Round Robin: Fresh Peas from the Garden

Notes from regional herb gardeners.

| April/May 2004

  • Learn about growing and harvesting fresh garden peas from Leah A. Zeldes.

CHICAGO, Illinois—I was an adult before I ever saw a pea in its pod. In my childhood, peas came in metal cans or cardboard boxes from the freezer. My first taste of fresh-from-the-garden peas was a revelation.

Fresh peas burst in your mouth, sweet and succulent, with satisfying sensation. They’re worth every bit of effort to grow and shuck.

Part of the Leguminosae family, the pea probably originated in Ethiopia during prehistoric times and spread to North Africa, Europe and Asia. Nearly every part of a pea plant is edible. The tender shoots and tendrils are popular in Asian stir-fries, African dishes and the hottest contemporary restaurant cuisine. They also make an excellent salad herb; the attractive flowers can be tossed in salads or candied. (However, do not confuse these with the flowers of ornamental sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus, which are toxic.)

There are three basic kinds of peas. First is the garden, shelling or English pea, Pisum sativum, the regular, old-fashioned garden pea that most people regard as boring, at best, because they haven’t eaten it fresh.

These are the most satisfying to grow because the difference in the flavor of homegrown versus processed varieties is so profound. Even fresh peas from the grocer aren’t as good as peas straight from the garden.

Garden peas are classed as smooth- or wrinkle-seeded. The latter are sweeter and best for fresh eating, while smooth types contain more starch and thus are better for drying, freezing or canning. The French varieties, called petit pois, are half the size of regular peas and are supposed to be sweeter, too.

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