Peas are well-suited to cooler temperate climates. In fact, when temperatures exceed 20C (70F), most varieties of peas will stop producing pods.
Peas are part of the legume (Latin Leguminosae) family of vegetables, which extract nitrogen from the air and store it in little nodules along their roots. For this reason, when the plants finish cropping, dig the roots directly into the soil, where they will slowly decompose and release nitrogen for other plants to use
Peas will grow on most soils, although they prefer a medium well-dug soil with plenty of organic material. Do not add nitrogen to the soil before planting (or after) - peas extract nitrogen from the air sufficient for the needs. An over-rich soil will cause lots of leafy growth, but a reduced cop of peas. Peas like moisture, so do not plant too near walls or fences.
A sunny area is best, although peas are tolerant of partial shade, especially if the shade occurs during the hottest part of the day. Maincrop peas are tall leggy plants (1.8 m / 6 ft), and they can easily be damaged if planted in areas exposed to high wind.
Remember that the taller varieties will cast quite a shadow over any other crops nearby. A good plan is to use the space around the pea plants for smaller shade-tolerant plants vegetables - radishes are an excellent choice.
When to grow:
By sowing a couple of varieties over a month or so, the cropping can be extended from mid-June to mid-September. The table below shows when to sow each type and when they will crop.
Type Sow Harvest Sow to Harvest
First Early March to June June to September 12 weeks
Second Early March to June June to October 14 weeks
Maincrop March to June July to October 15 weeks
For crops in May, sow First Early varieties outside in February under cloches or supported plastic. It is best to have the cloches / plastic over the soil in January to warm it up prior to sowing. Remove the cloches / plastic when the danger of hard frost has passed - around April time.
You can sow peas in modules or pots indoors for planting out later. A popular and satisfying way to sow is in plastic guttering. Fill the gutter with seed compost and sow your seeds 5cm apart. When it's time to plant out simply slide the compost, peas and all into a prepared seed bed. Your peas will remain at the correct spacing with minimal disturbance to the plant.
Tip: Water the compost well before sliding into your planting trench, it helps bind it all together.
Outdoors Prepare the seed bed by raking out any large stones, the soil does not need to be too fine as the pea seeds are relatively large. Peas are so easy to handle and germinate very reliably so are a pleasure to sow outdoors. Sow in drills 4cm deep and 10cm wide. Leave 70cm between rows.
Sugar Snap mangetout should be treated in exactly the same way as Maincrop peas.
An alternative to cloche protection is to sow the seeds in late February on a windowsill - if this is done, use peat pots (not plastic), because the seedlings can then be planted directly into the soil with the peat pot (the peat will quickly break down in the soil) - peas do not like their roots being disturbed. Remember to harden off the seedlings prior to planting permanently.
The first key need of peas is moisture, and they must be watered throughout their lives when conditions become dry. If the soil has been well-prepared they will have no further need for feeding. A mulch of organic material around the plants will help to keep weeds at bay and preserve moisture.
Virtually all pea plants will require support of some kind, consult the seed packet to find out their final height. The easiest method of support is to place twigs near the plants - the tendrils of the plant will twine around the twigs for support. Thinnings from conifers are ideal for this purpose.
Another method is to erect canes in a row, tying in the plants as they grow - netting (available from most garden centers) tied to the canes will give extra support. Each plant is grown up its own individual cane and can then spread across the netting.
The plants should be pinched out when they reach the top to encourage shoots further down the plants. Where the plants are grown against a fence, plastic netting can be secured to the fence and the tendrils will cling to it pulling the plant up.
After sowing it's a good idea to protect from birds, personally I've never found them a problem but they can be real pest. Place a wire mesh or sticks along the newly sowed row. Mice will often eat the seeds quicker than you can sow them - if they live in your garden, there is no real cure. Some gardeners coat the seeds in paraffin, others buy a cat!
The other main problems are Pea Moth, Pea Weevil or Pea Thrip, Greenfly, and Blackfly.
Leaves and pods develop a sticky white substance on the leaves. This will nearly always happen towards the end of the season. The disease is most common in dry years and will be worst in sheltered gardens. Spraying with a diluted milk solution is a good preventative cure but if you get the disease you will need to spray with sulphur. Grow varieties like 'Greenshaft' and other resistant strains and you will have much less of a problem.
Growers in southern England will be familiar with pea moth which burrows through the pods and into the peas rendering them useless. There is no treatment so the best course of action is to sow early or late crops. A quick maturing early variety will be perfect sown in April.
