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(Pisum sativum)

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Pea plant.

Maincrop Peas

To us, peas run a very close second to corn for greatest vegetable. We freeze them on picking, so early varieties (usually lower-yielding and not always as tasty) are unnecessary. Given sufficient exposure to the literature, the choice in maincrop (podded) peas—when flavor is the chief determinant—seems to come down to Lincoln (one expert’s description: “great old-timey flavor”) and Green Arrow (same person: ”good flavor”). From our own experience, Green Arrow is really good, but Lincoln is the pea; still, most years we grow one bed of each type (“one bed” is 64 square feet with peas planted at 3"—we grow a lot of peas). Both those fine varieties are older types with, one gathers, little disease resistance; indeed, not a few seem to feel that peas immune to pea-enation disease are generally inferior in flavor to the older kinds such as Lincoln. (Note: the Lincoln is also known as the Homesteader.) Moreover, Lincolns tolerate warmth much better than most peas, so a warm spring or early summer is not fatal.

We had some Alderman seed (“high flavor when cooked”), said to be the best of the vining sorts, but just never got time to establish a growing area for those, which—being climbers (also known as Tall Telephone peas)—need netting or some such to climb; some year, we’ll try to be more diligent. One can never have too many peas!

Snap Peas

(There is a definite distinction between “snap”, or edible-podded, peas (Pisum sativum var. saccharatum) and “sugar peas”, also called “snow peas” (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon), which latter is not what we are referring to here—we don’t grow snow peas, but their culture is essentially the same as that for other peas. Snap peas are a cross between ordinary peas and snow peas.

One of us likes edible-podded peas a lot, while the other keeps thinking “Wow, I coulda had real peas”. We have grown some edible-podded peas and were reasonably successful (though the bush/low-vine types are not heavy-yielding); but this remains, around here, one of those topics like how warm or cold the bedroom should be.

Snap peas come in two distinct types (just as do classic peas): tall and short. The former need trellising or similar support, while the latter do not. Expert consensus is that the tall types taste nontrivially better, but to many the tradeoff in nuisance for trellising may not be worth it.

For the tall, vining types, the type to grow is open to debate, with each of the many kinds having pluses and minuses. The original and classic Sugar Snap (aka Sugarsnap) is felt by many to still be the best-tasting snap pea, but it gets competition from the newer Cascadia. Since Cascadia is distinctly earlier than Sugar Snap, a tidy solution is to grow some of each; you plant them simultaneously, then harvest the Sugar Snaps a couple of weeks after you pick the Cascadias. (And if you decide you have a marked taste preference for one of those, in future stick to that one, as peas freeze wonderfully well.)


Here, then, is our current list of recommended types for anywhere where disease resistance is not critical:



Peas are always direct-seeded. The traditional advice is “as soon as the soil can be worked” (we once, in a mid-winter post-move cleanup, threw a bunch of old pea seed away off the back deck of our house—there, just lying on hard, completely shaded, uncultivated ground, with no inoculant, volunteer pea plants emerged quite literally up through snow). Peas do like cool weather (or, more accurately, dislike warm weather); several sources say that peas will start to get unhappy when temperatures go over about 70° F. (though others say 80°); many say things like “early plantings normally produce larger yields than later plantings.”

Now peas are typically 9 to 10 weeks from sowing to maturity. Around here, we start to go over 70° on average around mid-May; that thus implies sowing peas around March 1st. Now cold-hardy or no, and snow-breaking or no, that does seem awfully early; one doubts that the soil temperature on March 1st will normally be the 40° bare minimum needed for pea germination (with 45° or even 50° often recommended as a sowing minimum). But if we tack on, say, a month, and sow April 1st, the growing period runs to mid-June, when we are averaging daytime highs here in the high 70s. But on the third hand, as the Martian said, a Maine-based seedsman remarks (of the Lincoln cultivar, said to be somewhat heat-resistant), “They yield [here] throughout July…” And on that Martian fourth hand, one apparently expert source said we want them done before temperatures hit 80° or so, which usually happens out here around mid-June.

(A few gardeners “winter sow” their pea seeds in late fall or early winter, shortly before the ground freezes, and just let the seeds make up their own minds about when it’s a good time to germinate. We might try a small patch that way some time.)

What with this and that, and relying primarily on the somewhat heat-tolerant Lincoln type, we feel that a sowing date of April 1st is satisfactory.

One can also grow a fall pea crop (last year we thought of that too late, but it should be easily done.) The standard line, which makes sense, is to sow “about two months before frost”, though we’d say about 2½ to 3 months before (peas, for all their dislike of heat in their later stages, actually germinate best at a soil temperature of 77°). Moreover, the growing period will be somewhat longer for a fall crop, because the cool days around maturity will not speed development of the crop as would long, bright late-spring or early-summer days. So we would try sowing a fall crop sometime around mid-August for harvest sometime in early to middle November. (A regional seedsman remarks that “Both spring and fall plantings can be successful, however, yields in fall plantings are generally much smaller.”)

The Bed

Though it is perhaps not as critical as with some other vegetable families, it is still wise to rotate legume plantings so as to avoid growing legumes of any kind on the same soil two years running. Note, though, that peas—like all legumes—actually enrich the soil they’re grown in by “fixing” nitrogen intoi the soil at their roots; so, in a bed-rotation plan, peas (and beans) should be foillowed by some heavy-feeding crop, such as corn.

