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Give peas a chance 

Sugarsnap purists stock their own seeds

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W ith the potential of an entire organism contained within its tiny package, seeds are rightly the stuff of wonderment. But even the seemingly innocent act of planting seeds has joined the world of multinational corporate boycotts, most notably with last year's purchase of Seminis seeds, the world's largest vegetable seed company, by the agribusiness giant Monsanto.

Many organic growers found themselves in a dilemma. Objections to Monsanto's pro-genetic engineering, pro-chemical farming paradigm began to resemble spiritual fervor in their intensity.

Fedco Seed Company asked its customers if they wanted Fedco to market seeds that are now owned by Monsanto, and the response was a resounding "no." While this move may earn Fedco the loyalty of its core constituency, some farmers will likely continue to acquire their seeds of choice from a corporation they despise.

I recently asked Josh Slotnick, a farmer, if he would switch from his beloved (and now Monsanto-owned) sugarsnap pea to a different variety. He looked at me blankly. "Sugarsnap is the only pea to grow," he said. "It's the Cadillac of peas."

Rarely have I noticed a seed variety with so devoted a following as the sugarsnap pea. Ommas Aarden, a seed-saving organization, calls sugarsnap "the best pea on the planet." Fedco Seeds, which will no longer carry sugarsnaps after this year, calls it "One of the very best raw treats in the garden."

I got a call the other night from a jubilant Slotnick, who had decided to get around this dilemma by saving his pea seeds himself and planting them next year.

"Sugarsnap peas are self-pollinating," he said, which means you can easily save and plant your own seeds."I'm going to plant an extra row, just for seed."

Intrigued by the story of this pea, and hoping for more sugarsnap superlatives to flesh out the reputation of this legendary legume, I called another farmer, Steve Elliott, and asked for his input.

"Shell the damn pea!" he barked. "The sugarsnap is a lazy man's pea. They're great if you're just walking by in the garden because you can grab one and put it in your mouth. But if you want a real pea, you need a shelling pea, like Maestro or Green Arrow. Creamed new potatoes with real peas? C'mon, that's real eatin'."

All shell and snap peas can self-pollinate. They can also cross-pollinate, likely resulting in undesirable hybrid plants the next year. So as long as there are no different pea varieties in bloom in the vicinity of your pea plants, saving your peas will give you pure seed. The above-mentioned Maestro and Green Arrow shell peas bloom a few weeks apart, so you could grow both of those in your garden and save them without accidentally making hybrid seeds.

Johnny's (johnnyseeds.com), Fedco (fedcoseeds.com), Seeds Trust (seeds trust.com) and Eden Seeds (eden seeds.com) all carry many snap and shell peas. Pay attention to the trellising needs of each variety. Sugarsnap plants, for example, can grow over 6 feet tall, and need major support.

Peas are best sown after the spring rains, ideally by the end of April, but you could plant them today. Slotnick says he likes to wait for consistently warmer temperatures.

Ari LeVaux

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