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How to Grow Peas

Growing Peas In Your Backyard or Garden

Woman harvesting peas from her gardenPeas are not only delicious; they are nutritious and easy to grow. Peas are great eaten fresh, but by freezing, canning or drying, even a relatively small crop can have your family enjoying peas all year around.

Pea varieties consist of three basic types: shelling peas, snap peas and snow peas. Although they have different edible properties and harvest recommendations, the growing requirements for each are very similar. Another popular "pea" for small-scale growers, the black-eyed pea, is actually a bean, but is also a popular choice for large-scale gardens.

This article explains the difference between the three types of peas and advice on trellising, planting, water requirements and pest control. It also provides advice on growing the black-eyed pea or cowpea, which requires a slightly different approach to cultivation than the "true" peas.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas, also known as the garden pea or English pea, have tough, fibrous pods that must be removed prior to consumption. Each pod usually contains several peas.

Harvest shelling peas as the peas mature and reach the size of the planted seed. As the peas approach maturity, sample daily and be ready to pick when they are full size but still tender and sweet. Don't wait too long. The peas will quickly become starchy if allowed to stay on the plant past their prime.

Snap peas

Snap pea varieties, such as the sugar snap, are similar to shelling peas, but the plants have edible pods, which growers should harvest when the peas inside have not quite reached maturity.

When the pods are almost filled with peas, it's time to think about picking the crop. Taste samples from the field daily and harvest when both peas and pods are still sweet and tender.

Snow peas

Snow peas, like snap peas, also have edible pods, but they differ from snap peas in that the pods are flatter and thinner and are harvested when the peas inside are very immature.

Snow peas are ready for harvest when they reach the length indicated on the seed packet. Harvest them promptly at this stage, or the pod can start to become tough.

Trellising and support

Shelling, snap and snow pea varieties can be classified into two types by height:

  • Taller varieties with vines that grow approximately 4 to 5 feet tall and tend to produce peas over a longer period.
  • Shorter varieties with bushier growth habits that grow approximately 2 to 3 feet tall at maturity and tend to produce all of their crop at once.

Taller plants need to be staked or trellised for support as they grow. Make trellises out of stakes, with wire, netting or chicken wire stretched between them. Some growers even use brush to support the plants. Plant the peas about 4 inches apart in a shallow furrow on a single side of the trellis or in a double row on both sides. When using trellises, space rows 4 to 5 feet apart.

Shorter varieties don't necessarily have to be trellised, as the density of the vines allows them to support each other. Some growers, however, still use a trellis with shorter varieties, contending that it makes the plants more productive and harvest easier. If you choose to lose the trellis, plant the peas in a row about 18 to 24 inches wide, spreading the seeds uniformly with about 2 inches of space between them. Ensure that you have about 18 to 24 inches between rows.

Planting advice

When you're ready to plant, make sure the soil is slightly moist, but not saturated. Use raised beds if your garden's soils don't drain readily. When locating your rows, look for an area that receives full sun. Plant the seeds about 1 to 2 inches deep and cover with soil, lightly tamping it down over the seeds.

Most peas prefer cool weather, and will tolerate light frost, so it's one of the first crops you can plant in the spring. You can begin as soon as you can work the soil after the winter, but bear in mind that the seeds probably won't start germinating in earnest until soil temperatures hit 50 degrees. Peas don't thrive in hot weather; they grow best in spring and summer when daytime temperatures average between 60 to 75 degrees. When selecting a seed, look at the varieties' days to maturity and plant early enough so that harvest will be complete before daytime temperatures consistently hit 80 degrees.

Peas prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.7. Fertilize if indicated by a soil test with an incorporated broadcast application just prior to planting. Consider applying a later sidedress application if the plants don't seem to be growing well. Avoid over applying nitrogen, however; it will result in lush plants but fewer pods. Inoculating the peas with nitrogen-fixing bacteria may be beneficial in soils where peas haven't been grown in the past.

Water requirements

Spring rains should make supplemental watering unnecessary, but if you live in a dry region of the country, or are experiencing a dry spring, you may need to water once a week to a depth of 1 inch. To help avoid disease problems, avoid watering the peas from above late in the day and soaking the vines and leaves; use drip irrigation, water between the rows or water from above only early in the day. Mulching between the rows with a weed-free organic material will help the plants to conserve moisture, keep the soil cool during hot weather and cut down on weed problems.

Pest control

Weeds are one of peas' biggest enemies in the garden, especially early in the season before the pea plants can out-compete them. Control weeds with shallow cultivation or hand pulling.

Root rots, wilts and powdery mildew are some of the biggest disease problems with peas. Each year, try to change the location in the garden where you plant peas to avoid disease buildup in the soil and consider raised beds if your soils don't drain well. Avoid crowding plants when planting and remove diseased plants from the garden. If available, choose varieties with resistance to disease problems that you've had in the past.

Aphids, Mexican bean beetles, leafhoppers, seed corn maggots and mites are the major insect predators of peas. You can sometimes control aphids simply by washing them off of the plants when populations get too high. Consult your county Extension office or local Southern States dealer for advice on controlling more serious insect pest problems.

Black-eyed peas (Southern peas)

Also known as field peas, cowpeas or Southern peas, black-eyed peas are actually a bean, not a pea. Unlike the true pea types mentioned above, black-eyed peas are a warm-weather crop.

Similar to true peas, look to plant black-eyed peas in well-drained soils. Weed control is critical early in the season until the black-eyed pea plants can outcompete the weeds. Fertilize according to soil test results but avoid applying high levels of nitrogen, and, as with true peas, inoculation may be beneficial in cases where the crop hasn't been grown before.

Unlike the true peas, black eyes require a soil temperature of at least 60 degrees for germination and won’t do well in cool soils. The soil pH should be 5.8 to 6.3. Clemson University Extension specialists recommend growers plant 4 to 6 seeds per foot in rows 20 to 42 inches apart. (Plant older vining-type varieties at only 1 to 2 seeds per foot.)

Black-eyed peas are a hardy plant and supplemental watering usually isn't necessary. The cowpea curculio, a weevil, can be a serious insect pest problem in some areas. Diseases aren't often severe, but watch out for fusarium wilt in non-resistant varieties, and rotate the crop location in the garden frequently to avoid nematode problems. Consult your local Extension office or Southern States dealer for advice on controlling pest problems.

Harvest black-eyed peas when the seeds begin to swell and can be shelled easily. As with true peas, be sure to pick and process them quickly when they're ready.

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