February 8, 1999

Snow pea 'Carouby de Maussane'

When you start to get ready for your early spring garden, I have no doubt I can name several of the types of seed packets you grab: Lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, maybe some broccoli or cauliflower too. No doubt you also think about which type of seed potatoes you want to grow this year. But for most of you, I'd wager the first seed that goes into the ground is the same one that's first in spring for my garden too - peas.

Many of you are familiar with the different types of peas that are available. Your parents and grandparents, as well as their parents and grandparents, have grown the most familiar strain of this legume, the shelling pea. Over the last few decades our tastes have been broadened by the growing Asian-American (and Asian-Canadian) population, and many of us have embraced the snow pea, a flat-podded type that is eaten whole. More recently we've added a third type to our gardens, the snap pea, which is eaten much the same way as a snap bean.

Every gardener has his or her preference in peas. My favorites are the snap peas like Sugar Snap, while my daughter prefers to pick the old-fashioned shelling peas and eat them raw in the garden. Most of my friends who like to cook, however, seem to go for the snow peas. Fortunately there's enough variation to keep us all satisfied, and new varieties are introduced every year.

Unfortunately I tend to be disappointed with most new introductions. As with most other vegetables, the majority of pea breeding work is done to benefit the commercial grower. The result of this is short-vined pea plants that produce most of their harvest all at once, since this is the type of plant that can be efficient to harvest mechanically. In my opinion, though, these tend to be less flavorful than the larger-vined types. Probably this is due to more competition for light between the leaves of the shorter varieties, as well as the plants having to distribute whatever sugars they can produce in a short time to a larger number of pods. The larger plants produce less at any given time, but their overall yield is much higher. I'd encourage you to compare short-vined and large-vined pea varieties for yourself, if you haven't already. I believe you'll find that the incredible flavor difference is reason enough to go to the trouble of trellising the taller plants.

The bad thing about older varieties of peas is they don't have the disease resistance of newer types. Up here in the Maritime Pacific Northwest, two diseases seem to cause the most problems for pea growers. The first is powdery mildew, a non-specific fungus that we're all familiar with. Powdery mildew often isn't a killer though, and it can be controlled when necessary with wettable sulfur. A worse disease is Pea Enation Mosaic, which does kill non-resistant varieties. Enation is a virus which is spread by the Green Peach aphid, so controlling ranges from difficult to impossible (it only takes one aphid to infect a plant). Usually what happens is the weather warms up, and the aphids become active. Often this coincides with the peas starting to set pods heavily. When a plant becomes infected, it's pods become warty-looking and rather woody. Soon after, the plants die. It can be very disappointing to have your plants all dry up just as you're looking forward to harvest. As far as I know, there is no practical way to control enation. All of my favorite varieties, of course, are succeptible to Enation Mosaic.

When it comes to shelling peas, I still haven't found anything to beat Alderman, which I buy from Territorial Seed Company. Some years I get a good harvest, while other years the vines are wiped out by Enation. The flavor is so good, though, that I find the gamble worthwhile. I am trying out a new pea this year, which is somewhat earlier than Alderman - Maxigolt, which is sold by Johnny's Selected Seeds. Earlier maturity means it should yield more in those years Enation strikes, but flavor will determine whether it unseats Alderman from its place in my garden.

With edible pod peas, I didn't used to have a strong preference. Then last year I grew Carouby de Maussane from The Cook's Garden. Not only is the flavor superior, but this plant is beautiful in its own right. The 8-foot vines are covered with lavender and purple flowers, and the leaf axils are stained with dark purple. This heirloom is truly a gem. As with most heirlooms, an occasional plant will not be true to type - this is mainly important if you're saving your own seeds.

My favorite snap pea is a variety called Snappy. Unfortunately I didn't save seed for it, and now I can't find it anywhere. If any of you know where it can be found, please drop me a line! You'll have my eternal gratitude. Aside from Snappy, probably the old standard Sugar Snap has the best flavor.

These variety recommendations are given mainly to help you start your own trials. What I prefer may not be what you prefer. It's probably obvious that flavor is first on my list of important attributes. If you're looking for disease resistance, though, then these really aren't the varieties for you! Give them a try, compare them to other types, and see what you think. Good luck, and have fun! Spring is almost here!


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This page was last updated November 18, 2013