Peas want well-drained soil with the typical legumish pH of, preferably, 6.8 or even above. The soil does not need, or even want, to be particularly rich in nitrogen, because, as noted above, the peas will nitrogen-enrich it themselves. They do, however, want strong potassium and potash (phosphorus) content in their soil.

Planting Out

Peas can be spaced quite closely, about 3 inches or so (one seedsman remarks that “peas grow much better in thick stand”). In a deep or raised bed, they can be planted at that spacing in blocks, which is good not only for productivity but because at that spacing, they tend to support one another. A 4'-by-16' raised bed is over a thousand pea plants, and neither we nor anyone else is going to set out a thousand pea stakes (planting over a thousand peas is backbreaking enough in itself), while trellises are impossible in block bed planting. Still, some peas stakes, particularly around the perimeter, is a good idea, so that a few plants here and there can be pillars for those around them. (Some gardeners put strong stakes at the corners, and sometimes the mid-points, of the perimeter of their pea patch and run twine or some such strong cord between them, to set up a border fence against which the plants can lean and be suported, especially in strong winds.)

Some gardeners soak pea seed, or nick it, it the belief that doing so will promote better germination. Most expert sources seem to feel that such practices not only don’t help, but hurt.

As we said for beans, whether to apply inoculant (which helps the peas get started on their nitrogen cycle) seems a no-brainer: it’s cheap, and can only help. What we do is put a little inoculant powder in a fairly wide, shallow dish or holder, moisten it lightly, then roll each pea in it as we go to plant. Please note the two crucial adjectives there: a little and lightly: you’d be surprised how very little powder it takes to do even hundreds of peas; and you don’t want a soup, just enough light mudding that the stuff will readily adhere to the peas.

Plant peas about an inch below the soil. It’s really important to put some sort of row-cover material over your newly planted peas: not only do they like warm soil to germinate in, but birds just adore both pea seed and nice, tender, young pea seedlings. (Birds like almost anything that looks green and tender, but they seem, around here anyway, especially fond of peas.)

Water lightly right after sowing.

And, again, remember that birds love pea seeds and small green plants, and take appropriate measures.


Because pea seeds are large, and can soak up and hold a lot of water, let the soil dry down pretty well between waterings till the pea seedlings have emerged and shown some vigor, else the over-damp soil can encourage seed rot.

Peas are mostly trouble-free. Just water them faithfully once they’re well up, and wait for them to come ripe. (Try to avoid wetting the plant leaves; soaker hoses might be a good idea.) Weed if you must when the seedlings are first emerging, but not thereafter: weeding established pea patches will likely do more harm than good, because peas have numerous surface roots. Leave the row-cover material on as long as it isn’t interfering with pea-plant growth. If you can find a way to brace or frame it up off the plants (we have trouble doing that because of the occasional high winds here), it can stay on for weeks, till it starts to get really warm under the cover.

You can watch the calendar, but maincrop pods are ready when they have visibly swelled out with peas. One expert gardener adds “after the pods have completely filled out, but before they have lost the sheen of youth—the [pods] really do have a luster that they lose once the peas have matured and are beginning to ripen as seed.”

Better, when in doubt, to be a bit early than a bit late. When the pods start to mature, pick daily—and be sure to look closely for ripe pods. If you’re growing your peas in a deep or raised bed, with block (as opposed to row) planting, it’s very, very easy to miss lots of pods that will be hidden in the greenery, especially in toward the middle.


Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful.

Odds and Ends


Peas are members of that huge and wonderful family, the Fabaceae (till recently the Leguminosae), the legumes, which are as extraordinarily nutritous as they are extraordinarily delicious. Other members of the family are all the beans (from chickpeas to soy), peanuts—not true nuts—and their cousin the ground nut, carob, licorice, vetches, lentils, jicama, fenugreek (a spice), as well as many plants useful for things other than food—such as clover, alfalfa, indigo, laburnums, wisteria, and lupins (and there are lots more).

Besides the garden pea, there is a type called the “field pea”, no longer much grown for human food use, though some do still raise it (the type Alaska, and several others like it, can be found in many seed catalogues) for use in split-pea soup.


Peas, which originated in the area between western Asia and Eastern Europe, are an ancient crop, used for food since, literally, the Stone Age (dried pea seeds have been discovered among relics in stone-age lake villages in Switzerland that are over 6,000 years old). They have been under conscious cultivation for thousands of years, but till remarkably recently the only kind known was what we today call the “field pea”, valued more for its nutritive and storage qualities than its taste, and rarely if ever eaten fresh, being usually dried for later use in soups and stews (including the nursery-rhyme-famous “pease porridge”).

The use of peas as a fresh vegetable apparently began about a thousand years ago, but eating quality improved only slowly. Shelling peas sweet enough for use as a desireable vegetable seem to have first emerged only as recently as the 16th century, the first such sweet shelling peas we hear of being Rouncival or Rowncivall Pease. But the real jump forward began from the efforts of an English breeder named Thomas Andrew Knight, who worked in Bedfordshire in the early 18th century. By a century later, good-quality “English peas” (another name for garden peas) numbered dozens of popular cultivars.


The Anglo-Saxon name for the vegetable—plant and edible seed—was “pise”, apparently acquired from the Latin pisum; later, the word mutated to the more familiar “pease” that we still see in such terms as “pease porridge”. “Pease” was then a singular, and one spoke of planting pease as we today speak of planting corn—not “corns”. But the word was often mistaken by the ignorant for the plural of a imagined (but nonexistent) singular “pea”; over the centuries, that false singular form, from constant repetition, became the real form.

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