Give Peas a Chance

Peas just don’t get any respect. They may, in fact, be the Rodney Dangerfield of the garden.

Sugar snaps and snow peas do seem to rank well, but few people grow them, or at least grow them successfully. Even fewer people grow the old English type pea that you have to shell out and cook without the pod. But peas, and fresh peas, are delicious and can be a great addition to the garden.

A few weeks ago, the WVU Extension Garden calendar indicated that it was time to plant peas in the southern part of the state. I shared this at the end of my article in the “This week in the garden” section I usually include during the growing season. It just happened to be the week that we received upwards of a foot of snow and record cold temperatures.

One of my gardening friends messaged me and asked if they were supposed to dig out the foot of snow and plant peas. My suggestion was to just throw the peas out on the snow and hope that they mud themselves into the soil when the snow melts.

While that date did mark the time that you can start considering sowing peas, there’s still plenty of time left. Good thing too, since it seems like the weather is so unpredictable you don’t know when there will ever be a snow-free or mud-free (or at least low-mud) time to plant them.

A little pea history

Gregor Mendel, father of genetics, lover of peas.
Gregor Mendel, father of genetics, lover of peas.

Peas (Pisum sativum) have been around for a while. They were first domesticated by neolithic farmers 8,000 to 9,000 years ago in the Middle East. Since then, they’ve spread to many cuisines around the world, from pea shoots and tender pods in Asian stir-fry dishes, to the Indian dish mattar and even to a little blob of mushy peas on your plate in Britain (it took me a second to figure out what the little blob of green stuff was on my plate).

Peas did at one point have a starring role. In fact, peas were the star player in the inception of modern genetics.It was the variable characteristics of peas that caught the attention of Gregor Mendel, a Moravian (modern-day Czech Republic) friar ­— he became a monk to get a free education. He used peas in experiments between 1856 and 1863 to establish rules of heredity. This was well before we even knew that genes existed.

Today we refer to basic heredity as Mendelian genetics (confession: I’m such a plant geek, my capstone project in high school was on Mendelian genetics). His work was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in the 20th century.

Minding your peas

Peas are a cool-season plant, and it is true that you can plant them when the ground is still cool. There’s a tango you have AR-150309533to dance with the weather, though. They can germinate with soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees. However, it takes quite a while for germination to occur at that temperature. Germination in peas is much faster up to about 75 degrees.

But waiting long enough to warm the soil temperature up to 75 degrees means growing your peas in the summer heat, which they do not like.

You basically have to plant your peas, say a little prayer, and hope that they germinate before some fungus comes along to decompose them in the soil. Using peas that have been treated with a fungicide (they’re the ones that look pink or orange at the feed store) will help extend the period of time they can hang out in the soil before they rot.

Once you get your peas sown and germinated, you’ll want to provide some sort of trellis to keep them sorted out. Peas are a vining crop, and it will be much easier to tend them and harvest them if you at least try to keep them orderly. You can use many different techniques to trellis them, including planting them along a fence, using bamboo or other poles and growing them like pole beans, or using the netlike trellis strung between posts that you can find at a garden store.

The trick to peas is to get them producing before it gets too warm. They will not produce well and their quality greatly decreases when temperatures are warm. Their time may be fleeting in the garden, but there’s nothing better than fresh peas.

You’ll also want to take it easy on the nitrogen fertilizer. Peas, like other legumes, have bacteria on their roots that take nitrogen from the air and convert it to ammonia for plants to use. If the soil you are using hasn’t had legumes (peas, beans, clover, etc.) growing in it, you may want to find an inoculum to add it to the soil. You can find a small packet of it on the seed racks at many garden stores.

Since peas add nitrogen to the soil, they, along with beans, are great crops to use to feed your garden. After you pull your peas up, there’s still plenty of time to plant summer crops that will appreciate the extra nitrogen.

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