Biting into a sweet, crunchy pea pod straight from the vine is a highlight of any gardener’s year. As diverse as they are versatile, the humble pea is a nutritious and easy-to-grow annual that deserves a space in every home vegie garden.
Peas belong to the Fabaceae family of flowering plants, grown for their pods and seeds for thousands of years. Domesticated in Egypt and the Middle East before spreading throughout Europe and Asia, evidence also suggests their pea-predecessors may have even been eaten by our Neanderthal ancestors. Aside from being delicious, peas are a great source of fibre and protein and are high in vitamin C, iron, potassium and magnesium, making it easy to see why they have been included in both ancient and modern diets.
There are many pea varieties, commonly broken into two groups; peas with edible pods and peas which need to be shelled before eating. Within these groups, peas are either a bush variety – great for windy conditions and for growing in pots – or a climbing variety, which grow to two metres tall and require trellising or staking.
Shelling peas (sometimes known as garden peas) are a traditional pea and, unless picked very young, require the pods to be split and the peas removed for eating. They include varieties like Greenfeast (bush), Massey Gem (bush) and Purple Podded Dutch (climbing) which has pink flowers and deep purple pods that split open to reveal bright-green peas inside. There is even a curious variety of leafless pea, called Novella. This pea produces masses of tendrils instead of leaves and requires no staking as the tendrils use each other for support.
Peas with edible pods like snow peas and sugar snap peas have become very popular in recent decades. Snow peas are picked before the peas in the pod start to swell, and the whole pod is deliciously edible. Common varieties include Melting Mammoth, Oregon Giant (also available as dwarf cultivars) and the lesser-known Yukomo Giant, a large plant with purple flowers. Sugar snap peas are a modern variety bred in 1960s America. They are a cross between the snow pea and the garden pea, with both the pod and the peas being edible. Varieties include climbing and dwarf options.
Although we consider them a vegetable, peas are technically a legume along with beans, chickpeas, lentils and peanuts. Legumes are a group of plants that take nitrogen from the air and convert it to nitrogen in the soil via rhizobacteria in small nodules on the plant’s roots. This process is called nitrogen-fixing. So not only are peas good for you, they improve the fertility of your soil, too. Try to purchase seed that is pre-inoculated with rhizobacteria in case it is not active in your soil already to make the most of the nitrogen-fixing benefits they bring.
The nitrogenous action of legumes mean they are an excellent addition to green-manure crops for replenishing soil fertility. And in a crop rotation, it’s beneficial to sow peas in your vegetable beds either before or after a nitrogen-hungry crop like brassicas to boost the soil.
Climate And Soil
Peas need full sun and a position sheltered from strong winds. Being a cool-season crop, plants will quickly die off or become stressed and succumb to pests or disease once the weather heads towards 30 ºC. While the plants themselves are frost-hardy, pea flowers are sensitive to frost damage which may result in lower yields. Generally, peas can be sown from March through to August in cool to warm temperate climates, April through to July in warmer areas, and September through to October for cold areas with heavy frosts. Areas with light frosts can still grow peas over the cooler months if planted in a sheltered position, particularly if they are sown in early autumn to allow plants to get established before the coldest weather arrives. Peas do not grow well in most tropical or subtropical environments, due to their higher humidity and temperatures.
Peas prefer a slightly acidic to neutral soil (pH 6–7.5) and have a moderate need for nitrogen and potassium. They do benefit from a good amount of phosphorus to promote flowering, so add quality compost or well-rotted animal manure prior to planting for increased yields.
It is super important to make sure your soil is freedraining, because pea plants really don’t like ‘wet feet’ and are susceptible to rotting in waterlogged soil. Make sure your soil has a good, open structure and is not compacted. Planting into raised beds or mounding the soil to plant into can help to alleviate these issues.
Climbing pea varieties benefit from staking to protect their delicate stems from wind damage. It also allows for maximum sun exposure for good growth and to keep them well-ventilated to minimise fungal disease. Peas climb using tendrils, so are not at all fussy about what they need. Some trellis options include bamboo or hardwood stakes, jute string or netting, wire cones, old fencing, and even old bed frames can make an interesting trellis.
You can also grow your own trellis by leaving the sturdy stalks of finished corn or sunflowers in situ and planting your peas at the base. A delightful family favourite is to use stakes to create a tee-pee shape and grow peas all around the outside for a living cubby house.
