Comfortable and familiar, peas are not the ho-hum vegetable their reputation implies. Cultivated by ancient Egyptian and Chinese cultures, peas were a necessity to the pioneers who planted them in their Southern Oregon gardens. Among the coolest of the cool-season plants, peas are often the first crop planted each year.

Peas are pulses . . . an ancient group of legumes that produces edible seeds. Peas, Pisum sativum, come with two types of pods, one edible, the other not. "Oriental pod peas, popular in stir fries, have flattened edible pods. Sugar snap peas have tender peas and crunchy edible pods," says Jennifer Ewing, teacher at Ashland's North Mountain Nature Center. "You don't eat the pod on garden shelling or English peas."

Heirloom peas have robust flavors and unique traits, but may not be resistant to pea enation virus. Spread by insects, the virus causes blister-like growths (enations). To insure a good harvest with these varieties, sow peas early — beginning in February — so they mature before bugs become active.

Perri Mack, longtime employee at Chet's Garden & Flower Shop in Grants Pass, says popular heirloom varieties are "Dwarf Grey" and the tiny shelling pea "Little Marvel." These mature in about 65 days in full sun.

One of the oldest heirloom peas, "Dwarf Grey" dates to 1773. Smallest of the edible-pod peas, it grows 2 1/2 feet tall, can be grown without staking and is enation-resistant. Attractive, purple-tinged blooms mature to very sweet, tender pods. Its red-tinged shoots can be harvested early and are good in salads and stir fries.

Introduced in 1908, "Little Marvel" grows 18 inches and produces dark green pods with six or seven tightly-packed peas in each. These dwarf shelling peas do not require staking.

Not exactly an heirloom, "Sugar Snap" is still an original. Introduced in the late '70s, it's the first climbing sugar snap pea. Seven-foot vines produce crunchy peas in fat pods. This frost-resistant pea is tasty raw, blanched or sautéed and freezes well. For use in Asian dishes, soups and salads, pick them when the peas are just visible beneath the pod.

For successful starts, soak the seeds overnight, place on a damp newspaper and fold over to cover. "Keep it wet and they will germinate in about three days. Then sow them in a row, and cover with 2 inches of soil," says Ewing.

Early-season peas benefit from the addition of rhizobia bacteria. These help peas by converting nitrogen in the air into usable form, so they bear more heavily. "When pulling pea plants up, notice the nodules attached all over the roots," says Ewing. That's where the nitrogen is converted.

Climbing peas require little space and bush varieties can be planted in containers. With climbers, get creative with trellises. Wrought-iron or brass headboards and wooden ladders are imaginative supports for vining plants. Or simply tie three long branches or bamboo poles at one end and splay the other end, creating a teepee (see Homelife, February 2005).

Edible seeds high in iron, protein, fiber and Vitamin C, peas nourish us and the soil as well. Sow every few weeks through April for a steady supply of nutritious little green nuggets.