After harvesting their vegetables many organic gardeners will plant a cover crop so that the soil will not be left bare through the winter months. In spring the crop is dug into the ground where it will act like compost. Various different plants are used for this purpose, but there is one that has the added benefit that it makes an excellent salad green. Cheryl Long has an article on the Mother Earth News website which explains how she made this discovery a few years ago and now grows Austrian winter peas every year.
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 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 single-digit temperatures 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 the peas overwinter just fine with no protection most years. 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 will fix nitrogen in your garden soil, necessary for rapid growth and plant health, if the proper bacterial inoculant is present in the soil. 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.)