Peas: The Gateway Vegetable

Digging in the dirt? Super fun. Pulling weeds, pruning, dead-heading, thinning, fertilizing, battling ravenous bugs, and waiting several months to see the fruits of your labor? Not so fun, even for the most enthusiastic of green thumbs. That’s why peas make the perfect gateway crop for budding gardeners of all ages. (That includes parents, even if you’re not big on gardening.)

Easy to plant, easy to grow, easy to eat, and ready to harvest in no time, peas make a perfect kid-parent project to introduce the idea of garden-to-table eating and get kids excited about fresh vegetables.

How to plant peas
Once the soil temperature reaches at least 40 degrees, you’ve got the green light to get planting. (The timing varies in different regions, obviously—ask at your favorite gardening shop. But March is a good time to start scheming.)

You can buy pea starts at a nursery, or start the seeds off indoors. But as long as the ground isn’t frozen, it’s even easier (and a lot more fun for kids) to directly sow them outside.

Peas need well-drained soil. If yours is heavy with clay it’ll need to be amended, or you can opt to grow in raised beds. Pick an area that gets plenty of sunlight—6 to 8 hours a day—so your peas develop as much natural sugar as possible. That being said, peas are a cool-weather crop. Unless you opt for a heat-tolerant variety, hot sun will throttle their production. So do plant as early in the spring as you can. The rule of thumb is one month before the expected last frost. Or just go by the old saying: “Plant peas for St. Patrick’s Day.”

Now wiggle your finger (or delegate this task to your assistant gardener) about an inch deep into your soil. Pop in a pea seed, planting in a row, with each seed about 2 inches from its nearest neighbor.

To give the plants a boost, pros recommend sprinkling a little rhizobia powder into each hole. It’s a beneficial bacteria easy to find at any nursery, and it helps legumes like peas take up the nitrogen they need to grow. You can’t overdo it, so don’t worry about kids being careful with the application.

About a week or two later, those sprouts will be showing their stuff.

And that’s about it—lots of sun, regular water, and you’ll have plump green peas ready to harvest in six to eight weeks. Pests and diseases aren’t usually a problem. If you see some aphids, let the kids knock them off with a spray from the hose.

Which variety?
If you want to eat just the peas, not the pods, go for English peas (also called garden peas or shelling peas). You wouldn’t want to eat their fibrous pods, but the plump peas inside are delicious when fresh, and super-versatile. Smash them into a flavorful spread, toss them with creamy pasta, roast them into a crunchy snack, or just give them a quick steam, and you’ve got an almost-instant side dish. And if you have busy little hands in your household, shelling them is quite literally child’s play.

If you want to let your kids eat peas right off the vine, sugar snap peas or snow peas are your best bet. Sugar snaps combine a juicy, crunchy pod with plump little peas, while snow peas are flat with itty bitty pea-lets inside.

With all three types, you can chose a dwarf variety that only grows about 3-feet tall and doesn’t need a trellis for support, or a traditional variety that can grow to over 6 feet in height. If you have room, go for the tall ones. Not only will you get more peas, they make awesome forts when trained onto poles.

To keep the peas coming all season long, either plant them seven to 10 days apart for several weeks, or simply plant a collection of early, mid-season, and late-harvest varieties all at the same time for a naturally staggered harvest. And keep in mind that the more often you pick peas, the more the plant will produce.

When to pick?
Though you can pick sugar snap and snow peas even when they’re babies, English peas need time to mature. The pods should be bright green and plump. If the pods of any variety have gotten dull or browned, or if you can really see the peas bulging inside, they’re old. But even if you don’t want to eat them, pick them anyway, since the presence of mature pods will cause the plant to stop producing. Plus, you can dry the peas and save them for planting next spring!

Here are two easy-peasy recipes kids will love:
Creamy Lemon Pasta with Carrots and Peas
Chili Roasted Peas

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