Peas are so widely planted and eaten that they deserve their own chapter. Grown in cool weather, peas provide an important source of vegetables and protein much earlier in the year than other beans (except for favas, which can grow in cool weather also). Peas taste best in the spring, but can yield a second crop in the fall as well.
As with common beans, there are tall and short pea plants and the pods can be eaten green as vegetables or allowed to mature for their high protein seeds. Two types of peas, Sugar Snap Peas and Snow Peas, are grown for their delicious green pods. If you cannot wait for the pods, sprouted peas and pea shoots (the tops of young plants) make good eating also.
Plant peas directly in the garden soil just like beans, except that they can be planted in early spring. You can plant them as soon as the ground has thawed, since they can survive temperatures a few degrees below freezing. But peas will be happier when the soil and nighttime temperatures reach the low-to-mid 40s (F). They can grow in warmer weather, too, but begin to wilt and look unhappy as the warmth of summer kicks in. Like beans, peas have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, so they do not need much (if any) extra fertilizer.
Pea Planting Specifications
- Days to Maturity: 10 for shoots, 60-70 for pods and shelling peas, 90-100 for dry peas
- Planting depth: Plant seeds 1⁄2 inch-1 inch deep.
- Spacing: Space peas at least one inch apart in rows 12-18 inches apart.
- Minimum soil depth in containers: 6-7 inches.
- Temperature for Seed Germination: 40 F (min.), 80 F (ideal)
- Germination Time: 9-36 days (at longer end of the range in colder soil) ● Direct seed in the garden. Peas do not transplant well.
Pea seeds are not labeled as clearly as bean seeds. Bean seeds are clearly designated as either “pole” or “bush” beans, but many pea seeds have no such labeling. If you are considering purchasing a particular variety, look closely at the description to see if it lists the expected plant height. It may tell you that this type of pea plant “grows tall” or “can reach six feet”, then you will need to provide a trellis or some support for the plants (please see Chapter 10 for some guidance on plant supports).
Alternatively, if the seed description lists the plant as a “dwarf” or “bush” variety (or if it lists a short height), then it probably will top out at around 2-3 feet and will not need additional staking. Dwarf peas do not mind being crowded. In fact, growing them close together is important so that plants can hang onto one another. This makes it less likely that plants will tip over.
Pea vines are more delicate than pole bean plants and their gripping tendrils are smaller. They do not need to go round and round a vertical support the way pole beans do (though they are capable of this). Instead, they can climb straight upwards if needed. Plastic bird netting or poultry wire fencing, stretched tight between some poles or stakes, makes a great pea fence.
If you want to try growing peas shoots (which you can do even indoors during the winter), check the seed companies for a variety called “Dwarf Grey Sugar”. Usually it is listed as a Snow Pea, but sometimes incorrectly placed in the Sugar Snap Pea category (even though it has “Sugar” in its name, this is more of a Snow Pea). Besides growing great pea pods and being one of the only edible purple-flowered legumes, the pea shoots from Dwarf Grey Sugar taste terrific.
Grow them like microgreens in a flat of soil indoors or in a shallow container outdoors. To make a couple of low-budget homemade trays, wash out a paper milk carton and cut it in half vertically (making two long halves). Fill each carton half with two inches of soil to make perfect growing trays for pea shoots.
Scatter the seeds in one layer, as thickly as you want, on top of the soil. Water them well, give them at least some indirect light, and after 10 days of growth you can harvest them by clipping off the plant shoots about half an inch above the soil. Make sure you clip them just before eating, since pea shoots wilt quickly. Enjoy them raw in salads or cooked lightly in stir-fry dishes. Below is a picture of a dish that includes both peas and pea shoots.
My family’s favorite peas are Sugar Snap Peas. I wish I could tell you how to cook them, but these delicious, stringless pods rarely make it to the kitchen. These are sweeter than candy, so even my kids eat them right off the plants! Here is a picture of some bush Sugar Snap Peas (“Sugar Sprint” variety) growing in the author’s garden. In the background is some red lettuce.
For Shelling Peas (also known as English Peas), simply pick the pods once they are large enough. If you like your peas small and tender, pick them once the peas have formed but before the pod skins start to toughen. The only way to know for sure is to test a few pods. Otherwise, wait until the pea seeds are showing prominently through the pod skins, pick and shell them, and cook right away for fresh eating. As with beans, make sure to use the pods in your compost or as mulch in the garden.
Alternatively, you can wait until the pods turn brown and dry out, podding the peas at that point for dry use or storage. If you save a few dry peas, you can use them as seed stock again next year. Peas, like beans, tend to be open-pollinated with flowers containing both male and female parts. Therefore, they do not require cross-pollination and it is safe to re-seed each generation again and again.
related article: How to Grow Beans