Introduction: This crop originated somewhere in central Asia about 8000 years ago and is now cultivated all around the world. In their dry state peas are a highly nutritious, protein rich food and were once a staple food of Northern European peasants. However for modern gardeners peas are more popular in their green stage and increasingly as edible pods.
Peas are members of the Fabaceae and share the most important characteristic of many members of that family. They have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria that live in nodules on their roots. This makes them important for organic growers, because they can add nitrogen to the soil, rather than taking it out.
It is important to understand that the pea plants themselves don’t fix nitrogen, they simply play host to nitrogen fixing bacteria. If this bacteria isn’t present in the soil then the growing plants will take nitrogen from the soil, just like any other plant. See Inoculation below for more on this.
If you are growing dry peas any nitrogen that is fixed may be converted into protein rich peas, rather than entering the soil.
Crop value: Dry peas are one of the best cool weather sources of high protein food for the home garden. Home grown green shell peas are one of the taste highlights of the spring garden. The plants can be very productive, especially when growing edible pods varieties. The growing leafy shoots and flowers are also edible.
Peas are all the more valuable for their ability to enrich the soil with nitrogen.
As a cool weather spring crop they can be out of the ground by June, leaving plenty of time for a warm weather crop to succeed them.
| About Peas |
Germ temp: 40 (60 – 75) 85
Germination time: 6 – 17 days
36 days / 41°F
14 days / 50°F
9 days / 59°F
8 days / 68°F
6 days / 77°F * Optimum
6 days / 86°F
Germination percentage: 80%+
Viability: 3 years
Weeks to grow transplant: 4
Growing temp: 55 (60 – 65) 70°F
Plants per person: 50
Plants per sq ft: 8
Start: 8 wks before last frost
Plant out: 4 wks before last frost
Direct sow: 4 – 6 wks before last frost
Fall crop: 8 – 12 wks before first frost
Succession sow: every 2 – 4 wks
Days to harvest: 55 – 120 days
Harvest period: 4 – 6 weeks
Yield per plant: 2 oz
Yield per sq ft: 1 lb
Nutritional content: Green peas contain vitamins C and B6, along with folate, iron and several anticancer phytochemicals. They contain around 350 calories per pound.
Dry peas are high in protein and contain over 1500 calories per pound.
Ease of growing: I have always found pea to be one of the easiest and most foolproof crops (so long as they are protected from birds). The only time they didn’t do well for me was when I planted late and it got hot early. Even then they did okay, but the harvest period was very short.
Climate: Peas are very much cool weather plants, growing best at a temperature of 60 – 70°F. The flowers don’t usually set pods above 80°F, so high temperatures severely affect production.
pH 5.5 (6.0 – 6.5) 7.5
The best soil for peas is a loose well-drained loam. If the soil is compacted then double digging is beneficial. If it is poorly drained, use raised beds, especially for early plantings, as they don’t like wet soil. In very poor soils it may pay to plant your peas in trenches, filled with a mixture of soil and compost.
Peas don’t need a soil that is high in nitrogen, as they can obtain their own. In fact if nitrogen is too easily available they won’t bother to fix any. They do need phosphorus (colloidal phosphate) and potassium (wood ashes), as well as calcium and magnesium (use dolomitic limestone). You can also supply all of these with an organic fertilizer mix.
Soil preparation: Dig in 2˝ of compost or aged manure (it can be fresh if applied in fall), as well as colloidal phosphate and greensand.
Peas are one of the first crops to be planted in spring, so many gardeners prepare the soil the previous autumn and cover it with mulch. This must be removed several weeks before planting, to allow the soil to warm up.
Where: Peas need full sun and lots of room for good growth. The climbing habit of the pole varieties can be an advantage, as it keeps them up off the ground and so saves garden space. However it also makes the plants vulnerable to high winds, so they should be planted in a sheltered spot.
When: Peas are cool weather plants, hardy down to 20° (28°F when flowering). They prefer mild growing temperatures (60 – 75°F) and don’t usually set pods above 80°F. In areas with hot summers they are grown as a spring or fall crop. Unlike most cool weather crops they usually do better when planted in spring.
Spring: It is important to plant your crop early enough, so that it has sufficient time to mature before hot weather sets in. Normally the first peas are planted 4 – 6 weeks before the last frost date. The exact date depends upon the soil temperature, it should be at least 40°F and preferably 60°F. If it is too cold they may rot before they germinate (or be eaten by rodents or birds).
Some gardeners plant their first peas even earlier than this, but run the risk of their being killed or injured by frost. When this works out you get very early peas, so it is often worth the risk.
You can make earlier crops less risky by warming the soil with black plastic or cloches two weeks before planting. You can leave the cloches on after planting to protect and warm the young plants (which speeds up growth).
