Friday, May 20, 2011

Minding The Peas

Growing tip of a snap pea.

Three years ago I inquired about purchasing a bunch of pea shoots at the one stall I figured most likely to have them of all the stalls at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. The proud young ladies, who sell all kinds of edible sprouts and greens, pointed out the pea sprouts in a plastic-lined straw basket. I explained that I was looking for the shoots, err, the tendrils and leaves of a mature pea plant. They explained to me that selling those would ruin the pod and pea harvest. I thanked them, disappointed, and was on my way.

Pea sprouts after just a few days, sprouted in a pot on my windowsill.

Ever since I bought that one dollar bundle of pea greens from a Hmong American farmer at the Minneapolis Farmers' Market in 2008, I've scanned our Brooklyn greenmarkets for fresh-cut (in today's parlance -local) pea greens. I have always presumed the greens to be sensitive to lengthy storage, just as are the fresh peas and pods, and so have not looked to produce markets in Chinatown. Although, in season, I would expect to find them there because Chinese cooking demands snow pea greens and sprouts for several dishes. Lately I have been hearing that you can pick them up at the Union Square greenmarket, but haven't confirmed this myself.

A pea green -stem, leaves, tendril.

It makes sense that the garden, or shelling pea, Pisum sativum, would garner all the attention. It's wrapped green spheres are sweet and nutty little bites of spring perfection. Then there are the snap and snow peas, with their crispy crunch and phyto-saccharidity. This is where all the breeding work has gone -into bearing perfect, sweet fruit. It was Dr. Calvin Lamborn, at Gallatin Valley Seed Co., who discovered a swollen, edible-podded pea plant after crossing a mutant pea with the snow pea, Pisum sativum var. saccharatum. Immediately after his discovery, he began a breeding program to perfect Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon -the snap pea. Ten years later, snap peas became a marketing success and, today, can be found in almost every grocery store freezer.

Snap pea.

There hasn't been any significant breeding of peas for distinctive greens, although I am willing to bet this year's greens that there are local, heirloom snow peas in China that have been selected over generations just for their greens. It is worth saving your own open-pollinated pea seeds for selection toward the best greens. I've read in a few different places that the 'Oregon' snaps, such as 'Oregon Giant' and 'Oregon Sugar Pod,' are the best for pea greens, although any sugar snap or snow pea variety should do. In the interest of your health, it is wise not to eat the greens or peas of any ornamental peas, like the famously scented sweet peas, Lathyrus odoratus.

Our short double row of maybe 30 pea plants.

We are growing a dwarf variety of snap pea, called 'Sugar Ann'. I selected this variety for its diminutive size, usually less than 24 inches, because I began growing them in a small container garden. This year, at the beach farm, I've used the last of those seeds (they usually store well for three or so years), and the short size has helped overcome the winds at the site. Next year I plan to grow a taller variety, maybe one of the Oregons, tempting the winds of fate.

Looking closely, you can see where I snipped the greens from the main stem.

So, when do you harvest your pea greens? After you've harvested your pods? By then it may be too late, having warmed significantly, and your greens are likely to yellow, toughen, their tendrils stringy and branches woody, the plant possibly suffering from mildew. Before you harvest your pods, then? You may get significantly less pea pods if you harvest flowering branches and cut too many energy producing leaves, but before the pea pods form is when you should start eyeing your pea plants for their greens.

After snipping the pea greens, new growth will stem from the leaf axil.

It is important to let the plant mature enough to tolerate your trimming. Allow your peas to grow to at least one foot tall, because you only want to clip greens from a healthy, vigorous growing pea for the most tender and best-flavored greens. Depending on the weather and when you plant, the best pea greens can be harvested in the NYC area somewhere between April 30 and May 30. Of course, you can keep harvesting those greens as long as they are tender, no matter the date.

Edible pea flowers are either white or purple.

Give yourself a taste of those pea greens in the garden. If the tendrils are tough in the field, they won't get any better in the kitchen. Where the tendrils might be tough, the leaves and thicker stems may still be tender, or may soften under the influence of the saute pan. Experiment! I've found that semi-tender tendrils may toughen a bit with gentle cooking, and it is helpful to cut them smaller than the rest of the greens. I've read, too, that storage in the fridge for more than three days can toughen up pea greens, although I have not waited long enough to discover this myself.

Growing Conditions for snap and snow peas:

  • Any well-drained soil will do.
  • Work in compost.
  • Six hours of sunlight
  • In the NYC area, watch the weather and plant anywhere from March 10th - April 10th.
  • Soak seeds overnight and plant directly in prepared bed according to seed packet directions.
  • Mulch with straw to preserve moisture if necessary.
  • Spring rains are usually enough water until May, always water regularly during dry spells.
  • Ideal growing temperatures are 50 - 65 degrees F.
  • Add stakes or netting for peas to climb.
  • Once a foot tall, you can fertilize with just a little 5-10-10 -if any at all.
  • Watch for slugs.
  • Watch for aphids in fall growing season or early summer.

If you do not have access to a community garden, yard or container garden, you can raise pea sprouts on your windowsill. I have only tried this in spring, but I do suspect fall is a good time as well. Summer may be too hot and humid and winter too dry and dark on the windowsill, but why not try in every season?

Windowsill snap pea sprouts.

Purchase some snap or snow pea seeds and soak overnight in a bowl. Find a container with drainage and fill it 3/4 full with good quality potting soil or compost. Dampen the soil thoroughly. Make sure to have a pan to catch water underneath.

Place the soaked pea seeds evenly around the pot. You can fill more densely than I did here. Then cover with a thin layer of potting soil or compost and dampen. I covered it with cling wrap to maintain the moisture until the seeds sprouted.

Soil-covered seeds.

In just a few days your pea sprouts will emerge.

The pea sprouts after about 10 days from planting.

Snip above a set of leaves so that the plant will continue to grow new leaves. Keep the sprouts watered as long as you plan to snip new sprouts. You can eat these pea sprouts much like you would the pea greens - fresh in a salad, stir fried with garlic and chili pepper, with pasta, or any number of other ways. You can see my pea green recipe here.

Pea Sprouts - sprouted peas, young and tender.
Pea Greens - mature pea leaves, stems, flowers, and tendrils.
Tendrils - the curling, "grabby" apparatus of the vine.
Dou Miao (doh-meow) - pea tips or greens, pea sprouts sometimes labeled this way, the Chinese name for pea greens.
Mangetout (manzha-too) - French meaning "eat all," used to describe snap peas.
Snap Peas - edible rounded pods, peas, and greens.
Snow Peas - edible flat pods, and greens.
Shelling Peas - edible peas and stronger-flavored greens, inedible tough pods, the English pea.


  1. I'm growing Sugar Ann also for it's dimunitive size. I'm excited to harvest these! I've never eaten the shoots before, I'll have to try this!

  2. I think you have good pea karma. Mine hated being on the roof. Maybe I'll try the sprouts. Very good looking.

  3. It is so exciting to imagine such deliciosity popping up around New York City apartments . Talk about a GREEN revolution. Thank you for this wonderful article.

  4. Frank - pea "tendrils" have been for sale lately at the co-op on Union Street....they also had pea shoots...both are deelish.

    Yours look amazing - glad you are getting such a successful harvest!

  5. Goodness, there's so much useful data here!


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