Column: Dispatch from the pea patch

  • Springtime pea planting yields results to savor. (Rubi Gemmell photograph) Rubi Gemmell photograph

  • Suzanne Lupien. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 8/21/2021 8:00:03 PM
Modified: 8/21/2021 8:00:13 PM


The lingering childhood memory of bowls of bright green steaming peas — nicely buttered, devoured by everyone — provides the impetus to plant them every spring. The vivid, sensorial memory blocks out the hard truth about growing peas; they are a lot of work. Garden-fresh shelling peas are difficult to find and when you do, chances are they are expensive. Really, I think pea culture borders on religion. Beans, by contrast require little effort to plant and to nurture; all you need do is plant, hill and pick.

Peas take a hold of you and don’t let go until the crop has been picked to completion, demanding a great deal of your thought and attention along the way. Generally, they are the first thing to go in, early.

How early? Well, that depends on the weather. Will they germinate? Is the soil warm enough? Dry enough? Will it snow once more? My father wanted to get them planted by his birthday, April 23, and more often than not, he succeeded. He soaked his pea seed in a coffee can of water for half a day, leading up to the rite of submerging them in the soil, setting in motion a long trail of ritual that dominated the life in the garden and the nourishment on the table through the middle of July.

As I recall, the pea fence went up before the peas went in. A line of sturdy homegrown posts about 6 feet high, 8 feet apart, sunk securely in the soil, then garlanded with some old wrinkled-up hen wire, somewhat worse for wear. Then a row of peas planted either side, the rows 5 or so inches apart, peas distanced from each other a couple of inches. Planted firmly in the soil an inch deep, tamped down with the head of the hoe. Always the same.

Bated breath attended their germination period: Would they or wouldn’t they? Then signs of cracking earth along the row, like a miniature earthquake. A few days hence up they came, their pairs of first leaves resembling little green bonnets. Like my father, they wasted no time in getting down to business, and in short order their eager tendrils reached for the wire, holding on for dear life, winding round and round.

Being a spring, cool-weather crop, they always looked so fresh, so promising. They climbed to the top of a fence in no time, burst forth in riotous bloom, giving way to a hedge of dangling pea pods.

I can still see that old bail-handled white enamel pail coming into the porch, filled with peas, to be shelled and cooked or frozen.

The picking was work, a lot of stooping, assessing the plumpness of every pod, then tugging it off the vine with just enough of a pull, taking care not to jerk the entire plant from the ground. A measured tussle. Pail after pail came in over the month or so of pea season. An abundance of wealth, tempered by the realization of the time and effort required to shell them and get them to the supper table.

As kids, we kind of hated having to help with the shelling. The pods are hard to open, the peas bounce all over the place, and it could take hours to get the job done. Yet we were also proud to have them, and very happy to eat them, especially in winter, when a bag of peas was extracted from the freezer.

Records were kept. How many pails were picked, and when. How many pints were frozen. On which fateful day the last package was enjoyed.

To my mind, no other garden crop evokes so much effort, so much ritual and so much familial cooperation as the annual devotional of peas. I’m doing it alone now, but somehow, I always think of the “pageantry of peas,” as E.B. White called it, and there we all are, as a family, doing it together.

Suzanne Lupien lives, writes and farms in Vershire.

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