Peas are climbing plants and will need support to grow. You need to provide support as soon as the first tendrils appear as they never yield as well if allowed to flop over on the ground. You must make sure your supports are strong enough as a mature crop of peas can be quite heavy. Tendrils are the little curled shoots the pea uses to wrap around the climbing support.
TIP: Peas cannot climb a bamboo cane like beans can, they also need lateral support.
Using small branches
Most pea varieties will grow between 4 and 6 feet high. Using pruned branches from your trees is a great free way of providing a natural looking support. Collect branches about 1-2 inches in diameter and approx 6ft high. If you can get some nice straight ones, all the better. Push them into the ground at approx 2 foot spacings. Weave smaller branches horizontally between the uprights to create lateral supports. You can add more branches as the peas increase in height, the more branches you have, the better.
N.B. you can also run string between the branch supports, as long as it goes accross your support it's fine.
Making a pea wigwam
Tie suitable sticks together to greate a wigwam. You can use bamboo poles but remember you'll have to coil twine or wire around the wigwam to help the peas to climb. A mix of branches an twigs is ideal as they provide plenty of supports to climb on. Make sure to weave plent of sticks into the structure as in the picture. I'd recommend this method, it's fun to do and looks great in the garden.
Using a pea & bean mesh
Place 2 inch or heavier fencing posts in the ground approx 4 foot apart. Use 7/8 foot posts with at least 12 inches in the ground. Fix your pea & bean support mesh to the posts using staples or u-shaped nails.
If the weather is dry and your peas have begun to flower keep them well watered, you will increase the yield. Don't water too much before the flowers appear or you may get lots of lush leafy growth at the expense of the pods. Keep the base of the plants well mulched to help control weeds and retain moiture. Grass clippings are perfect as long as the grass hasn't been sprayed for any form of moss or weed control. Grass clippings are very high in nitrogen so only use enough to cover the ground and keep down weeds.
Garden peas are best when slightly immature - when fully mature they become hard and loose the sweet taste. Harvesting them early also encourages them to produce more. As a guide, peas are normally ready for harvest three weeks after flowering. Peas quickly loose their flavour after harvesting, so pick them just before they are required for cooking.
The peas at the bottom of the plant will tend to be ready first, so begin harvesting here, working up as time progresses. When the plant stops producing peas, cut the top of the plant off and leave the roots in the ground to compost for next year.
The one thing to remember when harvesting peas is that if you stop and let any peas ripen on the vine, the plant will stop producing. Even if you're fed up of peas or you need to go away for a week get a neighbour to harvest as once they stop they can't be stimulated back into action. Pick your peas once or twice a week so the are still tender. Grip the pea by the stem and pull off the pod to avoid damage to the pea plant. There are of course different types of peas so I'll go through the harvesting of each.
Shelling or maincrop peas
Pick when the pods are bright green when they are well filled but there is still a bit of space between the peas. Shell the peas (remove from pod) and cook or to conserve flavour cook whole and pod afterwards. Of course fresh peas are delicious eaten raw straight from the vine.
Leave the pods on the plants until they turn brown at the end of the season. Pull up the plants and hang in an airy place like a well ventilated greenhouse. When the pods are dry and crispy remove the peas and store in airtight jars.
Mangetout - Flat podded types.
Pick when the outline of the pea is just visible through the skin and the pods snap cleanly in half. They remain at their best for a relatively short time so keep an eye on your plants.
Mangetout - Sugar Snap types.
Pick when green, plump and easily snapped in half. You can shell them if required but the pods of these peas can be eaten. Steam the whole lot very lightly, delicious!
Digging In Pea Roots
Pea plants take nitrogen from the air to grow and store it in their roots. As nitrogen is one of the essential building blocks of any healthy plant it makes sense to keep the nitrogen in the soil. You can see the little nitrogen storing nodules as the white balls on the roots in the photo opposite. When the peas have finished producing at the end of the season cut them down to soil level. Dig in the roots to release the nitrogen in the root nodules for the use of next years vegetables.
Peas don’t have much of a shelf life, so I don’t recommend storing them in their pods or shelled for very long. Store pods in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator and use them within a couple of days. Once they’re shelled, the best way to store peas is to freeze them. First blanch them for a minute or two in boiling salted water and then shock them in an ice-water bath until cool, to help maintain their bright color. Drain and freeze them in zip-top bags. They will keep for five to six months.
Freshly picked peas are one of the delights of the Summer, in my garden most rarely make it to the kitchen and with visitors snacking on the juicy green peas as they pass. Peas are relatively easy to grow, just make sure you put the work in beforehand by building a stout support frame.