Get a jump on planting peas.
Peas are a frost-hardy, cool-season vegetable that can be grown throughout most of the United States, wherever a cool season of sufficient duration exists. For gardening purposes, peas may be classified as garden peas (English peas), snap peas, and snow peas (sugar peas).
- Garden pea varieties have smooth or wrinkled seeds. The smooth-seeded varieties tend to have more starch than the wrinkled-seeded varieties. The wrinkled-seeded varieties are generally sweeter and usually preferred for home use. The smooth-seeded types are used more often to produce ripe seeds that are used like dry beans and to make split-pea soup.
- Snap peas have been developed from garden peas to have low-fiber pods that can be snapped and eaten along with the immature peas inside.
- Snow peas are meant to be harvested as flat, tender pods before the peas inside develop at all. The Southern pea (cowpea) is an entirely different warm-season vegetable that is planted and grown in the same manner as beans.
When to Plant
Peas thrive in cool, moist weather and produce best in cool, moderate climates. Early plantings normally produce larger yields than later plantings. Peas may be planted whenever the soil temperature is at least 45°F and the soil is dry enough to till without its sticking to garden tools.
Plantings of heat-tolerant varieties can be made in midsummer to late summer, to mature during cool fall days. Allow more days to the first killing frost than the listed number of days to maturity because short, cool fall days do not speed development of the crop as do the long, bright days of late spring.
Spacing & Depth
- Plant peas 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep and one inch apart in single or double rows.
- Allow 18 to 24 inches between single or pairs of rows.
- Allow 8 to 10 inches between double rows in pairs.
The germinating seeds and small seedlings are easily injured by direct contact with fertilizer or improper cultivation. Cultivate and hoe shallowly during the early stages of growth. Most dwarf and intermediate varieties are self-supporting. The taller varieties (Green Arrow and Bolero) are most productive and more easily picked when trained to poles or a fence for support, but they are no longer popular. Peas can be mulched to cool the soil, reduce moisture loss and limit soil rot. Some of the snap and sugar peas are vining types with heights of 6 feet or more that require fencing or other supports.
The first signs of fusarium wilt and root-rot disease are the yellowing and wilting of the lower leaves and stunting of the plants. Infection of older plants usually results in the plants producing only a few poorly filled pods. These diseases are not as prevalent on well-drained soils. Double-dug raised beds amended with abundant organic matter can greatly improve soil aeration and drainage. Fusarium wilt can be avoided by growing wilt-resistant varieties.
When the pea pods are swollen (appear round) they are ready to be picked. Pick a few pods every day or two near harvest time to determine when the peas are at the proper stage for eating. Peas are of the best quality when they are fully expanded but immature before they become hard and starchy. Peas should be picked immediately before cooking because their quality, especially sweetness (like that of sweet corn), deteriorates rapidly. The pods on the lower portion of the plant mature earliest. The last harvest (usually the third) is made about one week after the first. Pulling the entire plant for the last harvest makes picking easier.
Sugar Snap Peas
Snap peas should be harvested every 1 or 3 days, similarly to snow peas to get peak quality. Sugar snaps are at their best when the pods first start to fatten but before the seeds grow very large. At this point, the pods snap like green beans and the whole pod can be eaten. Some varieties have strings along the seams of the pod that must be removed before cooking. Sugar snaps left on the vine too long begin to develop tough fiber in the pod walls. These must then be shelled and used as other garden peas, with the fibrous pods discarded. Vining types of both sugar snap and snow peas continue to grow taller and produce peas as long as the plant stays in good health and the weather stays cool.
These varieties are generally harvested before the individual peas have grown to the size of BBs when the pods have reached their full length but are still quite flat. This stage is usually reached 5 to 7 days after flowering. Snow peas must be picked regularly (at least every other day) to assure sweet, fiber-free pods. Pods can be stir-fried, steamed, or mixed with vegetables or meat dishes. As soon as overgrown pods missed in earlier pickings are discovered, remove them from the plants to keep the plants blooming and producing longer. Enlarging peas inside these pods may be shelled and used as garden peas. Fat snow pea pods (minus the pea enlarging inside) should be discarded. Fibers that develop along the edges of larger pods, along with the stem and blossom ends, are removed during preparation. Pea pods lose their crispness if overcooked. The pods have a high sugar content and brown or burn quickly. Do not stir-fry over heat that is too intense.
Pea pods can be stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for two weeks. Unlike fresh green peas, pea pods deteriorate only slightly in quality when stored.
Selection & Storage
There are two common varieties of peas, green garden peas that need shelling and edible pod peas that are eaten whole. Snow peas, sugar snap peas Chinese pea pods, and many others fall into this category. They are low-fiber pods with small wrinkled peas inside. The entire pod is eaten, cooked or raw.
Green garden peas are legumes just like dried peas, except they are eaten at the immature stage.
They are a cool weather, early spring crop. Harvest edible pod peas when they are flat. Use both hands. Holding the plant stem in one hand, use the other hand to pull off the pod. Using one hand, you can easily pull up the entire plant.
The smaller pods are sweeter and more tender. Use them for eating raw and cook the larger ones. The shelled peas should be plump but not large. Check one until you become familiar with the appearance. The plumpest peas should be gathered before the pod starts to wrinkle on the stem. Old peas taste starchy and mealy.
Fresh peas keep for 2 to 3 days in the refrigerator. The sugar in them quickly begins to turn to starch even while under refrigeration. As much as 40% of the sugar is converted in a few hours. Store unwashed peas in perforated plastic bags for a few days. The sooner they are eaten the better.
Questions and Answers
Q. Should I inoculate my peas with nitrogen-fixing bacteria before planting?
A. When peas are planted on new land, you may increase the yield by inoculating peas with a commercial formulation of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. In an established garden, however, inoculation is less necessary. If you are in doubt, inoculation is a relatively inexpensive process that is easy to do and ensures better plant-nutrient status.
Preparing Snow and Snap Peas for Exhibition
Illinois Extension Horticulturist Jim Schmidt demonstrates how to properly prepare snow & snap peas for exhibition.