Summer: In cool climates you can grow peas right through the summer (they aren’t affected by day length). This won’t work in warmer climates though, as they don’t like heat.
Fall: Plant a fall crop 8 – 12 weeks before the first fall frost, so it matures in cool weather.
The seed may be sown in autumn for an early spring crop, though there is some risk that the seed may rot over the winter.
Succession sowing: In cool climates you can succession sow every 3 weeks, until the weather warms up. This doesn’t work so well in warmer climates as later sowings often catch up with the earlier ones. In such cases a better solution is to plant several varieties with different maturation times.
Just as with beans there are both bush and pole varieties of peas. Unlike beans however, even the bush types may do better with some support and repay the extra work with a larger harvest.
Climbing peas that don’t have anything to climb will be very unhappy as they struggle along the ground and will rarely produce well,
Install any support structure before you plant the seeds. Once they have germinated it takes considerable finesse to install it without damaging the young plants.
Whatever type of support you use should be tall enough that your plants don’t outgrow it and flop about. If they threaten to get too tall you can pinch out the growing tops (these are edible and very good). It should also be strong enough to bear the weight. The tangled full size vines and their load of peas can weigh quite a lot, especially when they get wet. A strong wind can cause additional stress.
Peas climb by means of slender tendrils and need a thin structure to grab on to; they can’t grow up thick poles. This means they need a different kind of support from beans. A pea tendril will take about an hour to curl around a slender twig.
In England peas were traditionally supported with tall branches of hazel shrubs (though any brushwood will work). These were trimmed to a flat 2 dimensional plane so they could be placed close together in a row You just stick the butt ends firmly into the ground.
You can buy plastic netting that is specifically intended for use as plant trellis, but I find old wire fencing is more durable and easier to work with. It can be fastened to a trellis or shaped into a self-supporting cage.
If you are creative, you can rig up something from poles and string or netting. You might then use it a second time for a following crop of cucumbers or melons.
Ordinary tomato cages (which aren’t needed so early in the season) can work to support bush peas, but aren’t tall enough for the vining types. If you make your own 6 ft tall tomato cages out of hog wire these will work for the vines. These also look quite ornamental when covered in foliage.
If you intend to grow a lot of pole types, probably the easiest field scale support consists of 8 of 10 ft metal T posts, with a ¼˝ nylon rope along the top with horticultural netting (or wire fence netting) wired to it.
Inoculation: The nitrogen- fixing bacteria that live in nodules in pea roots can survive in the soil for 3 – 5 years. If you haven’t grown peas within that time, you should inoculate your seeds with a commercial inoculant. This can make a big difference to the amount of nitrogen that is fixed. This in turn may increase the yield of pods by as much as 75%. See Beans for more on seed inoculation.
Protection: In my experience spring peas are irresistibly attractive to birds and if you don’t protect a planting it will be severely damaged. This means covering the bed with bird netting until the plants are growing well. Don’t put the netting too close to the plants, otherwise they will quickly get entangled, making it hard to remove.
Starting inside: Peas are traditionally direct sown because they are hardy and dislike transplanting. However starting them indoors does have its advantages. It allows you to get a very early start on the season, which can help you to get an early
harvest. Perhaps more importantly it is easier to protect the germinating seeds indoors, so you lose less to rodents and birds.
Peas don’t like transplanting, so to minimize root disturbance they must be started in individual containers such as cell packs, or soil blocks. Start them about 3 – 4 weeks before planting out and don’t forget to inoculate them.
Don’t keep them indoors any longer than necessary, or they will suffer.
Hardening off: If you are putting your plants out early into a cold garden it is important to harden them off properly. You do this by putting the plants outside for 2 hours on the first day, then 4 hours on the second day. Add 2 hours every day for a week. A simpler alternative is to put them in a cold frame, which is opened for longer periods each day and closed at night.
Planting out: This is pretty straightforward, just be careful not to disturb their roots while doing it.
Pea seeds will germinate over a wide temperature range, but do so much faster in warm soil. At 40°F they may take over a month to germinate (if they don’t rot, or get eaten in the meantime). At 70°F they may take only a week.
If the soil is dry you can speed up germination by pre-soaking the seeds for 4 hours before sowing. The best way to do this is to put them between moist paper towels. Soaking them in a bowl of water can cause them to absorb water too rapidly and may actually injure them.
You can also pre-germinate the seeds to improve emergence in cold soils. Do this by sprouting the seeds on paper towels in a warm place. Plant them out as soon as the roots start to appear (don’t wait too long).
Don’t forget to erect your supporting structure before you plant your seed, so you don’t disturb the young plants later.
Peas are commonly planted in rows, as this simplifies the task of supporting them. The traditional way to do this is to make furrows, as deep (usually 1˝) and as far apart as required. Put the seed in the furrow at the required spacing and re-fill it with soil. Peas seed is quite vigorous and is not usually bothered by crusting. It’s a good idea to sow a few extra seeds at the end of a row, so you have extra plants to fill in any gaps.
