Welcome to springtime in the New England! It is 70 degrees today on March 8th in Northwest Connecticut, and in order to mitigate my rising alarm at the wicked respiratory cold they call Covid-19 racing across the globe, I’ve decided to take a break from the news. It’s time to pull on my gloves (the dirt protection kind, not the medical grade germ protection kind) and venture into the garden. Since cold season clearly isn’t over, and the best thing for a bad cold is a bowl of hot soup, I have my favorite spring soup in mind.
Pistou is a Provencal pesto of sorts, made with basil, garlic and oil. It is used primarily in a northern Italian dish called Soupe au Pistou. When I think Pistou, I don’t think of basil as much as I think of fresh peas, which is one of the necessary ingredients for this light, bright, healthy Mediterranean soup made with pasta, beans and spring vegetables. For Pistou later, I need to plan now. Click on the link under the photo for one of my favorite French versions from The French Barn.
St. Patrick’s day has always been my rule of thumb for the time to plant peas. In this region it is generally the time when the soil can first be worked, and in the past I’d wait for a sunny day soon afterwards. But the times they are a changin’, as they say. Climate change has done away with the regular patterns, and we have to adapt. For my purposes today, the sooner the ground is thawed, the better.
When I chose my peas from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company in January, I was, as always, enchanted by the color glossy pictures and delicious descriptions of the vegetables. As always, I couldn’t decide on which varietals to choose, so I chose several. I may be sad when the weather warms and there is no room left in my garden for the tomatoes and eggplant!
Peas are very easy to plant. They love cool weather, they can handle a light frost, and they don’t mind soils in the 30’s. This makes them the perfect spring vegetable for our inclement Northeast weather. Once your soil is loose and has been amended with compost, simply poke them in the ground with your finger to a depth of about 1 inch. Space them 3″ apart in rows at least 24″ apart.
Most peas grow in vines, and need something to cling to as they grow. A trellis of some sort, either a net attached to stakes, such as I use, or a mesh fence or a woven panel will help them grow tall and make harvesting easy. It should be at least 5 feet tall, or higher, depending on the variety. Some peas can grow 10 feet tall! New this year for me is a bush type varietal called Kelvedon Wonder. Topping out at 18″, it needs no staking, and therefore even less work than usual.
A word of warning: New pea shoots and leaves are a favorite of some songbirds, and if found, they will peck at the leaves until there isn’t much green left for the new plant to photosynthesize. If you find your tiny new leaves are getting eaten, it’s wise to cover them with row cover for protection until they are strong enough to withstand a bit of abuse. A cover is also in order if a heavy snow is expected.
When I think of those first fat pods of sugar snaps dripping off the vines, and then lightly sauteed snow peas in butter, and finally thumb-sized shelling peas bursting with flavor to store for the winter, I’m ready to get them started. It’s easy to sit inside and panic, to worry and watch the numbers and listen to the talking heads squawk fear and discord, anger and accusations. Panic is antithetical to the gardener. If a gardener falls into the mindset that the world is ending and all is lost, he/she/they will no longer garden; hence they cease to be a gardener. Without a future, there is no point in a garden. The act of gardening is an act of hope. In fact, gardening is the natural response to fear and panic. It provides stability, a plan, future security and a firm foundation in a hope for better things. Let’s focus on what is important. Try to stay home. Try to stay healthy. Eat soup. Plant peas. Sow hope. Go put some seeds in the ground and see if you don’t feel better about your world. I dare you.