freshly picked garden peas are a real prize. Fresh peas are as sweet as candy, and I have been guilty of standing in the garden eating them straight out of the pod.

For me, the problem with green peas came with the shelling. While it was one thing to stand next to the vine and break open a couple of pods for a snack, it was quite another to shell the entire harvest. I tried to make it a mindless task that could be done during an evening in front of the television, but when I considered that each pod produced only a spoonful of peas and a whole row might yield just three or four cups, the economies of the entire enterprise became hard to ignore.

I didn't give up easily, though. I even bought a gizmo that was supposed to shell a pod of peas quickly and effortlessly. You simply inserted the pod, turned the handle and, the theory went, the peas came out the bottom and the neatly sliced pod came out the top. Instead, the contraption flattened the entire pod and the only thing that came out of either the top or the bottom was a mooshed green mess.

In hindsight, of course, this gadget was too good to be true. While the Green Giant obviously doesn't shell peas by hand, his equipment probably cost more than $14.95, and he probably didn't order it out of the back of a seed catalog.

The complete and utter failure of this machine, I decided, was a sign from the gardening gods, which I took as the final dispiriting straw. I have not planted green peas since. This was an easy choice to make because, after all, snow peas and snap peas, both of which have edible pods, grow well here in early spring. I've always been surprised that one or the other of these peas isn't a fixture in every garden.

Both kinds of peas are just as delicious when freshly picked as green peas. In addition, both are available in short- and long-vining varieties. The only drawback I can think of is that they really can't be preserved because the texture of the pod, particularly in the case of snow peas, is compromised in freezing or canning.

Maybe some day we'll see a gizmo in the back of the seed catalogs that claims to solve that problem. In the mean time, I'll eat my peas fresh, pods and all.

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