The Cool-Season Vegetable Garden: Peas
By Vincent Lazaneo
No winter garden is complete without edible garden peas, Pisum sativum. Freshly picked peas are more tender and sweeter than those bought from the store. They taste great, plucked fresh from the vine, served with dip, or in a stir-fry dish.
September and October are the best months to plant peas in our mild coastal climate. Seeds sown later take longer to sprout and are more likely to rot. Packets of new seeds dated for planting next year are usually available in garden centers by August. A larger selection of varieties can be found in seed catalogs, but you must allow time for delivery.
There are three types of edible peas. Pods of English “shelling” peas have a tough, fibrous membrane and only the peas are eaten. Snow peas and snap peas have tender, juicy edible pods. You can select bush or pole varieties. Bush peas are ready to harvest sooner than pole peas but they do not bear as long. Pole peas are more productive than bush types, but they need a trellis for support.
Super sugar snap pea vines can grow more than six feet tall. Goliath, a very productive and disease resistant snow pea also grows more than six feet, but a shorter variety, Oregon Sugar Pod II, only grows about three feet tall. If you grow shelling peas, select mildew resistant bush varieties like Night, Maestro and semi leafless Novella II or a pole type like Mr. Big.
Peas are easy to grow if you give them a good start. Select a planting location protected from strong wind that receives direct sunlight for all or most of the day. Peas grow best in sandy, well-drained soil, but they can be grown in a heavier soil if it is amended with a generous amount of compost and not over watered.
Scatter a pre-plant fertilizer evenly over the soil and mix it in six to eight inches deep. You can use a soluble fertilizer like 5-10-5, or a slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote, 14-14-14. Rake the surface level, and then irrigate to thoroughly wet the soil at least one foot deep. If you fertilize with animal manure, apply one pound of steer manure to two square feet of soil area or one pound of poultry manure to five square feet of soil area. Mix manure into the soil 2-4 weeks before planting and water several times to wash excess salts from the manure out of the surface soil.
Plant peas in moist soil, one or two days after deep irrigation. Seeds can be planted dry directly from the package or soaked overnight in a bowl of tepid water. Make a shallow one-inch deep planting furrow and plant seed about one inch apart in the row. Press seed partially into moist soil, then cover seed with loose soil and firm it gently.
Do not water the peas until sprouts emerge unless the soil feels somewhat dry at the depth the seeds were planted. Keeping seeds too wet will cause them to rot, especially when the weather is cool. Sprouts should appear within two weeks. To protect new sprouts from birds, place twiggy brush or a small tepee of chicken wire over the row until plants are about two inches tall. Also protect sprouts from hungry snails and slugs.
When seedlings have several leaves, remove excess plants to prevent overcrowding. Leave the strongest plants spaced about two inches apart. Active growing vines need a steady supply of moisture but their roots will rot if the soil is kept too wet. Water when the soil begins to feel dry about an inch below the surface. Thoroughly wet the soil on each side of the row. As soon as weeds appear, remove them by hand or with shallow cultivation, but take care not to damage the peas’ roots.
For ease of picking and higher yields, it is best to trellis even bush peas with short vines except for semi-leafless varieties. Support tall vines with six or eight foot stakes placed about three feet along the row. Tie twine between the stakes for the peas to grow on. You can also tie chicken wire or netting to the poles, but mesh holes should be at least 1 1/2 inches wide since tendrils don’t cling well if spaces are too small. Edible peas have weak tendrils and vines should be tied loosely to a support with twine as they grow.
Harvesting your crop
Pick pods of edible peas every few days as they mature or plants will stop producing. Take care not to damage vines when you harvest pods. Grasp the stock at a point just below the pod and with your other hand, gently pull off the pod.
It is best to harvest edible peas just before you use them, since their sugars quickly turn to starch in storage. If peas cannot be used immediately, pick them early in the morning while it is cool and store them in a refrigerator in a moisture-proof bag. Do not shell English peas until you are ready to prepare them. Shelling peas are ready to pick when the pods are plump but before peas are old and starchy.
Edible pod snow peas are picked while the peas are still small and immature. Their pods become tough if peas are allowed to mature. Edible-pod snap peas can be picked young and eaten with their small nubs of peas but they reach their peak flavor when the pods are plump and full.
Vincent Lazaneo is Urban Horticulture Advisor for UC Cooperative Extension. He helped found the San Diego County Master Gardener Association more than two decades ago and serves as its advisor. He is the author of numerous articles on plants and pests that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune, California Garden and other publications.
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