One of the joys about growing your own heirloom vegetables is to feel connected to the past as one learns about the rich history behind a particular plant. Though many of us grow the “usual” vegetables, such as those found in the seed racks at big box stores, it is fun to experiment with more unusual varieties. This year I am trying to grow several heirloom seeds from Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds, www.rareseeds.com. They include Magnolia Blossom Tendril Pea, Clay Cowpea, and Glass Gem Corn. As they mature, I hope to share some of their stories.
Peas are a hardy cool season crop. Aggie-Horticulture recommends planting them from January 18 to February or from August 23-November for a fall crop in North Texas. The optimum ground temperature should be around 40-75 degrees F. Peas can be grown in any good quality soil; however an addition of plenty of compost or synthetic or organic fertilizer will help produce a larger crop. Some gardeners dampen their seeds before planting and inoculate them with live rhizobial bacteria which will improve the growth and nitrogen-fixing ability of many legumes.
Peas can be planted 1-1 ½ inches apart at a depth of about 1 inch. Some peas are bush types while others are vining. If a vining variety, a study trellis should be used. I often use an upside down tomato cage tied around a bamboo stake. However, the Magnolia Blossom Tendril Pea’s vines grew too tall for the 52 inch tomato cage and the cage fell over since it was too top-heavy.
Some common insects and diseases of peas are the pea aphid, fusarium wilt, and powdery and downy mildew. It is recommended to rotate pea crops to a different location every 3-4 years. If peas are harvested frequently, they will tend to produce longer. Peas left on the vine too long tend to get starchy and the pods become tough.
The unusual pea that I tried growing this year, Magnolia Blossom Tendril Pea, is noted for having less disease problems. Bakers Creek Seed catalogue says of it: “An innovative typertendril snap pea bred by Dr. Alan Kapular, PhD. Hypertendril plants make enlarged tendrils in place of some leaves. The tendrils make for a more open habit, allowing better airflow and reducing diseases. And they are also good to eat! They are wonderful in salads or as a garnish, and they taste just like peas. Sturdy 5-8 foot plants are very productive. The plants yield deliciously sweet snap peas for weeks. Vigorous 5-8 foot vines produce bi-color flowers. Flavor peaks just before the string turns red. 70 days.”
In researching this pea, not only was its hypertendril growth interesting (though the hypertendrils do taste like peas and would make an interesting addition to a salad, one reviewer said that his children felt like they were eating hair), but I was equally fascinated by an article about Dr. Alan Kapular, PhD, who bred Magnolia Blossom Tendril Pea.
An article from Fedco Seeds (www.fedcoseeds.com) said that as a child he was equally interested in both orchids and baseball. He entered Yale at 16 and graduated first in a class of 1000 with his undergraduate honors thesis earning the highest grade Yale had ever bestowed. After receiving his doctorate in molecular biology during the time that the structure of the genetic code was being discovered, he became dismayed when he felt that many of his colleagues were using their knowledge to develop lethal viruses for the US government. To everyone’s surprise he left his job and lived in poverty on the west coast where he met his wife. He started saving seeds because they were too poor to buy them. Eventually he collected over 6000 seeds and started a company called Peace Seeds which was bought out by Seeds of Change. Much of his work recently has attempted to de-hybridize hybrids to create open-pollinated varieties so the seeds can be saved and they can remain in the public domain.
Though next year I may try growing some other “unusual” vegetables, as I too found the hypertendrils to have a strange texture which was not to my liking, the flowers were quite pretty and the plant was vigorous. Plus they certainly are a conversation piece.
Picture by Baker Creek Seeds and Carolyn Bush