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Groundwork: Salad Days for Peas

Peas have been coming into crop the past two weeks, reminding me that there are two types of spring pea seasons. But before we get to that, check out this picture at the entrance of the demonstration vegetable garden at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia.

The entrance to Green Spring's veggie garden. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Three plants decorate the entrance bed and arch to the garden, namely the vivid silver foliage of the cardoon, yellow-green leaves of the hop plant and the wispy (look hard) foliage of larkspur, about to bloom. This simple ensemble is a lovely study in leaf textures and colors, and demonstrates that plants that are edible and useful often are beautiful to boot.

It helps that we have had a long, cool and exceedingly moist spring, which brings us back to peas. Peas are sown directly into the garden in March. They are one of the cool-season veggie seeds that will germinate in cold damp soil. Build a trellis before you plant, as the peas will climb to about four feet, but make the trellis higher for a summer vine. Space the pea seeds in a row two inches apart. I use a pencil to make a hole about one inch deep. If May and June remain reasonably cool, peas will do well. If we get precocious heat setting in before Memorial Day, they won't.

With temperatures above 80 degrees, flowering diminishes and the vines mature without much to show for it. Apart from a few days of heat, this spring has been moist and reasonably cool, leading to a great harvest. In a drier year, it would be important to lightly mulch the vines and keep them evenly moist, especially as the pods develop. Good soil is a must, as is the addition of a bit of wood ash or bonemeal, to provide potassium and prevent the soil from getting too acidic.

Cascadia, a snap pea variety. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)
The vagaries of growing the garden or English pea have prompted Cindy Brown and the gardeners at Green Spring to choose varieties of snap and snow peas, which are generally more productive than regular peas. They can be harvested before the heat sets in because you're not reliant on the seeds developing fully. You eat the whole pods of snow and snaps, rather than shell the seed. Snow peas are taken when the pods are large but still flat. If you can, allow the seeds to swell in snap peas; this will sweeten the fruit, though they may need stringing.

How long should your trellis be? A 10-foot row will yield as much as five pounds of garden peas in a good year. I double my yield by planting a row on either side of the trellis. The rule of thumb, however, is that your pea rows should be longer than you think, because quite a few pea pods never quite make it to the kitchen. They're too tempting for the hungry gardener.

Cascadia in the bag. (Adrian Higgins -- The Washington Post)

Save some of your seed peas for sowing in September for a fall crop. Seed germination is diminished by the warm soil, so put in more than you would in the spring. I'm not sure what Cindy is planting where the pea vines are. I would sow some cucumbers to grow on the trellising, or some pole bean varieties.

Now, what to do with all those pea pods: Over to you, Cindy.
-- Adrian Higgins

Peas With Mint Chutney and Feta
4 servings

Adapted from a recipe in Gourmet magazine (July 2004) by Cynthia Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

4 cups snap or snow peas (or a combination), trimmed
Leaves from 1 bunch mint leaves (1 cup packed)
Leaves from 5 to 8 stems cilantro (1 cup packed)
4 scallions (root ends trimmed), white and light-green parts coarsely chopped
1 small serrano chili pepper, stemmed seeded and cut into several pieces
1 large clove garlic, minced
Juice from 4 limes (1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons water
2 teaspoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup good-quality feta cheese, crumbled

Bring a large saucepan of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat.
Add the peas and cook (blanch) for 2 minutes, then drain and rinse with cool water until the peas are no longer warm to the touch. Drain and transfer to a serving bowl.

Combine the mint, cilantro, scallions, chili pepper, garlic, lime juice, water, sugar and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add to the peas and toss to combine, then add the feta and mix gently. Serve at room temperature.

Per serving: 109 calories, 6 g protein, 13 g carbohydrates, 4 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 291 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 8 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  June 8, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Green Spring Gardens, Groundwork, peas, recipes  
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