Bush peas can be planted at equidistant spacing right across the bed. Just lay out the seeds on the surface at the required spacing. When you are happy with this, push the seeds down to the proper depth with your finger.
When the soil is cold in early spring, plant your peas 1˝ deep (it will be too cold down at 3˝). Later plantings in warmer soil can go 2 – 3˝ deep (where it is cooler and more evenly moist).
If the soil isn’t moist you need to water straight after planting.
Spacing: This depends upon whether you are using bush or pole varieties.
Bush varieties: These short varieties don’t need much support, so are commonly planted in offset rows across the beds 4 – 6˝ apart each way.
You can also plant them in rows down the bed. Put the seeds 2 – 3˝ apart in the rows, with 24˝ in between the rows.
Pole varieties: Pole varieties are usually grown in rows because it is easier to support them. They are best planted in double offset rows, with 2 – 3˝ between the plants and 6˝ between the rows. You can get two of these double rows in a 5-foot wide bed (space them 24 – 30˝ apart).
Weeds: Weed the young plants carefully (preferably by hand), to avoid damaging their shallow roots. Older plants are usually vigorous enough to overwhelm most weeds.
Mulch: This is helpful to keep down weeds, keep the soil cool and conserve soil moisture.
Water: Peas need constantly moist soil, but water is particularly important when they start to produce pods. If you allow the plants to get dry during this time the harvest will decrease dramatically.
In cool spring weather peas usually get enough water from rainfall so that you don’t have to irrigate. Watering at this time may encourage mildew and can actually reduce yields.
If the soil is dry by the time the flowers appear, you should give them extra water. This improves the set of pods and hastens their maturation.
Feed: Generally peas don’t need additional feeding, though if the soil is very poor the young plants might benefit from a feed of compost tea or liquid kelp.
Pests: Quite a few pests may attack peas, including aphids, tarnished plant bugs, cutworms, mites, leafminers, leafhoppers, cucumber beetles, pea weevils and various caterpillars
Diseases: These include fusarium wilt, mosaic virus, blight, downy mildew, powdery mildew and pea enation virus.
Mice and birds: These can be major pests and have been known to systematically eat whole plantings (birds break off the new sprouts, mice eat the seed in the ground). If mice are a problem there are repellent seed coatings available (kerosene was once commonly used). Netting can keep the plants safe from birds, but it’s a real pain to deal with.
Slugs and snails: These are mostly a pest of unsupported plants. They don’t really like peas very much, but will eat them if there’s nothing better available.
Deer, rabbit, groundhog: All of these animals enjoy the young plants and must be kept out with fences or dogs.
Peas mature quickly after pollination, so you have to check on the plants regularly (every day or so). This is particularly important as the weather warms up and they develop rapidly.
You must pick the pods when they size up, even if you don’t want to eat them, otherwise production will decline. In cool weather, a well managed planting may yield for as long as 6 weeks, though if the weather turns hot it may be as short as 2 weeks.
I find a lot of peas get eaten in the garden, no matter what type they are.
Shell peas: Fresh green shell peas seem to have disappeared from the diet of most Americans as too much trouble. This is unfortunate as fresh peas in their prime are one of the great treats of the spring garden.
When: Picking peas at the right time is almost as important as it is with sweet corn. Too early and they are very small, too late and they are starchy and not very good. To determine the best time just taste them at different stages and decide which is best.
The peas will be ready to eat 3 – 4 weeks after blooming. They should be just about full size in the pod (each pod contains 4 – 10 peas) and should be very sweet (taste them). When they over-mature the pod turns leathery and the peas become starchy.
How: The pods start to ripen at the base of the plant first. Remove them from the plants carefully, so you don’t damage the vines. This is usually a two handed job, you hold the plant with one hand and pull down on the pod with the other.
Snap peas: These should be picked as soon as the peas reach full size and the pod is nice and fat and round. Taste them to see if they are ready, they should be sweet, crisp and succulent.
If the pods have a string down each side, the best technique is to snap off the pod by bending it to one side. This breaks the pod but not the strings, so if you then pull on the pod, it will peel off the strings and leave them attached to the plant.
Snow peas: These should be picked after the pods have reached full size, but before the peas inside start to swell. Don’t make the common mistake of harvesting smaller pods in the belief they will be better. They may be tender but they won’t be very sweet.
Dry peas: To get dry peas simply allow the pods to ripen and dry fully on the vines. You can gather small quantities of pods individually, but for larger harvests pick the whole plants and lay them on a tarp to dry. Carefully thresh out the seeds to free them from the pods and dry them thoroughly.
