How to grow peas
Nothing beats home-grown peas for their tenderness and taste. That's because when they are picked, their sugars start to turn to starch and so they quickly lose their sweetness and flavour. Pick them when small, steam within an hour of picking with a sprig of mint and you won't taste better.
There are lots of different types of peas and numerous varieties. To produce crops all summer long, start by sowing an early variety, followed by a main crop.
Sugar snap and snow peas are eaten pod and all, picked before the peas have fully developed. Both are generally easier to grow than garden peas, and are definitely worth trying if you've had problems with normal peas in the past.
- Early: Earlicrop Massey
- Main crop: Greenfeast, Telephone Pole
- Snow peas: Oregon Giant, Oregon Sugar
- Sugar snap: Sugar Snap, Cascadia
Cultivation of peas
Peas need a sunny position that is sheltered from strong winds, to ensure insects can pollinate the flowers.
Improve the soil with lots of garden compost to help keep the soil moist, but free draining. Peas, being legumes, prefer an alkaline to neutral soil (pH7 or higher); add lime to acidic soils in late winter.
Peas need plenty of soil moisture, especially at flowering and when the pods are filling, otherwise the crops are poor and the peas are small, dry and tasteless. To ensure they don't go short of water, dig a trench approximately 30cm deep in early spring and add a 15cm layer of compost and soil improver to retain moisture. Fill the trench with soil a fortnight before sowing or planting out.
When to sow peas?
You can start sowing in September, providing the soil is warm enough. For an even earlier start, sow the seeds in small pots or seed trays filled with seed raising mix and kept in a warm, sunny spot until they have sprouted. Plant out when the soil has warmed.
Choosing your spot and which peas to grow?
Your peas are going to need a sunny, moisture-retaining and nutrient-rich position and you will need to support taller varieties, so make sure there is plenty of room for that.
As with most home-grown vegetables, there's a selection of varieties from early to late season, so take a little time to choose which ones will suit you best. Before you are ready to sow, make sure you dig and prepare the ground, adding plenty of compost or well-rotted manure well in advance.
If you are planting straight into the ground, do so in early to mid spring making sure the soil is warm and the seedlings are well protected from cold and frost. Seeds will rot if you sow into cold soil.
Start sowing in early September, providing the soil is warm enough.
For an earlier start, sow the seeds into seed trays and leave them in a warm, sunny position until germination.
In the garden, the easiest way to sow is to dig out a flat-bottomed trench 5cm deep and 20-25cm wide. Lightly fork over the bottom of the trench, water the soil and then sow the seeds evenly, 7.5cm apart, pressing them lightly into the soil. Fill the trench with soil and lightly firm down. Sow rows at fortnightly intervals to give a succession of crops throughout summer. By growing different varieties and sowing at different times of year, you can pick fresh peas from December to February.
How to care for peas?
Water well during dry periods, especially during flowering and pod set, giving the soil a good soaking once or twice a week. Mulch the soil around the plants to preserve soil moisture. You can also feed weekly with a high potash liquid feed to promote bigger crops.
Apart from dwarf bush varieties, peas need support for the plants to grow up. Create bamboo cane tee-pees or tripods around the plants when they're 7.5-l0 cm high. Pea netting supported by stout canes is another option, but it can be difficult to untangle the plants at the end of the growing season. Chicken wire or sturdy wire mesh (‘reo’) are better options. Lightweight wooden trellis panels are attractive alternatives, especially when growing peas as an ornamental feature.
When to harvest peas?
As they start to mature, keep an eye on your peas, as the earlier they are picked the sweeter they'll be. Don't rest on your laurels though; harvest regularly to encourage your plants to keep on producing.
Start from the bottom of the plant where the peas mature first and work your way up. Although you can freeze peas, they really are at their tastiest eaten straightaway.
A few facts about peas
- Round, smoother pea seeds are hardier than wrinkled ones, which tend to be better for sweetness.
- They've been around a long, long time! So long in fact peas were discovered in Egyptian tombs.
- Pea plant tendrils are edible.
- One serving of peas contains as much vitamin C as two large apples and more fibre than a slice of wholemeal bread.
Common pest and disease problems with peas
Powdery mildew is a fungal disease that appears as a white mildew on pea plants, stunting growth and causing leaves to shrivel. Drought-stressed plants are more susceptible to this disease.
Mice and other rodents (including rabbits and bandicoots) may dig up and eat peas sown in the ground.
Birds can strip tender young leaves off pea plants, leaving them bare.