When you think of cold weather garden plants that you can harvest throughout the winter, what comes to mind? Spinach, kale, cilantro, chickweed, arugula, claytonia… there are a ton of winter garden goodies to choose from that can tolerate temperatures down into the teens.
And we’ve got another one that you should add to your list: Austrian winter pea greens.
Of all the winter salad greens we grow, Austrian winter peas are probably our favorite: they’re sweet, delicious, high in protein and micronutrients, extremely cold-hardy (down into the low teens), AND they improve the microbiology in your soil thereby helping your spring and summer crops grow better.
Field Peas Or Austrian Winter Peas?
Most Americans who have heard of Austrian winter peas call them “field peas” in reference to how they’re grown on large swaths of farmland either as a soil-improving cover crop or as a tempting deer fodder for avid hunters. They’re also popular with wild turkeys. If you keep backyard poultry like chickens or ducks, your birds will love these greens and subsequently lay eggs with even more nutrition for you (more on this below).
In Asian cuisines, the truly delicious leaves of these peas have been a culinary treat for centuries and are quickly catching on in U.S. supermarkets and restaurants. Though closely related to the same pea species that snow peas, sugar snaps, and English peas are bred from, Austrian Winter Peas are far more cold-hardy and will overwinter without protection in USDA zones 6 and warmer (down to about 10°F).
Grow them and enjoy sweet, “sugar snap pea” flavored salad and stir-fry leaves throughout the fall and winter. Yes, their pea pods that form in spring are tasty, too. They tend to get stringy quickly so pick them young for fresh eating or let them mature until the pods begin to turn tan in color to harvest as a dry soup pea. (They make amazing split pea soup!)
Building Soil Health
One of the best things about peas and other members of the legume family: with the help of natural rhizobia bacteria, they can “make” fertilizer for your garden by harvesting atmospheric nitrogen and fixing it in your soil.
They also grow quickly and their abundant “biomass” (stems and leaves) can be used as either:
- an excellent weed-blocking mulch for the top of your garden beds; or
- high-nitrogen material for your compost.
Austrian Winter Peas: Planting & Harvesting Tips
My favorite way to plant Austrian winter peas for edible shoots is to dump an entire packet into a 2’ x 2’ patch and spread the seeds out more or less evenly before putting an inch of soil on top. It’s okay if the seeds are so dense that some of them overlap since the purpose is to create a “chia pet” effect of salad greens right outside the kitchen door. Plus, pea seeds are one of the easiest to germinate of anything you will ever grow! When the tangled mat of vines reach 8” or taller, it is easy to sheer off the tender tips with scissors and put them in your salad bowl or stir fry.
This technique also works perfectly as a container garden—and you can even use a topiary ball or accent the edges of the planting with edible pansies to make a nice visual statement. Once the vines get tall you can keep harvesting the youngest tips off the plants to eat while enjoying their lovely, bicolor pink and purple flowers (the flowers are edible, too)!
The way to tell if you are harvesting them at the right stage is whether or not you like their texture when you eat them; if you find them stringy or tough, you need to pick younger growth. Pro tip: raw, cubed salad turnips (like the variety ‘Tokyo Market’) on a bed of pea greens with pecans or walnuts and a vinaigrette is one of the greatest joys as a winter lunch.
Make sure never to harvest pea shoots and other greens when they are covered in frost because it causes the plant cells to shatter and then the greens will wilt and discolor before they reach the table (they can still be eaten cooked, but aren’t pleasant in a leafy salad); always wait until the day warms enough to thaw them before harvesting.
How To Grow Austrian Winter Peas In Colder Climate Zones
If you live in northern climate zones with heavy snow, you may need a cold frame or low tunnels/pollytunnels in order to grow Austrian winter peas in the coldest months.
Zones 5 and colder should plant Austrian winter peas in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked. Tropical areas with mild winters can plant Austrian winter peas in the shade during the coolest part of the season or in a pot in a sunny window indoors.
Greatest Visual Impact In An Edible Landscape
Even though Austrian winter peas are a common “cover crop” that farmers broadcast on their fields through the cold season and later incorporate into the soil to build its fertility, they have incredible ornamental potential in a home landscape.
I think the succulent, sea-green foliage of peas has one of the prettiest hues of any leaf in the garden. It’s even mottled with white like the foam on the waves. Not to mention the grace of the twining vines and tendrils or the jewel-bright purple-pink bicolored flowers.
Austrian winter peas grow so quickly that they’re also instant gratification or a very fast way to hide eyesores in the landscape. I use them in a mix with winter oats, parsley, arugula, radishes, and other cold-season herbs and plants to both give my poultry a healthy snack in the winter and to hide the birds’ bare-brown winter run from view.
I seed a 1-2 foot wide border all along their fence which they reach through to grab tasty greens, thus keeping the plants trimmed. By spring, the peas have fully climbed the fence and burst into a glorious display of bee-friendly flowers. So consider using Austrian winter peas to hide winter views of utility boxes, trash or compost bin storage, bare garden trellises, or chain-link fences.
In very cold areas, they may not grow until early spring, though Austrian winter peas started early enough in the fall usually manage to overwinter under the snow to get a head start on the weather warming up. As long as the plant’s crown near the soil doesn’t freeze and die, it will re-sprout. The closer the plant’s tissues are to the residual warmth of the soil, the less likely it is to freeze solidly.
This is also a great plant to seed en masse near the kitchen door so that you can quickly come out and give it a haircut for the evening dinner salad. Surround it with cold-hardy flowering kale or pansies and cover it with a cloche or low tunnel when there are hard freezes to keep it beautiful all winter (they will put out active growth every time the temperature outside or under their cover is 40℉ or warmer, otherwise they will hunker down and wait for warmer days). Make sure to always remove their cover when it is 50℉ or warmer outside to prevent them from getting too hot and dying.
Container Gardening With Austrian Winter Peas
Austrian winter peas are one of the easiest seeds to grow and sprout and they do fantastic in containers, even if you crowd them. You can actually achieve a pleasing “chia” look by continually giving them a symmetrical haircut, or you can add a topiary ball or chicken wire sculpture and let them climb and cover it.
Another option is to plant a border of Austrian winter peas around the outer edge of a tall container and put something else in the center of the pot: perhaps some colorful chard, a statuesque kale, a smattering of pansies, or a colorful mix of lettuce. Without a trellis, the peas will cascade down the side and be a beautiful “spiller” in the container design formula of “thrillers, fillers, and spillers.” If it is a very large pot you could also surround a single kale specimen with shorter plants like arugula, pansies, or a lettuce mix to use as the “filler” (the kale would be the “thriller” and the Austrian winter peas “spiller” would pull the combo together).
Always bring containers indoors when there will be more than a light frost, since the roots are more likely to freeze in a pot (and hard freezes will cause the plants to brown and be less visually attractive). Additionally, some garden planters do not hold up to hard freezes and their ornamental glazes flake off or the container itself may crack and split.
Again, as mentioned previously, make sure never to harvest pea shoots and other greens when they are covered in frost because it causes the inner cells to shatter and the greens will wilt and die before they reach the kitchen (they can still be eaten cooked, but aren’t pleasant in a leafy salad); always wait until the day warms enough to thaw them before harvesting.