Garden Vegetable Varieties for 2013: Heirloom Peas

For most gardeners in northern New England, pea seeds are the first to be sown in a new gardening year.  On a sunny day between mid-April and late May, the date to be determined by rates of snowmelt and inches of spring rain – “when the soil can be worked”, as the gardening books tell us – the garden’s new season is consecrated by the planting of peas.

Some of us plant shelling peas, also known as English peas, while other gardeners plant snow peas and still others sow seeds of snap peas.  Gardeners with lots of space may plant all three types.  For readers who will be starting their first garden in 2013, I will begin this discussion of pea varieties by defining these three groups.

The distinction between the three types of peas is defined by the developmental stage of the seeds (called “berries” in some catalogs, particularly for the mature stage) at harvest.  Shelling peas are picked when the berries are fully developed, plump but still green.  Because a sowing of shelling peas matures all at once, they are often planted in several small sowings spaced a week apart, thus extending the harvest season.

Snow peas and snap peas are both edible-pod peas, meaning that the entire fruit, pod and seeds, is eaten.  Snow peas are picked before the seeds begin to develop while snap peas are picked when the seeds have somewhat developed, but not fully.

There are pea varieties that can be picked and eaten at all three developmental stages.  Often, however, this approach results in mediocre taste in an least one of the three stages.  I would rather plant one or more varieties with outstanding flavor for each stage.

As with cucumbers, squash, and most other garden vegetables, taste in garden peas is the hallmark of heirloom varieties.  In shelling peas, the variety Lincoln is described in The Cook’s Garden catalog as “one of the best-tasting peas ever bred, an exceptionally high-yielder, the peas perfect for freezing.”  Each pod on the compact vines (25 to 30 inches high) yields 8-10 large berries that mature 67 days after sowing.

The online catalog for Maine-based Fedco Seeds sings high praises for Lincoln pea.  “This old English favorite rates as the sweetest pea and the best for fresh garden grazing.  Lincoln loves cool rainy Julys such as 2009 but production falls way off when July is hot and dry as in 2012.”  The later could be said for any garden pea variety.

Introduced in 1908, Lincoln pea was grown commercially in the United States immediately after World War II.  If you are a baby boomer, chances are you ate Lincoln peas as a child.  Today, the seed is sold to home gardeners by several of the seed houses listed below.

Another heirloom shelling pea, Blue Bantam, is featured in The Cook’s Garden 2013 catalog with copy that reads as follows: “Introduced by Burpee in 1902, it boasts delicious flavor, earliness, quality, and bushels of 4-inch-long blue-green pods, loaded with eight berries per pod.”  I suppose “bushels” is applicable if your garden is large enough!

When it comes to snow peas and snap peas, some seed catalogs combine these two groups into one group called “edible pod peas”, operating under the assumption that the only difference is the stage at which the pod is picked.  Other catalogs treat them separately, finding some varieties best when harvested as snow peas, others best when picked later.

Among the varieties typically labeled “snow peas” is Mammoth Melting Sugar, an heirloom that has been popular for many years.  The pods , when picked before the peas inside begin to get large, are delicious stir-fried or in salads.  Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds offers Golden Sweet, a variety that produces flat pods with a bright lemon-yellow color, great for adding color as well as taste in stir-fries.  The vines are six feet tall with purple flowers.  Golden Sweet is a rare heirloom snow pea collected from a market in India.

Two varieties of snap peas, Sugar Ann and Sugar Snap, can also be used as snow peas when picked early.  I’ve grown and eaten both of these varieties and can attest to their great taste as snap peas, whether sauteed, steamed, or eaten fresh.  They are also great to munch while working in the garden.  Sugar Ann is the earliest, maturing in 52 days, ten days earlier than Sugar Snap.

A great catalog to peruse for a wide selection of garden peas is that of Territorial Seeds, an Oregon-based company.  Oregon is well adapted to growing peas and many of the nation’s most popular varieties, such as Oregon Sugar Pod II, were developed at Oregon State University.  They offer 17 varieties of garden peas, all open pollinated.

Pea growers should also check out the Heritage Organic Seeds online catalog (see list below).  Among their offerings is Amish Snap pea, described as “a delicious snap pea grown by the Amish for generations. Tall vines reach 5-6’ and are very productive over a six week period. Seed dries to a smooth beige color. Tasty.”  While the catalog is very informative, listing several heirloom peas not available from other seed houses, this Canadian company cannot ship seeds to the U.S., so you have to conduct a web search for other sources.  I discovered Annie’s Heirloom Seeds, a Michigan-based company with an online catalog filled with heirloom veggies.  In addition to Amish Snap, they offer several other heirloom varieties of shelling, snow, and snap peas.

Annie’s Heirloom Seeds,
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds,
Fedco Seeds,
Heritage Harvest Seeds,
High Mowing Organic Seeds,
Johnny’s Selected Seeds,
The Cook’s Garden,
Park Seed,
Renee’s Garden,
Territorial Seed Company,

Blue Bantam is an heirloom shelling pea that dates back to 1902.

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About Reeser Manley

I was born in Laramie Wyoming but moved to the southeast at an early age. I was educated through my B.S. in Biology in the Columbus, Georgia area, then crossed the Chattahoochee River to earn my M.S. in Botany at Auburn University. For the next ten years, I worked as Horticultural Manager for the George W. Park Seed Co. in Greenwood, S.C. At 40 years of age, I decided to return to graduate school and in 1994, I earned a Ph.D. in Horticultural Science from Washington State University, Pullman, Washington. Fast forward through 10 years at university (7 at UMaine, Orono) and you find me teaching high school science in Eastport, Maine, the edge of the world, and writing a weekly garden column for the Bangor Daily News. My new book, The New England Gardener's Year, a Month-by-Month Guide for Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Upstate New York”, will be published later this year by Cadent Publishing. You can learn more about the book by visiting its Facebook page: