Garden Peas for Spring Planting
Get an early start on the gardening season by growing peas. Just when you are beginning to doubt that spring will ever come, you can trek out to the garden and sow seeds of a vegetable that loves the cold a lot more than you do. With small white or purple flowers, dainty-looking (but strong) tendrils, and bright green pods, peas bring surprise to the garden. They are hardy, vigorous, and chock-full of good things, like flavor, crunch, and healthy fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
History of Garden Peas
Who doesn’t remember learning about Gregor Mendel and his experiments with peas? Peas in cultivation go much farther back in history than his 19th-century discoveries about genetics. Archaeologists have found peas in ancient tombs, but no one knows for a fact exactly when people began cultivating them.
The garden pea as we know it today was developed in England — thus the name “English pea.” Vigorous breeding programs led to peas with improved vigor, disease resistance, flavor, keeping qualities, and higher yields. The biggest advance occurred in 1970, when Calvin Lamborn, a Ph.D. plant scientist working on breeding new shell peas for commercial use, discovered an unusual pea plant in his field, what would come to be called a snap pea. Lamborn saved some of the seeds and submitted them to the rigorous All-America Selections trials. Sugar Snap won a Gold Medal in 1979. This plant type is named edible-podded peas or snap peas.
What is so great about Sugar Snap and the snap peas that followed?
The tender, sweet pods taste great raw, out-of-hand or in salads, and in stir-fries, like snow peas. You can snap the pods into bite-size lengths, like snap beans, and cook them. The pods retain their tenderness and increase in flavor as they mature, and the dark green peas can be shelled and eaten like English peas. Sugar Ann snap pea became a 1984 AAS Winner with a compact size and 2 weeks earlier for harvest.
Breeders continue to come up with new, improved varieties…
In 2000, AAS introduced the English pea Mr. Big named for the large pod size of 4 to 6 inches and in 2019 deliciously sweet Snak Hero was introduced as an AAS Winner.
Garden Pea Types
There are three types of peas and the difference among them lies in the way you eat them. Botanically, they all are varieties of Pisum sativum (Pie-sum suh-tie-vum) and belong to the legume family. While all three pea types need the same growing conditions, the harvest and eating differ.
- To produce English peas or shelling peas, gardeners allow the peas in the pod to fully ripen. The pea pods with plump, round peas are opened, removing the peas. The act of removing the peas is called shelling. The peas are then cooked without the pod.
- The snow pea is harvested when the peas inside the pod are immature. The entire snow pea pod is eaten either cooked or quickly stir-fried.
- The snap pea can be harvested when the peas are immature (like the snow pea) and eaten raw or cooked. The snap pea is more versatile because if the immature pods are left on the vine and peas form inside, the pod can be harvested, shelled, and the peas eaten like an “English pea.” In spite of its maturity, the pod is still tender and tasty so that the entire pod and peas can be eaten. There is little wasted when growing snap peas.
How to Grow Garden Peas in the Garden
1. Peas grow well in almost any kind of soil but they do best in fertile, somewhat sandy soil with good drainage. They prefer soil with a neutral or slightly alkaline pH. Improve the soil, if necessary, before sowing by digging to a depth of 6 to 8 inches and incorporating organic matter, such as compost or dried manure. Be sparing with the manure because too much nitrogen encourages more leaf production than pods. Add lime if your soil has a low pH.
2. The best way to grow peas is to sow seed directly into prepared garden soil. Because they are frost tolerant, sow them in early spring as soon as you can work the soil. An easy way to calculate your sowing date is to count back four to six weeks from the last expected frost. If the soil is too cold (below 40 degrees), the seeds take much longer to germinate and may rot. In the South, Zones 8 and warmer, where early heat tends to make growing peas problematic, sow seeds in early fall for a winter crop. Follow seed packet directions for seed depth and distance. Sowing taller varieties 1 to 2 inches apart along an A-frame trellis or next to a fence will provide support.
3. For a longer harvest, sow a succession of seeds every one to two weeks. Or you can save yourself that task by planting early, midseason, and late varieties all at once.
4. Maintain a cool and moist soil. Cover the surface with a layer of straw, compost, or shredded leaves.
5. Peas are light feeders. If you want to fertilize, do so sparingly and use a fertilizer low in nitrogen.
6. Almost all plants require at least an inch of water weekly. When you water (if nature fails to take care of that chore), water deeply, preferably with a soaker hose or drip irrigation system. Plants are most drought-sensitive when they are flowering and producing pods. As the temperatures rise towards midsummer, you may need to water almost daily.
7. Fall Harvests. Prepare for the cooler and wetter weather of autumn by sowing a fall crop around mid-August. To find a more exact date, look at the days to maturity on the seed packet and count backwards from the average first frost date in your area; that allows you to harvest before a hard freeze kills the plants. Sow the seeds thickly at least 2 inches deep and keep the bed well watered.
8. Part of the Legume Family. Garden Peas, like beans, are legumes. Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, which makes that important nutrient readily available to other plants. Pea plants also produce long root systems, which help to loosen the soil as they reach out for moisture. Spent plants decompose into organic matter to further enrich the soil. At the end of the season, simply dig the plants into the soil — no need to add them to a separate compost pile.
How to Grow Garden Peas In Containers
If you lack space, grow peas in containers on a deck, terrace, or patio. The harvest will not be as bountiful as those grown in the ground, but some peas are better than no peas at all!
1. AAS Winners, Patio Pride, and Sugar Ann are short bushy plants bred for containers.
2. Select large containers, 12 to 24 inches in diameter, filled with good quality potting soil.
3. Sow peas at the same depth you do in the ground –1 to 2 inches deep – but more thickly.
4. Water when the soil dries to a depth of 2 to 3 inches, depending on the size of the pot. Large containers cut down on the frequency of watering; the soil in small pots dries out quickly in the heat of summer. Mulch the soil surface with a layer of compost or wood chips.
5. Fertilize once or twice with a low-nitrogen fertilizer.
6. Practice succession planting with the containers, replacing the spent cool-weather pea plants with a summer crop, such as patio or bush tomatoes or peppers.
Harvesting Your Garden Peas
How do you know if the crop is ready to harvest?
1. Judge by color and touch.
- For English peas: look for nicely rounded, bright green pods that feel velvety and show the peas (called berries) inside beginning to swell.
- For snow peas: harvest before the peas begin to fill the pod.
- For snap peas: pick anytime. The pods of snap peas remain edible at any stage, whether immature, like snow peas, or mature, when the seeds fill out the pods and they actually reach their full flavor.
2. Pick carefully.
- Grasp the vine in one hand
- Pinch the pod off with the other
- This way, you do not damage the plant in the process.
3. Harvest frequently
- Harvest every other day when the crop starts maturing
- This keeps the vines producing new pods and increasing your yield.
Garden Peas contain many nutrients. They are a rich source of vitamins and minerals: phosphorus, potassium, vitamins A, B, and C. They are high in carbohydrates, but, fortunately, rather low in calories (1 cup of snap peas contains about 45 calories). They also contain nutritious amounts of fiber, folic acid, amino acids, and protein.
“This post is provided as an education/inspirational service of All-America Selections. Please credit and link to All-America Selections when using all or parts of this article.”
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