Some people brush their hair, or their cat, or their teeth. We brush our garden.
Viney plants such as peas, beans and cucumbers are easier to pick, and produce more fruit when off the ground. There are many ways to do this—stakes, metal cages, or netting—but pea brush is free, and the silvery grey branches look natural and right at home in the garden.
Pea brush is not the growth of a pea plant, it is the small twigs and branches of trees or shrubs cut before they leaf out. We use grey birch. It is plentiful and fast-growing, quickly replacing itself. It has many small branches and is wiry and supple, so less likely to snap and break than other species.
Now, as our peas explode and cucumbers creep skyward, the thin branches of the brush are wrapped and sewn together by curling green tendrils. Some gardeners train sweetpeas on pea brush, and this looks like a tree of flowers.
My sister-in-law’s garden has a towering wall of green beans. When she put in pea brush stakes her husband, who had no idea what she was doing, shook his head at the row of twigs as she poked them into the dirt. She assured him it would be covered with beans, and he replied, “If it is, I’ll eat my hat.” Hopefully she will feed him green beans, instead.
Pea brush is sold at nurseries and farm stores in the spring, but gathering it is a welcome ritual that gets us outside in the strengthening sun. We garden for the fresh summer vegetables, and to fill our root cellar with squash and potatoes, but we garden for the process, too. Cutting and stacking our year’s supply of brush is as satisfying as harvesting our abundance of peas.
So why is it called pea brush when it is really birch? Because it is used for peas, of course. But what then is pea straw? That really is the pea plant. After harvesting the last of the peas, let the plant dry and yellow. It can be pulled off the now brittle pea brush and chopped up and used as mulch, giving nitrogen back into the earth.
We love our spring ritual of cutting brush, our summer picking peas, and our fall mulching with pea straw, but our pea rituals pale next to this one from Northern England: In Cumbria if a girl’s lover was unfaithful to her she would be, “by way of consolation, rubbed with pea straw by the neighboring lads.” (From Anderson’s Ballads.)
Time to eat peas.