Austrian Winter Peas: A Cold-Hardy Cover Crop

Planting Austrian winter peas will give you tender, delicious greens even in sub-zero weather, plus build your soil and provide nectar for bees in spring.

| Fall 2016

Winter pea flowers

Winter pea flowers offer both beauty and nectar in spring.

Photo by Cheryl Long

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.

11/16/2017 9:59:42 AM

Sounds like something I want in my garden!!!

elderberry, echinacea, bee hive


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