Sowing And Growing
Seeds can be germinated in punnets and planted out as young seedlings, although their roots are quite delicate and plants sown directly in the garden usually end up stronger and more resilient. Sow seeds 2–3 centimetres deep, with climbing plants a minimum of five centimetres apart if planting a single row, and ten centimetres apart if planting in two rows. Rows should be spaced 50 centimetres apart for climbing varieties and a minimum of 30 centimetres apart for bushing varieties.
After sowing, water the seeds in well and do not water again until the seeds have germinated and are at least five centimetres tall to prevent the stems rotting.
No garden space? Snow peas in particular are great to grow in pots, as long as they have a good trellis to climb up. Just make sure the potting soil is well draining.
Regular applications of seaweed fertiliser keep plants healthy throughout their growing and podding period, and help to avoid any pest or disease issues. They will grow happily with most cool-weather vegetables, but don’t make good companions to alliums like garlic, leek, and onion which produce a compound that retards their growth.
Pests And Diseases
Some issues home gardeners may have with peas are with slugs and snails eating young plants, or mice digging up newly planted seeds. In both cases, exclusion is the most foolproof method and an easy solution is to use plastic bottles as cloches over fresh plantings to protect them from night-time marauders. Netting will work to exclude any birds that take a liking to fresh peas, too.
Common insect pests include army worms eating pods and red-legged earth mites attacking the foliage. Both can be controlled by spraying the foliage with soapy water before rinsing with clean water, or through the purchase of predatory live bugs – this is especially effective against mites that are hard to reach with sprays.
Pea plants are susceptible to getting powdery mildew late in the growing season as the weather warms up. Keep plants off the garden bed, plant them with adequate spacing and avoid watering the foliage, particularly late in the day. Powdery mildew can be treated using a homemade milk or chamomile spray (see breakout). Powdery mildew most commonly affects plants that are low in potassium, either through a soil deficiency or the soil being too dry to allow the plant to access it properly. A quick-acting remedy is to spray liquid seaweed fertiliser on the leaves of the plant. If it is a persistent problem where you live, choosing powdery mildew-resistant varieties will be your safest course of action.
When To Harvest
Most pea varieties will be ready for harvest two to three months after sowing. Shelling peas and sugar snap peas are ready just after the peas inside have swelled to fill the pod. Snow peas should be harvested while the pod is still flat; the smaller they are when harvested, the more tender and sweet they’ll be. Regular snow pea harvests every few days stimulate the plant to continue to flower and form pods and, if your plants are vigorous, you can also nip off their growing tips for a fresh addition to salads.
After harvest, the sugars in the peas are rapidly converted to starch so they will be the most tasty and nutritious eaten soon after picking. Freshly picked peas can be frozen or dried to preserve the harvest if you have more than enough.
Another great way to enjoy peas, especially if you are short on space, is to grow pea sprouts or micro-greens. Sow a tray of potting soil out thickly with pea seed, cover with two centimetres of soil, water and wait. Once the pea shoots have reached 20 centimetres or so, you can cut them off part way down the stem, leaving some leaves to keep growing. Enjoy the shoots in salads or as a fancy garnish to cooked meals.
Peas are one of the easiest plants to save seeds by leaving healthy pods on the pea plants and removing them once they are brown and dry. You then take the seeds from the pods and let them dry out completely before storing.
A good tip is to leave a few pods on the vine in the middle of the growing season, rather than at the end. This way you are saving seeds produced when the plant is in full health, rather than when it has started to decline. Then, the following autumn, you’ll have a ready supply of fresh pea plants grown from seeds that are well adapted to your individual microclimate.
Spring pea soup
2 tbsp olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and bruised
1 brown onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 celery stick, roughly chopped
2 medium potatoes, peeled and chopped
parmesan rind, optional
2 cups chicken stock or broth
500 g fresh peas
salt and pepper
½ cup cream pea tendrils
Heat the oil in a medium-sized pot. Add garlic, onion, celery, potatoes and thyme leaves and cook over medium heat for 3–4 minutes, before adding the parmesan rind (if you’ve got it) and covering with the stock. Top up with water if required.
Bring to boil before reducing the heat and allow to simmer for 20 minutes or until all the vegies are soft. Add the peas and cook for a further five minutes. Remove the parmesan and puree soup using a stick blender. Season to taste. Served topped with a dollop of cream, a grind of black pepper and garnish with pea tendrils.