Peas are a great crop for both school and home gardens. They thrive when the weather is cool, so young gardeners eager to get outside and get planting can start sowing seeds of in early spring. Depending on the type and variety, peas may be ready for harvest in as little as eight or nine weeks, allowing for a harvest before summer recess begins in many parts of the country. Peas can also be planted mid to late summer for a fall harvest. And there is nothing more delectable than the taste of peas picked fresh. If all you’ve ever tasted are the frozen kind, peas straight from the garden will be a revelation!
Peas come in three types. Most familiar are garden, shelling, or English peas, which produce inedible pods that are opened or shelled to reveal a row of sweet, plump edible peas inside. The other two types of peas – snow peas and snap peas (also called sugar snap) – produce edible pods. Snow peas are ready for harvest when the pods are full size but flat, before the peas within the pod have developed. With snap peas the pods remain tender as the peas within them enlarge. Within each type there are varieties that mature earlier or later; with dwarf, intermediate or tall vine heights; and some that show good heat tolerance (important when planting in summer for fall harvest) or disease resistance.
Site: Peas do best in full sun in well-drained, moderately fertile soil rich in organic matter. Especially if you have heavy soil, raised beds work well for pea plantings as they dry out sooner than ground level beds in the spring.
When to Plant: Peas are quite cold-tolerant and can be planted in the garden as soon as the soil reaches 45 degrees F, usually about a month before the last frost date. The soil must also be dry enough to work. Not only will digging in wet soil ruin its structure; peas sown in soggy soil are likely to rot before they germinate. To test if soil is dry enough, squeeze a handful. If it sticks together in a tight ball, let the soil dry out some more before working. If the ball of soil breaks apart easily when given a gentle poke, it's ready for digging.
One way to get your peas off to a more reliable start in cool, wet spring soil is to pre-germinate them before planting. Wrap the seeds in a moist paper towel and put them in a dark, warm place for a few days. Check daily and as soon as you see tiny roots begin to emerge, pop the seeds into their outdoor planting bed.
Peas also grow well in the cooler weather of fall, but they can be damaged by frost, especially the developing pods. Try to time your fall pea sowing so plants mature a week or two before the fall frost date, and be prepared to cover plants if an early frost threatens. To figure out when to plant for fall harvest, take the days to maturity of the variety you’re growing and add 10. Count back this number of days from the average date of your first fall frost and you’ll get the planting date. (The extra 10 days compensate for the pea plants’ slower growth rate as day length shortens in fall.) Keep the seed bed well-watered to ensure good germination in warmer summer soil and give young plants some shade to keep them cool.
Planting: Like their cousins, the beans, peas are members of the Legume family. This means that, with the help of specialized bacteria (Rhizobia) in the soil, beans can take up and use nitrogen from the air. So you don't need to worry about adding extra nitrogen to the soil for your pea crop. In fact, the peas will leave your soil more fertile than they found it! If you are planting peas for the first time in your garden, you may want to mix your seeds with a purchased inoculant powder (available from garden stores) before planting to make sure these helpful bacteria are present. But once they've been introduced, they become established and don't need to be added yearly.
Plant pea seeds about an inch deep and 3-4 inches apart. Unless you are growing dwarf varieties that don’t need support, you’ll need to erect some kind of trellis for pea vines to wrap their tendrils around. One way to do this is to plant a double row of peas, with each row about 6 inches apart. Then erect a trellis down the middle between the two rows so that the pea vines can climb up from either side. No need to thin your pea seedlings; peas don’t mind crowding.
If you are planting dwarf or bush varieties, you can sow seeds in wide rows, spacing seeds 3-4 inches apart within the row. While it’s not required, these plants are easier to harvest if you give them some support as well. Pea brush – twiggy branches shoved into the soil around plants – works well to hold shorter vines off the ground.
Care: When your pea seedling are a few inches high, spread mulch to help keep the soil cool, as well as suppress weeds and retain moisture.
Start training the tendrils onto the supports when the plants are about 6 inches tall. Peas naturally grasp the support with their tendrils, though you may need to guide them gently towards the support as they become tall enough to reach it.
- Disappearing seedlings: Birds will pull up new seedlings to get to the seeds. Cover the seed bed with floating row cover fabric until plants are well-established.
- Lower leaves turn yellow and plants wilt: Root rot can be a problem when peas are grown in poorly drained soil. Pull up infected plants and replant in a spot with better drainage.
- Poor yields: Once hot summer weather hits, pea vines stop producing. Make sure to time your pea planting so that vines are maturing when the weather is still cool – between 55 and 75 degrees F is best. If your vines are lush and green but are not producing flowers, too much nitrogen fertilizer may be the culprit. Grow peas in soil with lots of organic matter, but go easy on added high-nitrogen fertilizer.
- Young leaves and shoots curled and distorted: Aphids are small, soft-bodied, pear-shaped insects that feed by sucking, causing damage to new growth. They can also spread virus diseases as they feed. Knock aphids off plants with a strong stream of water from a hose and encourage beneficial insects to keep aphid populations under control by planting early blooming flowers near your pea plants.
Harvesting: Garden peas are ready for harvest when their pods are plump and full, but are still bright green rather than dull and waxy looking. Pods ripen at the base of the vines first, so check these first. Don’t yank on the pods to pick them or you can harm the plant. Hold onto the stem of the vine with one hand and pinch off the pod with the other hand. Harvest plants frequently to keep them producing new pods.
Snow peas are ready to pick about 5-7 days after flowering, when the pods have reached their full size and can be bent without snapping, while the peas inside the pods are just beginning to be visible. Snap peas are ready when their pods are rounded and filled out, but the peas inside are still on the small side. Especially with snow and snap peas, harvesting every 1-2 days will give the best results.
Garden peas taste sweetest if eaten as soon as possible after they are picked. Snow and snap peas are a little more forgiving and will keep in the refrigerator for a week.
- Where do the dry split peas used to make pea soup come from? They are varieties of garden peas with smooth seeds that are high in starch. Instead of being picked when young and tender, the pods are left to mature on the vines until they and the peas inside are dry. These were the kind of peas used to make “pease porridge” referred to in the old nursery rhyme.
- Garden peas are a good source of protein. One-half cup of cooked peas contains 4.3 grams of protein, along with ample amounts of Vitamins A, C, K and iron.
- Experiments with peas in the 19th century enabled Gregor Mendel to elucidate the principles of inheritance that laid the foundation for the modern science of genetics.
- According to British etiquette guru William Hanson, the only proper way to eat peas is to spear them with the tines of a fork. He describes scooping peas with your upturned fork as a faux pas and notes that “Good hosts will never serve [peas] at a formal dinner party.” Just in case you’re planning to ask the Queen to dinner…