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Enough Peas to Preserve

You Can Grow That!

Shelling peas as leisure time activity

When you grow enough peas to stock your larder or freezer, it’s important to process them within a day of picking them. During peak season, I harvest about a gallon of pods each day. To keep up with them, I pod them while sitting in an easy chair and watching a show on TV.

Fresh garden peas have distinctive flavor unlike any you can buy in a grocery store. Remarkably, if you blanch and freeze fresh peas from your garden, they’ll hold much of that amazing flavor for you to enjoy throughout the year. Growing peas is easy, but I rarely see home kitchen gardens with enough pea plants to provide for a single meal much less for preserves.

Do you want a store of garden peas to get you through the year? You can grow that!

Pea-Growing Fundamentals

Peas thrive in cool weather, and cold only slows them down. Conversely, heat kills. Your goal as a pea gardener is to plant when the “days to harvest” are fewer than “days to summer heat.” Usually this means planting as early as you can work the soil—or within a few weeks of that.

Furrows for double rows of peas

I hoe 14’ long furrows 6 to 8 inches wide and set pea seeds every two inches along each side of the furrows. Last fall I covered my planting bed with autumn leaves so I had to rake them aside to make my furrows. The benefit of covering over the planting bed is that it emerges from winter with almost no weeds. Sadly, the leaves provide cover for slugs; I imagine I’ll be setting out bowls of beer to deal with that problem.

A rule of thumb in zone 6 is “Plant peas on St Patrick’s day” (March 17). It is rarely realistic; my garden soil is often mud in mid March. More importantly, when I plant peas that early, they grow at a glacier’s pace. I can plant more peas two to four weeks later and they’ll catch up with the ones I planted early.

Most years June offers up some stinking hot days, and by July the heat is relentless. It isn’t stinkingly-hot relentless, but it’s consistently hot enough that peas hate it; they wilt and die.

Peas grow from seed to harvest in about 70 days. Some claim 55 days—British Wonder and Alaska, for example—and shelling, snap, and snow peas may have widely differing days to maturity. I grow only shelling peas and I assume 70 days to harvest.

Counting back from late June, I need to plant peas in early April to give them their best chance. I also hedge my bets by selecting “wilt-resistant” peas. Wando is popular for late planting; it holds up well in early summer heat. Wando pea plants offer another advantage to older, rickety gardeners: the vines grow at least five feet tall. I wrote about this special consideration last year in a post titled Wisdom with Age.

Support Your Peas with Trellises

Pea vines are the most fragile plants in my kitchen garden. The stems flex a bit, but if I handle them too roughly, they crease and everything above the crease withers within a few days.

Pea sprout

The earliest sprouts you’re likely to see are tiny leaf sandwiches. In cold weather, a sprout may look like this for several days—or even weeks.

Some varieties grow only 18 inches long while others may reach two, three, four, or five feet in length. Whatever the length when mature, pea vines can’t support their own weight; they produce tendrils that can wrap around leaves and branches of other plants for support.

It’s important to provide trellises. I grew an 18 inch variety once without trellises and the vines grew together as a mat on the soil. This trapped enough moisture that many vines rotted; it wasn’t pretty.

Trellises needn’t be elaborate. Here are a few styles to consider:

  • Use dead tree branches pushed into the soil and leaned against each other.
  • Set fence supports at each end of a row and stretch strings or wires horizontally between them at 4- to 6-inch intervals.
  • Buy prefab lattice panels (home improvement stores sell 4’ x 8’ panels) and stand them along rows of pea plants.
  • Attach wire fencing (available on 25’ or 50’ rolls at garden stores—I use 48” fencing) to sturdy stakes that you can hammer into the ground over freshly-planted peas.

Plan to Preserve

Pea patches are among the saddest things I see in other people’s gardens. So many gardeners set seeds along a short row—two to four feet long—and that’s it! With so few plants, you’ll harvest several delicious handfuls of pods over a two or three week period. That’s great for snacking in the garden, but you won’t have peas for the dinner table. Growing enough to preserve requires a bit of commitment.

First pea leaves of spring

In warm weather, pea sprouts can put out leaves in just a few days… but when the temperature drops, so does the sprouts’ growth rate.

For a sense of scale, I plant three 14 foot double rows of pea seeds, spacing the seeds about 2 inches apart.  To create a double row, I hoe a furrow six-to-eight inches wide and an inch or two deep. I press pea seeds into the soil at two-inch intervals along each side of the furrow and then fill over them with more soil, leaving the furrow slightly lower than the surrounding soil. Then I baby-step lightly along the furrow, compressing the soil onto the seeds.

Each double row holds about 160 seeds—if things go well I end up with close to 500 plants. Some years I buy too many pea seeds and save the extras till the next season. I plant these as described, but before covering the seeds with soil, I scatter extras along the middle of the furrow in case the older seeds don’t germinate as reliably as new seeds.

Simple sturdy pea trellises

Each of my pea trellises is a 13 foot long section of relatively sturdy, 48 inch wire fencing attached to three wooden garden stakes. I erect a trellis by setting the middle stake with a few whacks of a hammer, then pounding each end stake deep into the soil while pulling it away from the center stake to stretch the wire. Finally, I drive the center stake deep. By deep I mean 8 to 12 inches… I’ve attached the fencing so each stake protrudes about a foot below the bottom wire. In autumn, I pull the stakes and roll the trellis loosely to store in my garden shed. I’m fortunate: my garden shed could hold two or three dozen rolled trellises; with only three I’ve plenty of room for other gardening gear and much of our camping equipment.

I finish by erecting my trellises and watering heavily. I keep the soil damp until sprouts appear—sometimes I have to water each day, other years it’s cold and wet so watering isn’t crucial.

My point, though, is that number: 500. When I plant 500 seeds, we eat peas for a dozen or more meals during the growing season and I freeze between one and two gallons of peas for the rest of the year. I’m a lightweight. There’s a garden down the road from me that runs at least 30 yards long and the owners set three rows of peas and trellises each spring! These people grow at least seven times the plants I grow… I’m guessing they eat peas at dinner almost every day.

You won’t need as many plants to grow snow peas for preserving… but because I don’t grow snow peas I can’t guess how many meals’ worth you can harvest from a foot-long row.

Succession Planting After Peas

When your pea plants wither in late June, crush them to the ground and set seedlings of some other vegetables among them. I grow winter squash where my peas were, but you could try melons, cucumbers, beans and other vegetables that have short season varieties.

Sure, it’s a bit of work to plant peas and erect trellises; more work than for most common garden vegetables. Still, there’s nothing tricky about it. If you have enough garden space and you want enough peas to freeze (or to can or dehydrate), you can grow that!

Grape vine pea trellis

I love this pea trellis fashioned from sticks and wild grape vines. Sadly, this tiny row of plants will produce enough peas for only one or two meals. If you plan to preserve peas from your garden, plant plenty. With rows totaling 42 feet and double-planted, I harvest between 2 and 3 gallons of peas in a season. I freeze about one-and-a-half gallons, and always use them up before next season’s peas are ready.

 

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One Response to “Enough Peas to Preserve”

  • Last year I bought pound after pound of peas from the farmers’ markets. I shelled most of them for freezing, cooked and served some, and any pods that were a little on the small side ended up on salads or as snacks. This year, I’m planting peas. Thanks for the post – it gives me an idea how much I’ll need!

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