Mind your peas: Start planting now for a bountiful season

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Featured Article - posted Tue., Mar. 19, 2013
- Contributed Photo

Last year for the first time in my life, I planted peas on St. Patrick’s Day! This year, pea planting will have to wait until it warms up a bit.

For centuries, peas were not as popular as other legumes. Mostly they were dried and used during Lent and times of famine. Our English ancestors brought them over to America and peas were among the first crops planted. The dried peas would keep well while crossing the ocean and were very nutritious. In the late 17th century, Europeans began eating peas fresh. They quickly became a delicacy and breeding commenced, giving us modern Americans a wealth of different peas to choose from.

Peas are cool weather plants and usually planted around here in early April or as soon as the ground can be worked. For a good crop they need a well-drained, sunny site and a soil pH close to 6.5. Seeds are sown 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart. Peas do poorly on dry sites, so be ready to water if Mother Nature doesn’t supply us with April showers.

The three types of peas most commonly grown are English shelling peas, sugar snap peas, and sugar snow peas. All three types have taller varieties that need to grow up something, like a trellis or a fence, and shorter, bush varieties. Generally, bush varieties that reach 18 to 30 inches are sown in 12-inch rows so they can lean on each other. Another alternative with them would be to use some twiggy stems stuck in the ground as pea brush. The taller ones can grow on one or perhaps both sides of a trellis or fence with the seeds placed about 6 inches from their support.

Because I have a fence around one of the vegetable plots, I tend to grow the taller varieties. My favorite English shelling pea if an heirloom called ‘Tall Telephone,’ which is also known as ‘Alderman.’ It reaches about 5 feet in height and although it matures a bit late (68 days), it can handle the heat fairly well, so one can still get a decent harvest even if planted a little late. ‘Mr. Big’ is another choice tall variety. It was the 2000 All America Selections winner, is easy to shell, productive and disease resistant.

Some short shelling peas include the 1908 heirloom, ‘Lincoln’ (65 days), which can also tolerate heat, ‘Green Arrow’ (63 days), known for its disease resistance and tasty, plentiful but small peas, and ‘Maestro,’ which matures in 61 days, is resistant to powdery mildew and grows about 22 inches high. All of the above peas need to be shelled before eating. Usually these peas are cooked, but you can also try them raw in salads. It is very important to harvest them before they become overripe, as the peas become starchy and unappetizing. When in doubt, open a pod and pop a pea into your mouth.

A very popular type of pea is the sugar snap, which has edible pods filled with sweet peas. The pods are rounded and plump when mature and they crunch when bitten into. I think the best-tasting sugar snap pea is none other than ‘Sugar Snap’ (62 days), which was introduced in 1979 and I have been growing it ever since. The vines get up to 5 feet and produce over a long period and do well if the weather is a little too cold or a little too hot. They say to remove the strings before cooking, but I generally eat them all fresh, strings and all!

‘Super Sugar Snap’ (60 days) came out a few years later and it is shorter and resistant to powdery mildew. It still needs trellising and the flavor is not quite on par with ‘Sugar Snap,’ plus the harvest period is shorter, so I’ll stick to the older variety. But if powdery mildew is an issue in your garden, this would be a better choice.

Bush sugar snaps include ‘Sugar Bon’ (56 days), which grows 18 to 24 inches, is powdery mildew resistant and has 2- to 3-inch pods. Cascadia, at 48 days, is very early, 30 inches tall with sweet and tender pods.

Stir fry aficionados probably already grow sugar or snow peas, those flat-podded types with small peas and edible pods. Snow peas are picked when young, just as the peas start to form. The French referred to the snow pea as ‘mangetout,’ which means ‘eat it all.’ These peas are used in both French and Asian dishes.

‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’ (72 days), as its name implies, produces large 5-inch pods on long 4- to 5-foot vines. This cultivar is resistant to fusarium wilt. Indian heirloom, ‘Golden Sweet’ (67 days) produces lemon yellow pods with a sweet, nutty flavor. It also bears pretty, two-toned purple blossoms.

Shorter ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ (68 days) will give you two pods per node. The 28-inch plants are vigorous, resistant to pea virus, common wilt and powdery mildew, and bear lots of 4-and-a-half-inch pods. An old snow pea variety, ‘Dwarf Grey Sugar Pea (57 days)’ is currently being grown for its shoots, which can be harvested in 10 days and used as a garnish or salad ingredient along with its red flowers.

One question that often comes up when growing peas is, ‘Should I use an inoculant?’ Peas are legumes and form mutually beneficial relationships with nitrifying bacteria. The bacteria is able to convert the nitrogen gas in the atmosphere into nitrogen that it is willing to share with the legume, or in this case pea plant. Inoculants are powders containing this bacteria, and the bottom line is that it never hurts to use them but they are probably only necessary in new gardens where peas have never grown before.

So go out and plant your peas. Try several different kinds. Quick-maturing varieties can also be planted at the end of August for fall harvests. If you have questions about growing peas, or on other indoor or outdoor gardening topics, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center, toll-free, at 877-486-6271, visit www.ladybug.uconn.edu or contact your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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