Give peas a chance — just sayin’

By Lynette L. Walther | Feb 18, 2021
Photo by: Lynette L. Walther If you find a variety you especially like, then go ahead and toward the end of the harvest, allow some to mature and ripen until shells turn brown to dry for future crops.

Most of us got our first lesson in genetics (and botany too at the same time) when we were taught about the experiments a 19th century monk conducted on garden peas. But peas apparently have been around a long time.

No one knows exactly how long people have grown them, but according to the National Garden Bureau, archaeologists have found peas in ancient tombs.

Today, we call those tender little green peas, “English peas,” because that’s where they were developed for cultivation. Over the centuries, breeding programs led to peas with improved vigor, disease resistance, flavor, keeping qualities and higher yields.

The biggest advance occurred in 1970, when Calvin Lamborn, a Ph.D. plant scientist working on breeding new shell peas for commercial use, discovered an unusual pea plant in his field, what would come to be called a snap pea. Lamborn saved some of the seeds and submitted them to the rigorous All America Selections trials. Sugar Snap won a Gold Medal in 1979. This plant type is named edible-podded peas or snap peas.

Garden Peas, like beans, are legumes. Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, which makes that important nutrient readily available to other plants. Pea plants also produce long root systems, which help to loosen the soil as they reach out for moisture. Spent plants decompose into organic matter to further enrich the soil.

At the end of the season, simply dig the plants into the soil — no need to add them to a separate compost pile.

Garden peas are a good choice for first-time gardeners and can be direct-sown into the ground or — if space limited — in containers. Here are some tips from NGB on growing them:

How to grow garden peas in the garden

1. Peas grow well in almost any kind of soil but they do best in fertile, somewhat sandy soil with good drainage. They prefer soil with a neutral or slightly alkaline pH.

Improve the soil, if necessary, before sowing by digging to a depth of six to eight inches and incorporating organic matter, such as compost or dried manure. Be sparing with the manure because too much nitrogen encourages more leaf production than pods. Add lime if your soil has a low pH.

2. The best way to grow peas is to sow seed directly into prepared garden soil. Because they are frost tolerant, sow them in early spring as soon as you can work the soil. An easy way to calculate your sowing date is to count back four to six weeks from the last expected frost. If the soil is too cold (below 40 degrees), the seeds take much longer to germinate and may rot.

In the South, Zones 8 and warmer, where early heat tends to make growing peas problematic, sow seeds in early fall for a winter crop. Follow seed packet directions for seed depth and distance. Sowing taller varieties one to two inches apart along an A-frame trellis or next to a fence will provide support.

3. For a longer harvest, sow a succession of seeds every one to two weeks. Or you can save yourself that task by planting early, midseason, and late varieties all at once.

4. Maintain a cool and moist soil. Cover the surface with a layer of straw, compost, or shredded leaves.

5. Peas are light feeders. If you want to fertilize, do so sparingly and use a fertilizer low in nitrogen.

6. Almost all plants require at least an inch of water weekly. When you water (if nature fails to take care of that chore), water deeply, preferably with a soaker hose or drip irrigation system. Plants are most drought-sensitive when they are flowering and producing pods.

As the temperatures rise towards midsummer, you may need to water almost daily.

7. Fall Harvests. Prepare for the cooler and wetter weather of autumn by sowing a fall crop around mid-August.

To find a more exact date, look at the days to maturity on the seed packet and count backwards from the average first frost date in your area; that allows you to harvest before a hard freeze kills the plants. Sow the seeds thickly at least 2 inches deep and keep the bed well watered.

How to grow garden peas in containers

If you lack space, grow peas in containers on a deck, terrace or patio. The harvest will not be as bountiful as those grown in the ground, but some peas are better than no peas at all!

1. AAS Winners, Patio Pride, and Sugar Ann are short bushy plants bred for containers.

2. Select large containers, 12 to 24 inches in diameter, filled with good quality potting soil.

3. Sow peas at the same depth you do in the ground — one to two-inches deep — but more thickly.

4. Water when the soil dries to a depth of two to three inches, depending on the size of the pot. Large containers cut down on the frequency of watering; the soil in small pots dries out quickly in the heat of summer. Mulch the soil surface with a layer of compost or wood chips.

5. Fertilize once or twice with a low-nitrogen fertilizer.

6. Practice succession planting with the containers, replacing the spent cool-weather pea plants with a summer crop, such as patio or bush tomatoes or peppers.

Lynette L. Walther is the GardenComm Gold medal winner for writing and a five-time recipient of the GardenComm Silver Medal of Achievement, the National Garden Bureau’s Exemplary Journalism Award. She is a member of GardenComm and the National Garden Bureau. Her gardens are in Camden.

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