One of the most wonderful treats from the garden is peas (Pisum sativum). Snap and snow peas have their advocates, but for me, a large bowl of freshly and lightly cooked green garden peas is nothing short of pure luxury.
Pick green peas just as they start to fill the pod and barely begin to touch – but not crowd – each other.
Photo Credit: Leonid Nyshko
Snap peas are preferred by some home gardeners because they take less work to prepare: You can eat the whole pod – seeds and all – either raw or cooked.
Photo Credit: Jessica Rickards
Snow peas are favorites for stir-fries and raw eating.
Photo Credit: Dole
That’s because getting peas to germinate can be a little tricky. Most need a good support, and you have to harvest at precisely the right time so they’re round and tender, but not starchy. And, depending on how much you love peas, you need some room: For my family, it takes a 20-foot row of peas to supply four people with a large bowlful every 2-3 days.
You also need patience. While snap and sugar peas are entirely edible and take little preparation, garden peas need to be shelled. And for anyone who’s ever spent time shelling peas, you know it’s a process that builds up the anticipation for the gourmet treat that lies inside. (My theory is that this is what children and spouses are for.) Of course, shelling presents another challenge: Garden peas taste so delicious raw that the person shelling them is often tempted to eat too many, seriously diminishing the supply for the dinner table.
But before I get too ahead of myself, let’s discuss the three basic types of edible peas:
Green peas: The classic, podded types. Pods are picked off the vine and slit open with your finger to remove the tasty little green seeds inside.
Snap peas: Developed from green peas and have more recently become popular. The pod is tender, and you can eat it whole – seeds and all. They’re delicious raw, steamed or stir-fried – just look for types without “strings” that have to be removed.
Snow peas: The flat pea pods you most often toss into a stir-fry. They’re bred to be slow in filling out. Look for the stringless types with these, too.
Of course, there are other distinctions among edible peas – and you can easily find them by reading the seed package label or catalog description carefully. Look for early, mid-season and late types. If you have the long, steady, moist, cool falls or springs that peas love, you can extend the harvest season to several weeks. Early-season peas germinate in as few as 54 days; late-season peas take as long as 75 days. If you have short, erratic fits of cool weather (spring in the Midwest, for example), grow early-season types to shorten the chances of the plant being exposed to hot weather. You can also try more heat-tolerant types. These are great for regions where summer’s intensity hits early (or plant in fall).
Peas can be low-growing bushy types or tall. The shorter ones (called dwarf or intermediate), need minimal, if any, staking. Taller pea types (sometimes called pole or vining), take up more space and need support, but they tend to be more productive.
Once you’ve selected your plants, the next challenge is figuring out just the right moment to plant them. Peas like sustained periods of cool (not cold) weather and moist (not wet) soil. A soil temperature of at least 45 degrees F is recommended, but the soil also shouldn’t be too warm. This usually translates into planting before daily highs hit 85 degrees F, with 65-70 degree F temps being ideal.
Your soil also needs to be evenly moist, not too wet or too dry. If your soil tends to hold onto moisture, raised beds are ideal. You may also need to manage watering carefully during dry spells. Peas also love rich soil, so the more compost you can work in the better – and make sure to work it in deeply.
The jury seems to be out on whether to soak peas for 24 hours (but no longer) before planting. Some swear by it; others say it’s not necessary and may even interfere with good germination. Some like to pre-sprout their peas in damp paper towels before planting. The bottom line: Play around and do what seems to work for you.
When it comes to planting, be sure to plant seeds 1-1½ inches deep and about 1 inch apart in single or double rows. Allow at least 1 foot (preferably 2 feet) between rows.
Planting is also a smart time to erect your plant supports, so you can avoid damaging your plants later on. Check the seed label for recommendations, but as a rule, low-growing dwarf or intermediate types don’t require staking – though I’ve found they tend to grow better with some shrubby branches, a strip of lattice or other rough trellising to support them. Tall types can hit as high as 6 feet and will need tall stakes. Since peas grab with tendrils, they do best with lattice or other grid-type supports.
If you’ve worked in plenty of compost, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about fertilizer. But if it’s an issue for you, just be sure you don’t fertilize newly planted or germinating peas with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. (They’re very sensitive to high nitrogen levels, and it can actually damage the seeds.)
With proper care and some time, your peas will grow into that tasty treat you’ll adore. With green peas, keep a careful eye on developing pods. They’re at their best when fully expanded but before they become hard and starchy. (Pick one daily and taste it to see how your veggies are coming along.) It’s better to have the peas a little underdeveloped than over. (Note: Pods mature faster on the lower portion of the plant!)
If you’re growing snap peas, pick them when they start to get fat, but not large. Again, the raw taste test is the best way to determine if it’s time to harvest. With snow peas, pick when the pod is flat and any seed development is barely perceptible through the raw taste test.
Once you get growing, you’ll get the knack of it – and anyone who joins you at your springtime table will love you for it!