What do you do in mid-March if you live in southwestern Ohio? I plant peas!!! Yes, I plant them, from seed, in the ground. The fact is, peas will germinate in soil as cold as 40 degrees. Early peas taste great, get you out working in the garden when most folks are still dreaming of planting vegetables, and they do a fantastic job of prepping beds for future crops. Like all legumes, peas can take nitrogen directly from the air with the help of nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria.
Types of Peas
Vine length varies from one variety to another, and long-vined peas need a taller trellis than compact varieties. Both compact and long-vined peas are available in four types, which vary in pod and seed characteristics. Although I only grow one type of pea, I will explain why later, I am giving you information on all four varieties.
Snap peas are eaten whole, and both the crunchy pod and the peas inside taste sweet. Snap peas yield more food per square foot than the other types. These are the peas you want for stir-fry.
Snow peas produce tender, flat pods that are eaten whole. Snow peas produce the most tender vine tips for adding to salads or stir-fries. These also come in the mammoth variety and are the only ones I grow.
Shell peas often called English peas, are sweet green peas shelled from tough, inedible pods. These take the longest to produce and take a whole lot of peas to make a meal.
Soup peas produce hard, starch-filled seeds for drying inside inedible pods. Seed size and color vary with variety. These take up a lot of room in the garden and take the longest to mature, then dry and shell. Unless you have a lot of extra room I would not plant these.
When to Plant Peas
Peas produce poorly in hot weather, so an early start is always a wise strategy. Since I am in zone 6a, I plant my peas on March17th unless the ground is frozen solid. Peas are a hearty crop and the young plants can deal with cold temperatures and even some snow. However, be prepared to protect flowering plants from a late frost which will hurt flowers and sometimes causes tiny developing pods to be deformed.
If you do any reading on peas, you will see the phrase “Sow in the spring as soon as the ground can be worked”. I always hated this description because Ohio weather is weird and we always get a thaw in January so is that when I plant?” After much reading and trial and error, I have found that March 17th is the magic date for my Ohio garden.
Whatever variety you choose to plant, edible-podded or traditional English shelling peas, plant them to mature before really hot weather sets in if you want sweet tender peas. Once the plants are well-established, hilling up the soil at the base of the plants or using a thick layer of mulch will help to keep the roots cool and prolong the harvest.
If you are not in my zone, plant once the soil temperature reaches at least 45 degrees. A soil thermometer is a great investment even for back yard gardeners. Wait to plant until soil is dry enough that it doesn’t clump and stick to garden tools.
Aphids occasionally attack vines, however can be easily overcome with a douse of insecticidal soap. Peas are susceptible to fusarium wilt and root-rot disease, especially on poorly drained soils. Stunting of the plant, or lower leaves that yellow and wilt, are symptoms of these diseases. Improving soil drainage by adding compost can help prevent outbreaks of these diseases.
The nitrogen fixing is done in conjunction with ribosomes bacteria, which are probably present in your soil. However, if you have any doubts and want to improve the productivity of peas in the future, you can purchase “inoculate,” which is a powder of ribosomes bacteria that you can add to the soil. Once established, the bacteria don’t have to be added again.
To prevent fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew, water peas early in the day (if needed) so leaves can dry before dusk or use a soaker hose or drip irrigation so that the foliage does not get wet each time you water. Most disease problems can be beaten by planting disease-resistant varieties like Sugar Ann. In general, Peas are easy going and do not need a lot of disease care.
Harvest and Storage
Harvest snap and snow peas when pods start to fatten, however before peas grow too large. If picked at the right time, the whole pod can be eaten. If pods are chewy and tough, they have been left on vines too long. In this case, shell the peas and compost the pods. Peas will produce as long as vines are healthy and temperatures stay cool. For shell peas, pick once the peas inside start to bulge.
The more you pick peas, the more peas you will have to pick. After harvest, the sugar in peas turns to starch, decreasing sweetness. For best flavor, cook or freeze peas within a few hours of picking. To freeze snap and snow peas, simply toss pods into plastic freezer bags.
Why I only Plant Snow peas
I do not have a lot of room to devote to peas. We have a huge market garden however peas are not a large money making crop for us so I only plant peas for our family to eat. I have found that the large Mammoth Melting Peas give me the most food for the space I can devote to it. The pods grow huge and it takes fewer of them to make a meal. They stay tender and sweet longer on the vine and if I do miss picking them I can shell the pods and just eat the peas inside. They also are easy to spot and I can have my 6 year old help harvest them before dinner (which also helps raise his interest level in eating peas!).
My favorite Snow Pea verities are:
New this year
Royal Snow, these are purple! (Johnny’s Select). Kids LOVE purple vegetables!!
Do you grow peas? What is your favorite variety?