A dry pea should shatter when crushed. If you can make a mark with your fingernail it isn’t dry enough. An easy way to see if they are dry enough is to put a few in a closed jar for a few days.
If condensation forms on the inside of the jar, they are still too moist.
Storage: The sugar in shell and snap peas begins to turn to starch soon after harvesting, so they don’t store well. For this reason they should be used promptly for best flavor. If you have to store them, put them in the fridge in a plastic bag for up to 2 weeks. The best way to store them for any length of time is to freeze them.
You can store properly dry peas in any cool dry place.
After harvest: Cut the plants down to ground level, leaving the nodulated roots in the ground to rot. You can compost the tops, or just dig them into the soil.
Seed saving: Peas are one of the easiest crops to save seed from. They are self-pollinating, though a small amount of insect pollination may also occur. Ideally you will have only one variety flowering at a time. You can also isolate flowering varieties by at least 150 feet.
In dry weather all you have to do is leave the pods to mature and dry on the vine. In wet weather you may have to cut the vines and dry them under cover. When the pods are crisp and brown remove the seeds. These should be dried further and stored in a cool dry place.
Unusual growing ideas
Green manure: Bush peas are a very good cool weather green manure crop for soil enrichment. This will also give you more edible leafy tips than you could ever eat.
Pea greens: Peas can also be grown specifically for their leafy green tips, which are very good.
You can start harvesting the first growing tips when the plants are about 12˝ tall. This will cause them to branch out and get bushier. Keep on harvesting the new tips as they are produced. They are best used immediately after picking.
The cheapest place to buy pea seed is at an agricultural supply store, where you can buy them in bulk by the pound.
Bush peas start to bear earlier than the pole types, but the latter give a more abundant and longer harvest. Many gardeners plant both types to get the best of both worlds.
Peas can be separated into several quite distinct group, depending upon their purpose.
Garden Peas: These seeds are wrinkled when dry because they contain more sugar and less starch (like sweet corn). They are intended for use as green fresh shell peas, but can also be used as somewhat inferior dried peas. There are early, mid-season and late varieties.
Bush types: These are bred to grow without staking and to produce a lot of pods in a short Time, which are useful traits for commercial growers. They
also tend to be earlier. Most new pea varieties are bush types.
Green Arrow – Fine flavor (68 days).
Laxtons Progress – Old British heirloom (63 days)
Little marvel – Small productive plants (65 days).
Pole types: These are better suited to home growing as they produce over a longer period. They do need supporting however.
Alderman – Very tall, fine flavor (78 days).
Champion of England – To 10 ft tall and very productive (60 – 75 days).
Petit pois: As the name suggests these originated in France and are the ‘gourmet pea’. They are green shell peas, harvested when still very small and sweet. As you might expect from a French food they are superior in flavor and texture to other types.
Sweet Provence – High quality (65 days).
Waverex – Very sweet, bush type (65 days).
Sugar peas: These originated in China and are the original edible podded peas.
Oregon Giant – Large pods, mildew resistant bush (70 days).
Oregon Sugar Pod II – Productive and adaptable bush type (68 days).
Snap Peas: A more recently developed edible-podded pea, this one originated in America. The pod is thicker and more succulent than that of the snow pea. These are probably now the most popular home garden pea
varieties, because there is no work in shelling and very little waste.
Super Sugar Snap – The best known variety. A mildew resistant vine (60 days).
Amish Snap – I once read an article in Organic Gardening magazine about how the original Sugar Snap pea was painstakingly developed. They could have just started with this old heirloom, as it is almost identical (60 – 70 days).
Magnolia Blossom Snap – Purple flowers and extra tendrils, tall vine.
Soup or Field Peas: These
varieties are hardier than the garden peas and are starchy, rather than sweet. They are grown as protein rich dry peas for use in soups.
Alaska – Can be eaten as shell peas too (56 days).
Blue Pod – Dutch heirloom vine (85 days)
Maestro – Bush
Mid season peas:
Cascadia – Bush
Mammoth melting sugar
Oregon sugar pod ll
Green arrow – Bush
Wando – Bush
Alderman – Pole
Green shell peas, snow peas and snap peas are all excellent raw, steamed or stir-fried.
Tender pea greens (the leafy tips of the plants) can be eaten raw in salads, or sauteed in olive oil with onion.
The flowers can be added to salads
| Pea recipe |
My family prefer snap peas raw, rather than cooked. This simple recipe is good though.
1 lb snap peas
3 tbsp olive oil
1 clove garlic minced
⅛ cup soy sauce
¼ tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp tahini
Remove ends of pea pods and spread them on a baking tray pan. Mix
garlic into oil and pour over the pods. Broil in oven for 5 minutes until
cooked. Mix the soy sauce, sesame oil and tahini to make a sauce to pour over the cooked pods.