Figure 1. Garden peas benefit from a windbreak and mulch.
About Garden Peas
Peas are one of the first vegetables to be planted in the spring, as they enjoy cooler weather. Few things beat the taste of fresh peas right from the garden – lightly cooked or even raw! Peas are good for you too, with low calories and fat, healthy fiber, Vitamins K, A, B, and C, zinc, copper, calcium, iron, and potassium, all with a low glycemic index. Peas have been domesticated for a very long time; they were found in an archaeological site in Switzerland dating 9000 years ago. Physicians in ancient Rome used peas boiled in sea water to cure skin infections. However, other ancient peoples thought eating too many peas would give a person leprosy.
More recently, it has been discovered that peas contain a number of phytonutrients that may help protect our health. For example, a recent study suggests that coumestrol, which are peas are rich in, may lower the risk of stomach cancer. And researchers have found that people who eat diets rich in peas and other legumes have a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes. Other substances in green peas are known to be anti-inflammatory.
Peas are also good for our soils. Bacteria that live in their roots help fix nitrogen into a form that other plants can use after the pea plants die.
For fresh eating, there are three main types: Green peas, our “normal” garden variety (Figure 2); snap peas, with a thickened edible pod (some varieties may need to be destringed); and snow peas, with flattened edible pods which usually require destringing. Look for heat tolerance and powdery mildew resistance when selecting varieties. Height of pea vines vary greatly so check to see if selected varieties will need trellising. Some gardeners construct a trellis by attaching netting or chicken wire to posts (Figure 2), others simply place sticks into the ground to help hold the plants upright (Figure 3).
Fig. 2. Netting can be attached to posts for a sturdy trellis for peas to grow on.
Fig. 3. A trellis doesn’t need to be elaborate; simple sticks will do if inserted firmly into the ground.
Planting & Care
Handle pea seed carefully. The vigor of the seedlings can be lowered if the seed is handled roughly. For example, dropping pea seed packets onto a hard surface can result in small cracks in the seed coat and decrease the seed’s ability to germinate and grow.
Plant peas early, as they can germinate once the soil reaches 40 degrees F, although they will emerge much more quickly from warmer soils (up to 70 degrees.) They can also endure a light frost prior to flowering. Plant peas 1 to 1 ½ inch deep, and an inch apart in single or double rows. Peas prefer moist but not soggy soils; they can tolerate a clay-loam, but do not do well in a sandy soil that dries out quickly. Their roots can penetrate 40 inches deep in a good soil, and they tend to do poorly in shallow soils.
Peas do not like hot summer temperatures; they grow best in a range of 55 to 65 degrees, and temperatures over 80 degrees decrease yield. High temperatures inhibit root growth, and cause the plant to produce seed too early; the plant doesn’t have a chance to grow large enough to support a good crop. In South Dakota, it’s a good idea to look for varieties that have some heat tolerance (“Wando” is one, but there are others). Peas can also be planted in late July for a fall crop, allowing about ten weeks before harvest. Be sure to maintain soil moisture during hot periods. Protection from wind can help prevent stress, as well as mulching to maintain soil moisture and decrease weeds (Figure 1).
Pick peas daily, otherwise some of the pods may become over-mature. If possible use them within a couple of days, as their sugars will eventually turn to starch. Peas can be frozen after blanching for 1 ½ minutes in boiling water and then immediately cooling in ice water.