Gardeners love to try new things, but it’s not often we stumble upon something truly “new.” For me, that happened a few years ago, when I discovered that the shoots from a winter cover crop I was growing were an excellent salad green. These super-cold-hardy Austrian winter peas (Pisum sativum ssp. arvense) deserve a place on every gardener’s winter “must grow” list.
First, the shoots are delicious. Whenever I ask friends to taste them, their surprised response is, “Wow! The shoots taste just like actual peas!” Everything I’ve spotted online about these peas refers to using them as a cover crop, but almost no sources mention that they also make a superb winter salad green. I did find one website that said, “The young foliage tastes of green pea and can be quite good, but the plant isn’t normally grown as food.” And a blogger on the Richmond Food Collective recommended adding the “yummy pea tips” to winter salads.
What makes these peas so special is that they’re especially cold-hardy. As with spinach and kale, you can plant Austrian winter peas in late summer or fall and then harvest the shoots for as long as eight months in many regions (October to May) before the peas flower and go to seed in spring. Several sources say Austrian winter peas can survive cold down to 10 degrees Fahrenheit. I can report that with a simple row cover or frost blanket, these peas can even tolerate extended periods of below-zero weather here in my eastern Kansas, Zone 6 climate, where we get lots of wind and not much snow cover. I plant them in fall in time for them to grow 8 to 12 inches high before freezing temperatures arrive, and most years the peas overwinter just fine with no protection. Last winter was an especially cold one, yet I continued to harvest Austrian winter peas, along with kale and spinach, for terrific fresh, green salads right through the cold snaps.
Winter Peas’ Benefits
Here are six additional reasons to try these wonderful, under-appreciated winter peas:
• They add nitrogen. Peas are legumes, and that means they’ll fix nitrogen in your garden soil if the proper bacterial inoculant is present. When I check the roots of my summer peas and beans for the nodules that are formed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, I usually don’t find them, even if I inoculated the seeds before planting. But on the roots of my Austrian winter peas, I always find extensive nodules. Now when I plant my winter peas each fall, I scatter a few shovelfuls of soil from last year’s pea bed to provide the inoculant for the new crop. (Don’t do this if you’ve had any sign of root rot on your peas.)
• They support beneficial soil fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi, which support many garden crops through symbiotic associations, aren’t able to live and reproduce independently of their plant partners. Because of this, it’s a good idea to keep live plants growing in your beds during winter, as they’ll support the mycorrhizal fungi that help plant roots take up essential nutrients, thus ensuring a robust harvest. Winter peas are a perfect crop for this purpose.
• They’re easy to plant and quick to harvest. Sow the peas in early fall, and you can begin harvesting as soon as the shoots are 6 to 8 inches high. In spring, the plants are easy to remove.
• They provide flowers for nectar and beauty. Winter peas flower in spring, producing masses of small pink blossoms that are a good nectar source for bees. When planted next to a trellis (I use a stock panel), winter peas will climb and make a lovely flower display. Mine grow more than 5 feet high.
• They’re easy to manage. The peas kick into high gear as soon as temperatures move into the 40s and 50s in early spring. After becoming established, the vines twine together as they grow, providing excellent weed suppression and lots of biomass. The vines are succulent and easier to pull out or cut with a hand sickle than those of many other cover crops. You can use the spent vines as a mat-like mulch, or just toss them into your compost pile.
I prefer to leave the peas in place to continue growing as long as possible during spring. I use the vines as a mulch by pulling out enough plants to open up a row down the middle of the bed, and then pushing the vines down and away from each side of the open row, letting them sprawl over the paths on either side of the bed. That way, the peas can continue growing while they provide a living mulch for the tomato or pepper transplants I set into the open row in the middle of the bed.
• Winter peas are great fodder for livestock and poultry. Small ruminants, such as goats and sheep, relish pea shoots. Chickens adore them, too. In the dead of winter, when fresh green fodder is hard to find, an armful of winter pea shoots will be a special treat for your animals.
Deer also love Austrian winter peas, motivating many hunters to plant them in food plots to attract the animals. If your garden isn’t fenced and deer are a problem for you, protect your peas with row cover.
Growing and Harvesting Tips
Plant Austrian peas in fall, up until six to eight weeks before your average first fall frost date. In northernmost zones with severe winters, sow winter peas in very early spring. I loosen the soil with a broadfork or cultivator, then broadcast the seeds thickly (about 2 to 3 inches apart), work them into the soil with a rake, and then water. To assure good soil contact, especially if the soil is dry and you don’t plan to water, it may be a better strategy to use a hoe to open rows, sow the seeds an inch deep, and then tamp the soil over them. One source suggests using a half-pound of seed per 1,000 square feet, while others recommend 2 to 5 pounds for the same area.
Austrian winter peas have shallow roots, which is good because it means they don’t deplete deep soil moisture as much as some cover crops. But the shallow roots are also bad because frost heaving, which thrusts soil upward when ice forms toward the surface, can damage the plant roots if winter temperatures fluctuate too much. Some cover crop manuals suggest interseeding winter peas with longer-rooted winter grains (such as wheat, oats, or rye). Adding the grain will help reduce damage by minimizing frost heaving during freeze/thaw cycles, but it will mean the cover crop may not be as easy to kill in spring as a peas-only planting.
If you garden in Zone 6 or colder, a heavyweight row cover, also known as a frost blanket, will help the peas overwinter. I place a tunnel made from 2-by-4-inch welded-wire fencing over the young peas first, to hold the frost blanket above the peas so they can continue to grow on warm days. You could also grow the peas in a low tunnel or cold frame if you have one.
Now comes the best part: All winter long, anytime you need a fresh, sweet, crisp green salad, just sweep off any snow, pull back the blanket, and cut handfuls of pea shoots. Head to the kitchen, chop the shoots coarsely, and — voila! — you have a salad. Use similar methods to grow cold-hardy kale and spinach, and you can enjoy months of super-easy, super-nutritious salads — just what the doctor ordered. These greens are also welcome in stir-fries and other cooked dishes.
For additional information on this versatile crop, see the section on field peas from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education’s Managing Cover Crops Profitably, Third Edition (also available as a free PDF download) at http://goo.gl/CbJTS7.
If you order seeds now, you’ll still have time to grow this easy, multipurpose winter salad cover crop. See “Austrian Winter Pea Sources” below. If you try Austrian winter peas, let us know what you think by emailing us at Letters@HeirloomGardener.com.