James H. Schutte
Plant Common Name
Few cool season crops are as satisfying and welcome in spring as the humble garden pea. Peas have been cultivated for their edible seeds and pods for thousands of years. Their area of origin is thought to be the eastern Mediterranean region, including Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, where wild pea plants still exist.
These herbaceous annuals have four distinct cultivation types that bear different fruits, or pea pods. These four types are: pod peas that are shelled for fresh peas, pod peas that are shelled for dried peas, snow or mangetout pea pods that are flat and eaten immature, and sugar snap or mangetout pea pods that are crisp, sweet, and swollen. Fresh shelled peas are what you get in frozen or fresh at the grocery store, dried hulled peas are what you purchase for split pea soup, fresh snow peas are favored in Asian cooking, and fresh sugar snap peas are the most common garden-grown type in the United States.
Pea plants are vines, though some have shrubbier habits. Their pale green leaves are compound with rounded leaflets arranged in pairs on the leaf stem. The leaves are tipped with branched, curled tendrils that curl around objects and help the fine pea stems climb. Some cultivars are semi-leafless to leafless and just have lots of curly tendrils. The white, pink or lavender pea flowers are lightly fragrant. Each has a large, rounded upper petal subtended by smaller central petals that form a lip, or keeled beak. The blooms are produced in loose clusters on short stems among the foliage.
Many modern pea cultivars are self-fertile. Their pods are long and either flattened or rounded and filled with peas that are typically green or yellow and plump or wrinkled, depending on cultivar. The edible pod types (snow and snap peas) are harvested when the pods are young and tender. Hulled types are harvested when the pods are fully mature peas but not quite dry. Dried peas are harvested when fully mature and then shucked, dried and stored in a cool, dry place for later consumption.
Full sun and rich, friable soil with good drainage is needed for vigorous growth and fruit set. Peas are cool season vegetables, so in the north temperate zones they are planted in early spring as soon as the soil is workable or in fall, once temperatures are cool again. In southern, frost-free zones they are planted in winter. Pea seeds should be directly sown in the ground because seedlings do not transplant well. Overwatering seeds before they germinate can lead to seed rot, so be sure to keep them moderately moist, never wet.
Like many members of the bean family, peas have a mutually beneficial relationship with a bacterium called Rhizobium, which allows plants to add nitrogen to the soil. Seeds and plants often do better if tossed in a commercially available Rhizobium inoculum before planting.
Most pea varieties require staking or other support. A few compact, shrubby types grow and produce well with little support. Peas produce usable crops quickly. Many cultivars reach maturity 60 days after seeding. Seeds can be planted in weekly intervals for a longer harvest season, though once temperatures warm up plants will become stressed and stop producing. There are hundreds of common pea varieties that vary widely. Some are bred for northern climates and others for southern, so consult your local extension agent if you need help choosing a variety that’s well-adapted to your growing area.