Plenty of Peas

1 / 3
2 / 3
3 / 3

Photo by Adobe Stock/Sea Wave.

It’s early spring, you’re putting in a garden, and you’ve already decided you’ll be growing peas. To help you achieve a successful harvest, here are a few recommendations and tips.

Types of Peas to Try

Vine length varies from one cultivar to another, and long-vined peas need a taller trellis than compact cultivars. Both compact and long-vined cultivars are available in the following four types, which vary in pod and seed characteristics. See “Growing Peas: Four Basic Types” below for more information.

Snap peas are eaten whole, and both the crunchy pod and the peas inside taste sweet. Snap peas yield more food per square foot than the other types.

Snow peas produce tender, flat pods that are eaten whole. Snow peas also produce the most tender vine tips for adding to salads or stir-fries.

Shell peas are often called English peas, because many fine cultivars were developed in Great Britain in the 18th century. Sweet green peas are shelled from tough, inedible pods.

Soup peas produce hard, starch-filled seeds for drying inside inedible pods. Seed size and color vary by cultivar.

Exceptional Peas

  • ‘American Wonder’ (Pisum sativum)

This late nineteenth-century cultivar is a consistent bloomer and is quick to produce peas. Thus, it’s well deserving of its name. The pea also goes by the name ‘Early Dwarf.’

  • ‘Arbogast’ Sugar Pea (Pisum sativum)

This pea’s genealogical footnote has yet to catch on, but those at the Seed Savers Exchange think there’s good reason to believe that this excellent sugar pea is none other than David Landreth & Sons’ once popular ‘Tall Sugar Pea’ by another name. The young pods are large, flat, and crispy. They’re delicious raw.

  • ‘Prussian Blue’(Pisum sativum)

The Prussians are a type of pea dating from the eighteenth-century that were once immensely popular in England and colonial America. ‘Prussian Blue’ was considered an excellent summer shelling pea by most American gardeners. Thomas Jefferson grew them in 1809 at Monticello.

  • ‘Tom Thumb’ (Pisum sativum)

‘Tom Thumb,’ named in honor of the famous nineteenth-century dwarf, was introduced by David Landreth and Sons in the 1850s. Its resistance to freezing is impressive. As a cold-frame pea, ‘Tom Thumb’ is probably one of the best. It’s easily grown in large flats at table height.

When to Plant Peas

Sow in spring, about one month before your last frost date. Where summers are cool, additional sowings can be made three weeks apart. Peas produce poorly in hot weather, so an early start is always a wise strategy. In climates with mild winters, a second crop can be sown in late summer for harvesting in late fall.

How to Plant Peas

All peas benefit from a trellis or other support. Install a 6-foot-tall trellis before planting long-vined cultivars. Compact cultivars can be staked with woody branches or unemployed tomato cages after they sprout, or you can interplant short-vined peas with oats, which serve as a living support.

Prepare a wide planting bed by loosening the soil to at least 10 inches deep while mixing in compost. Don’t use fertilizer unless your soil is very poor or low in organic matter. Plant seeds in a double row, with a row of seeds on each side of the trellis. Poke seeds into the prepared site 2 inches apart and 1 inch deep. Thinning isn’t necessary.

Photo by Adobe Stock/volff.

Growing Peas: Four Basic Types

Snap pea

(Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon)

• Description: Plump, edible pods have thicker flesh than snow peas and stay sweet and tender longer.

• Cultural Tips: Extend the harvest season by growing short and tall cultivars.

• Cultivars: ‘Amish Snap,’ ‘Cascadia,’ ‘Sugar Ann,’ ‘Sugar Snap’

Snow pea

(Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon)

• Description: Flattened pods lack tough inner membrane present in shell peas, so they can be eaten whole.

• Cultural Tips: Harvest pods when the peas inside are barely visible.

• Cultivars: ‘Golden Sweet Pea,’ ‘Snowflake,’ ‘Snow Sweet,’ ‘Oregon Giant’

Shell pea

(Pisum sativum var. sativum)

• Description: Harvest when the pods begin to look waxy.

• Cultural Tips: Plants produce all at once, making preservation convenient.

• Cultivars: ‘Dakota,’ ‘Eclipse,’ ‘Knight,’ ‘Tom Thumb’

Soup peas

(Pisum sativum var. arvense)

• Description: Seed color may be beige, brown, yellow or green.

• Cultural Tips: Easy to grow and also can be used as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop.

• Cultivars: ‘Alaska,’ ‘Blue Podded,’ ‘Carlin’

Pest and Disease Prevention Tips for Pea Plants

Powdery mildew causes white patches to form on leaves and pods, but it’s easily prevented by growing resistant cultivars. So-called “afila” types, which produce many tendrils but only a few leaves, are naturally resistant to powdery mildew.

Rotate peas with non-legumes to avoid the buildup of soil-dwelling fungi that can cause roots to rot. Pea enation mosaic virus causes distorted new growth, and is common in certain states. Several resistant cultivars are available.

Harvesting and Storing Peas

To avoid mangling the vines, use two hands to harvest peas. When green peas are ripe, harvest them daily, preferably in the morning. Pick snow peas when the pods reach full size and the peas inside are just beginning to swell. For best flavor and yields, allow snap peas to change from flat to plump before picking them. Gather sweet green shell peas when the pods begin to show a waxy sheen, but before their color fades. Immediately refrigerate picked peas to stop the conversion of sugar to starches and maintain the peas’ crisp texture. Promptly blanch and freeze your extra peas.

Soup peas can be left on the vines until the pods dry to tan. After shelling and sorting, allow soup peas to dry at room temperature until they are so hard that they shatter when struck with a hammer. Store in airtight containers in a cool, dry location.

Photo by Getty Images/Vaivirga.

Saving Pea Seeds

Peas are open-pollinated and self-fertile, so saving seeds is a simple matter of allowing a few pods from your best plants to mature until the pods dry to brown. Select the largest seeds, and put them in the freezer for three days to kill any insects that may be hiding inside. Then, store in a cool, dry place. Pea seeds will keep for at least three years, and often longer. About 4 ounces of seed is needed to plant a 10-foot double row.

Tips for Growing Peas

Team up short and tall pea cultivars of the same type by planting a compact cultivar on the outside of a quadruple row, with a long-vined cultivar closest to the trellis. The short cultivar will mature ahead of the taller one while helping to support it.

The easiest way to trellis peas is to let a short-vined cultivar cling to the stems and leaves of upright cover crops, such as oats or wheat. Many gardeners also save branches they’ve pruned from fruit trees or shrubs and use the branches to support compact cultivars.

Use peas as edible ornamentals, especially cultivars that produce lavender or purple flowers such as ‘Swiss Giant’ snow peas, ‘Blue Podded’ soup peas, and ‘Margaret McKee’s Baking Pea.’

Soak pea seeds overnight in water before planting them. This will ensure strong germination.

Coat pea seeds with a powdered pea/bean inoculant if you haven’t grown peas in your garden. This will provide bacteria that live on pea roots and produce nitrogen.

In subsequent seasons, scatter a spadeful of soil taken from last year’s pea planting site onto your new pea bed. It’ll contain enough bacteria to help kick-start the nitrogen-fixing process.

Mulch pea plants when they’re about 12 inches tall to help keep the soil cool and moist. Uniform soil moisture ensures strong, steady growth. Follow spring peas with carrots or cucumbers to make full use of the growing season.


Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers, and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara atwww.BarbaraPleasant.comor by finding her on Google+.

Mother Earth Gardener
Mother Earth Gardener
Expert advice on all aspects of growing.