By Barbara Damrosch Special To The Washington Post
Spring-planted peas are a choice crop for the kitchen gardener, but it’s easy to miss the boat. Well, two boats, actually. The first one sailed this spring when the ground thawed, warmed up a bit and was finally dry enough to be worked. If you didn’t get those seeds in promptly, the plants will still grow, but they will struggle increasingly as spring temperatures yield to summer ones.
Heat is the enemy of a good pea. So is maturity, that second boat, if you will. Garden peas that have filled out their pods are good for one day, maybe two, before they turn starchy and lose their delectable, just-picked, sweet taste. By the time the pods lose their green smoothness and are pale and rough to the touch, they are beyond eating.
If you are filling your freezer with your pea harvest now, or are about to, bravo for you. If not, consider planting some for fall eating, even a small plot.
Just as with the early crop, the timing is tricky at both the germination end and the picking end. You’ll need to start them anywhere from mid-July to early September, depending on how late the first frost is expected in your zone or microclimate, and how many days to harvest are noted for any given variety. (Store seed peas in the fridge until sowing time.) Yes, peas are a cool-weather crop, but unlike winter warriors such as spinach and kale, they are not frost-proof. The vines tolerate a few below-freezing nights, but the blossoms and pods will not. And sowing in summer’s heat is a challenge, too.
But give it a try. Lots of empty spaces appear in the garden in late summer, so when lower temperatures are at least on the horizon, spread a mulch of hay, straw or newspaper on an empty bed to make it more cool and moist. Then start pea seeds indoors or in cool spots, in soil blocks or plug trays. (If you have saved any little plastic six-packs from purchased annuals, you can also re-use those.) The minute you see that bump of green, pop them in the ground. Starting them this way will get them off to a quicker start and will avoid gaps in the row where seeds might have failed to germinate because of heat stress.
Choosing a quick variety is also a good strategy, but heat tolerance might be an even more important factor. Lincoln is a time-honored heirloom for warm-climate gardens, although it’s tall and you’d need to support it with a trellis. Wando, Maestro and Top Pod are shorter heat-resistant varieties that can more or less support themselves, or can be allowed to sprawl on the ground. You might also grow a Sugar Snap type such as the super-quick Sugar Ann, or a snow pea such as Oregon Sugar Pod II.
As days grow cooler and shorter, growth will slow down a bit. When frost threatens, just drape some floating row cover over your trellis — if you’re using one — so that it becomes a tent. Dwarf, ground-hugging vines will be less exposed to the cold, but these, too, might need covering on cold nights if you’re racing with frost. I find an old blanket works fine, as long as I remember to remove it promptly in the morning. At that point I’m in battle mode. I want those peas on my table, and I won’t take no for an answer.
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook”; her website is www.fourseasonfarm.com.