Peas are one of the easiest and most rewarding crops to grow in your home garden. The vines are forgiving of less than ideal weather and soil conditions, don’t hog too much space, produce abundant healthy green vegetables, and look beautiful while they’re at it!
How and When to Plant Peas
When to Plant
Peas are one of the first crops you can plant in your garden in spring, since they are very cold-hardy. You can plant peas as soon as the soil is workable, which can be as early as mid- to late-February here in the Carolinas. (“Workable” soil can be crumbled in your hand - it’s not sloppy wet mud, and of course, not frozen.) If you don’t get them planted as soon as spring begins to stir, that’s okay too! Peas prefer cooler weather, but the planting window is fairly long. Try to have them in the ground by mid-spring for a late spring or early summer harvest. Peas can begin to struggle in the heat of summer, and won’t yield as much if you plant them too late. In cool climates, peas can make a good fall crop, too, when planted 6-8 weeks before the average first frost. In Southern growing zones, it tends to be too hot for peas around this time of year, making a fall pea crop a bit trickier.
Prep Your Soil
Peas are very sensitive to root disturbance, so they should always be direct seeded right where you want them. Make sure to choose a location with plenty of sun. Like most vegetables, they appreciate well drained soil high in organic matter, so it’s a good idea to amend your garden beds with compost before planting. That said, peas are legumes, meaning they fix their own nitrogen with the help of symbiotic bacteria, so there’s no need to provide them with high levels of nitrogen. They will tolerate most soils except the heaviest clays or soils that are very waterlogged.
Before planting your pea seeds, make sure they have all the symbiotic bacteria they need by using a legume inoculant. Nitrogen-fixing bacteria occur naturally in soil to some extent, and if you have very active, rich soil, inoculating might not be necessary. But, adding inoculant before you plant is an easy and inexpensive way to make sure you get the best yield of peas possible. Check the label on the inoculant package for instructions. Usually, you simply mix your seeds with the powder and a little water right before planting.
How to Sow
Plant your peas in a row about 1 inch deep and 2 to 3 inches apart, then water thoroughly. There’s no need to thin the seedlings later, peas like to be a little crowded! If you’re planting in cold weather, be especially patient as you wait for seedlings to emerge. Peas planted in cold soil can take up to two weeks to germinate.
Tips for Success
- Provide a trellis: Peas are natural climbers, and need to be provided with a structure to grow on, such as a section of fence, wire netting, or even just string stretched taut between two t-posts. Even “bush” type peas benefit from some support, even though they only grow about 3 feet tall. Vining varieties can grow 6-8 feet tall. A good sturdy trellis keeps the plants up off the ground and allows good airflow and sun exposure, which are the best defenses against fungal disease.
- Don’t over water: Pea plants only need about an inch of water per week, so pay attention to how much rain you’re getting, and take care not to over water. Waterlogged soil and wet leaves invite disease.
- Look out for pests: The most common insect pest on peas is aphids, which cause yellowing or misshapen leaves and bumpy, misshapen pea pods. Insecticidal soap can keep them under control. Mexican bean beetles sometimes also feast on peas that are planted late. Adults look like ladybugs except coppery-orange colored instead of red, and the larvae are yellow, rounded and grub-like. They are fairly easy to pick off by hand as long as you catch an infestation early.
When to harvest your peas depends on the variety and type. When you plant, check the days to harvest on your seed packet, and mark that date on your calendar. A little before that date, start checking your plants daily for peas that look ripe. Snow peas should be picked when the pods are full length, but still flat. They will be starchy and not very tasty if the seeds fill out before they are picked. Shelling peas are just the opposite; you should wait until you can see the round seeds filling out the pods before picking them. Snap peas vary a bit by variety, so you’ll have to experiment a little. Some varieties are still sweet when the pods are totally filled out, while others are better when picked a little younger. Pick a few pods at different stages and taste them. You’ll quickly get the hang of telling when they’re ready!
You’ll probably find that very few of your peas even make it in from the garden before they’re eaten, but if you ever have extra, here’s how to preserve them!
Freezing is hands down the best way to preserve the fresh flavor and texture of peas. Blanch your peas in boiling water for 1-2 minutes, then immediately cool them in ice water for five minutes before draining them thoroughly and transferring them to a freezer bag or sealed container. This process works for all types of peas.
Peas can also be preserved by dehydrating them. Shelling peas are particularly well suited to this method, as they can be re-hydrated and used in soups or other dishes. Dehydrated snap or snow peas can make a crunchy healthy snack. It’s best to use a food dehydrator, but you can also use an oven if yours will run at below 200° F (check to see if it has a “warm” setting). Once your peas are crunchy-dry, be sure to seal them in an airtight container to keep out moisture.
Written by Sow True Seed's Agriculture Director, Leah Smith