Why You Should Stop Growing Tomatoes and Give Peas a Chance

Why You Should Stop Growing Tomatoes and Give Peas a Chance

Peas are resilient motherfuckers.

Full disclosure, I did not grow up loving these green garden teardrops. I suspect my parents were not fans, so they were absent from the table. To this day, I will use my chopsticks to kick them out of fried rice one at a time with the precision of a surgeon. If you’ve only had canned or frozen peas, you probably feel similarly. Mushy peas can kick rocks. But there are few food experiences better than standing in your garden in October and November, plucking fresh peas off a trellis and popping them raw in your mouth. They are the garden equivalent of Nerds.

I get it, a peapod does not have the same sex appeal as a giant, juicy Brandywine tomato. Tomatoes have better PR. But if you’re looking at limited space and higher satisfaction, I’m telling you: Stop trying to grow tomatoes. Peas are just the thing.

They’re easy. The seeds are giant and unfussy. They don’t get lost or require a magnifying glass to locate — these ¼-inch plunkers are easy to plant: every few inches, stick your finger in the soil up to a knuckle and pop a seed in the resulting hole. It’s hard to crowd your peas. They’re like EDM fans–they don’t seem to need personal space.

5 day old shoots (Image: Amanda Blum)
5 day old shoots (Image: Amanda Blum)

They require nothing but dirt, sun, and water. They’re hard to waterlog, they come up quickly (in a few days!) and a little harsh Setpember weather won’t deter them. Through two sudden snow storms and eight rounds of mid-September hail, my tomatoes and flowers withered but my peas did not give a fuck.

Their roots don’t need a lot of room to spread out, so they’re unchallenging to grow in pots. They fit in small spaces because they are mostly vertical plants. Unlike a tomato, they don’t need heavy support; a single pole would be fine. Let them grow up the railing on your apartment balcony or a decorative rail by your front door. Or you can just hang some bird net someplace and they’ll be equally thrilled.

The best argument for peas is yield. A tomato plant, even a really good one, produces a finite amount of fruit for a short time and is wholly dependent on what the weather throws at you that year. Tomatoes are easy targets for birds, squirrels, and other garden-marauding neighbours, as well as a million different fungi, viruses, and blossom end rot. Not only are peas impervious to all of that, but they are a garden hero, replacing nitrogen in the soil used up by other plants. Smart gardeners make sure to have peas or beans in every bed, co-planted amongst other vegetables.

Peas are prodigious, and the more you pick, the more you get. You’ll walk outside and have a meal every damn day. Their flexibility is astounding. Eat them early as whole peapods or wait for them to fatten up, then use your fingers to pull them apart to reveal three to eight perfectly round peas inside. If that’s too much trouble for you, squeeze to explode the pod right into your mouth. (I don’t care if that is what she said, I stand by it!) If they’re shelling peas, you can simply wait for them to dry on the vine and save them for the winter. Pea shoots themselves are a treasured part of the hot pot experience and are delicious stir fried. And if you take a shoot off the vine, the peas do not care. They will simply Dozer some new shoots for you, Fraggle Rock style.

As for their sexiness? I say we’re all missing the boat. Peas — which, for the record, have never been the source of heartburn (I’m look at you, tomato) — send out tendrils that grasp around them for anything to cling to, and said tendrils are also edible (many restaurants use them for a gloss up). They can grow to 10 feet, giving you a perfect spot of shade in the garden. I grow them on arches, so the peas hang down.

 peas, pea tendrils, pea flowers and the pods make this green goddess risotto supes fancy (Image: Amanda Blum)
peas, pea tendrils, pea flowers and the pods make this green goddess risotto supes fancy (Image: Amanda Blum)

Are you convinced yet? Grab a pot, a planter, or even a shallow trough and get some peas in the ground. Buy some seeds, throw them in a jar with some lukewarm water for 2-3 days and then plant them and be on your way to a successful harvest.

When deciding which kind of peas to grow, pay attention to the descriptions on seed packages, which will give you information on yield and how tall the plants will grow. While I generally recommend finding a local seed company where you live, pea seeds are safe to buy at the grocery store, or anywhere you find seeds. (Here’s a great chart from Johnny’s Seeds, a national seed house, that shows the differences between their peas.)

Snap peas

Snaps are probably what you picture when you think of peas–a thick pod encasing round, plump green bois. They’re called “snap peas” because they are delightfully crisp and, when broken, make a snapping sound. (I could be making that up.) Young pods are delightfully edible; fully grown pods are technically edible too, they just tend to be a bit tougher. Save the tougher pods and make pea vinegar by throwing them in a jar and covering with white vinegar and some sugar.

Image: Amanda Blum
Image: Amanda Blum

Snow peas

The flat pods (pea pods) that you’ve likely grown accustomed to in Asian cooking is a snow pea. These start out flat and small and grow longer, with a few smaller peas, spaced apart, in them. The pods generally remain edible the entire time.

Shelling peas

These are very much like snaps, but the pods are inedible, so they must be removed. While other pea vines can reach up to 10 feet depending on variety, shelling peas tend to be three feet or shorter. As keeping peas go, meaning you’ll dry them and keep them for winter, shelling peas are the ideal.

Sweet peas

Sweet peas are NOT edible. No part of them is edible. They’re highly toxic, but are, in fact, peas. People grow these toxic beauties because they have a gorgeous flower that smells amazing. The vines look similar to edible peas, but the flowers and pods are different enough that you (probably) won’t eat them by accident.

Purple peas

Many seed purveyors now offer purple vegetables, which seem very charming because who doesn’t want purple pea pods? It is a joke amongst gardeners that purple peas, while prodigious, have an aftertaste that makes them pretty terrible, but that each gardener must experience it themselves before going off them. I am often reminded of the year that literal pounds of purple peas could not be foisted on anyone, friend or foe, from my gorgeous 3.66 m pea tower. (Someone, and I’m not saying it was Claire Lower, but it was Claire Lower, actually threw one back at me.)

If you want to wade into growing your own food, stop fussing around with tomatoes. Put some pea seeds into the ground. Now is the time and peas are just the vegetable to start with. Even if you’re determined to use the space for tomatoes later, you’ve got plenty of time to get a round of peas off before then.

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