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Intrepid Urban Farmer: Dish of fresh, scrumptious English peas starts with little extra work

By Ginger Dawson
Special to NKyTribune

Fresh English peas.  Sweet, glorious, scrumptious fresh English peas.  There is nothing more wonderful than a small dish of these.

And, a small dish is exactly what I harvested after my first attempt at raising these little morsels a few years ago.  Actually, it was more like a teacupful– a bone china English teacup, the kind that a sugar cube can overwhelm and that your granny likes to collect.

No one has expended so much effort and resources for such a meager reward. If I had any self-dignity I would keep this to myself, but it’s already been established that I do not. My lack of self-dignity is my gift to you.  How else would I give an accurate report  without all of the mistakes.

A vision of beauty. (Photo courtesy Encyclopedia Virginia)

I was, of course, disgusted by this two or three mouthfuls of yield.  But the flavor!

This is how gardening can get into you.  One taste of the freshest peas, tomato or asparagus you’ve ever had, IN YOUR LIFE, will hook you in and make you do things you would be better off keeping to yourself.  People talk.

To redeem myself somewhat, I will say that I have spent less time doing things that were not nearly as rewarding, and I did indeed manage, over time, to up my yields past teacup measure…..but still……

By the time you amend the dirt, put up the pea fence (peas like a support as they do vine), put inoculant in the little trench you’ve prepared, and plant the seed, you’ve already spent 30 times the effort that you will expend eating your little portion.  I didn’t even mention shelling the little stinkers.

I have read that Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable was English peas.  Apparently, after he retired to Monticello to pursue his far-ranging and scientific plant experiments, he and his neighbors had an annual contest to see who could harvest the earliest peas.  Peas are a cooler weather crop and are one of the first of the season to be planted.

This year’s variety and inoculant

Now Jefferson hated the English.  Yet, English peas were his favorites.  This is a testament to their alluring flavor.  Even Jefferson, with his Revolutionary hatred of tyrants had to turn the other cheek for their peas.

While it does take a little effort to plant peas, it is a relatively easy, straight-forward process.  The hardest thing about planting peas is deciding when to do it.  They like the cooler temperatures of early spring, but the soil does have be warm enough for the seed to germinate.  And, when, exactly is this?!  Every Spring, I wring my hands over it. 

Right now I have a little crop that has been in the ground for over a week with nary a sprout in sight.  It will either germinate, or rot; in which case I will get to do it all over again.

Peas in the trench. Inoculant was sprinkled in first.

But, don’t let my conundrums weigh on you.  You may have a latent talent as a pea weather oracle.  If you do, contact me.  I am serious.

A good full-sun location is best and your soil should have a good amount of organic material (compost, cow manure, etc.) worked into it. A  mid-range pH of 6 to 7 (this is a good range for most vegetables) is ideal.

Configure a trellis of some description for the peas to grow on.  In the past, I’ve found that peas will grow pretty high, so the higher you can make the trellis (6 feet or more), the happier you will be with the long-term results.

I like to use inoculant when planting.  Inoculant is a granulated additive that introduces a bacteria to the plants that causes them to form nitrogen-fixing nodules that help them, and in turn enrich nitrogen in the soil for the next season.  Just sprinkle a little of it in the trench before you plant the peas.  This is a win-win, in my opinion, and it’s not that much more effort.  (I can complicate boiling an egg.)

This year’s setup. This pea support will be tall enough to accommodate the growth.

The peas are then planted about an inch or two deep and a couple of inches apart.  Keep the soil moist, and If weather conditions favor you, the seed should germinate within a couple of weeks.

Then, just make sure the plants get about an inch of rain a week and wait for the peas to bloom and start forming pods.  When the pods look like they have some good-sized peas in them, start harvesting….and shelling.  A taste will tell you if your timing is good.

At the end of the season, the spent plants are a very good addition to your compost pile.  Legumes (peas and beans of every description) are renowned for their natural ability to add nitrogen to the soil.  And nitrogen, in gardening, is the name of the game.  No nitrogen, no plant growth.

What could be a better serendipity? — delicious peas, a natural addition to soil health and extra work.

These are the dynamics that separate the fanatical gardener from the sensible.

At least we can say that Jefferson is in our camp.


Ginger Dawson has resided in Covington, Kentucky since 1988. Raised on a farm in South Central Ohio, she has enjoyed a very eclectic and enriching life. She loves her Italianate Victorian Townhouse and particularly the garden behind it. See her new website at intrepidurbanfarmer.com

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