Peas have received a bad reputation from those forced to eat the canned spheres of mush that claim to be peas. As any gardener knows, plucking a fresh pea from the vine and eating it whole offers a crisp, sweet flavor that shares nothing with its canned (or even frozen) cousins.
Peas (Pisum sativum) are legumes, which means they have a tidy little business arrangement with certain soil bacteria, called rhizobia, which allow them to use atmospheric nitrogen. Pea seeds develop in pods, making them a pod fruit. Peas are either green or yellow and pods can be green, brown, or purple.
Peas are annual plants that can be low-growing bush varieties, but vining cultivars are the most commonly grown. Pea plants are self-pollinating, but the more plants you have, the better the pollination rates will be and the bigger your harvests will be.
Modern peas are generally described as either edible pod or shelling varieties, but the story behind pea evolution may surprise you. Wild peas have been around for thousands of years. They were being cultivated back in the 3rd century BC. These early cultivated peas were shelling peas, or field peas. Field peas have a tough, dehiscent pod that is not eaten. Dehiscent means the pods unzip themselves when the peas are ripe and dry. Of course, dried peas are pretty tough eating, unless you cook them. As a rule, shelling peas are grown to be dried for later use in pea soup and pease porridge. [Pease porridge is a thicker version of pea soup, more of a pudding, often made with a ham hock or bacon.] These were dietary staples in medieval times.
Sometime around the 15th century, somebody figured out that immature pea pods could be eaten whole. These “garden peas” or “sugar peas” were a decadent luxury back then. Over time, cultivars were developed that retained that tenderness. These sugar peas, or “English peas”, gained in popularity, especially after canning was developed.
Edible pod peas are indehiscent, which means the pods do not open themselves. Rounded edible pod varieties ultimately became known as sugar peas while the flat-podded varieties were named snow peas (Pisum sativum var. saccharatum)
In 1952, sugar peas were crossed with a mutant shelling pea in an effort to counteract some pod distortions that were occurring at that time. The offspring of that cross turned out to be a delicious new class of snow pea, and it was named snap pea (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon). Snap peas, also known as sugar snap peas, are now the pea workhorse of modern gardens.
How to grow peas
Peas are very easy to grow. They prefer cooler weather, making them excellent winter crops. While peas grow best in full sun, they can also work well for shade gardening and container gardening. Many birds love pea seeds, so you may have to protect your crop with netting until the seeds germinate.
Seeds should be planted 5” apart and 1" deep in rich, loose, moist soil. As they grow, vining pea plants will use tendrils to grasp and climb, so you will want to provide stock panels, tuteurs, or trellising for them to climb. As tempting as it may be to let your peas climb up netting, don’t do it. You’ll have a mess on your hands at the end of the growing season. Take my word for it. If peas are being grown in a container, a tomato cage works well.
Water regularly, allowing the soil to dry out between waterings, and be sure to harvest pods as soon as they are ready. This will keep the plant producing. Peas left of the vine will become too tough and starchy to eat, but they can be saved for planting or cooking. Succession planting can provide many months of harvestable peas.
Pests and diseases of peas
Fungal diseases, such as Ascochyta blight, basal stem rots, damping-off, downy mildews, Fusarium wilt, powdery mildew, and root rot cause lesions and blackened areas on stems, roots, and leaves. Viral diseases include pea enation mosaic and pea streak, both transmitted by aphids. These diseases cause distorted pods and leaves. Pests include aphids, armyworms, cucumber beetles, leaf miners, nematodes, pea leaf weevils, pea moths, spider mites and thrips.
Forget the mushy peas of your childhood. Grow your own peas for a delicious treat!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!