How To Grow Peas

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You can plant peas early in spring, weeks before your garden is frost-free. Plus, homegrown peas are delicious!

If you’re the kind of gardener who likes to get out early in the spring to start growing vegetables well before your last frost, you’ll likely have great success growing peas. Peas like it cool! I was reminded of just how early peas can be sown when I found an old seed packet on which my dad had written, “sown March 16.” His frost-free date was generally May 10th.

Types of Peas to Grow

There are three main types of peas to grow for eating.

Snow peas

Snow peas are flat pods eaten pod and all. A popular variety to try is ‘Oregon Snow Pod II.

Snap peas

Snap peas, AKA sugar snap peas, are plump pods also eaten pod and all. Many varieties include “sugar” in the name, like ‘Sugar Ann,‘ because of the sweetness when freshly picked.

Shelling peas

Shelling peas are also called English peas. These peas are removed from the pods, which are tough and not edible. The shelled-out peas are sweet and delicious. My favorite variety is ‘Green Arrow‘ because it has more peas per pod, which saves time when you’re removing all those peas by hand.

When To Plant Peas

Peas can be planted in the spring much earlier than many people realize. They’re a cool-season crop that tolerates frost. The key with pea seeds is the soil temperature, which should be above 40 F to ensure germination.

Sow peas four to six weeks before your usual frost-free date. Where summers are not too hot, you can try a second crop of peas 10 to 12 weeks before your expected first frost.

How To Plant Peas

All pea types — snow, snap, and shelling — are grown the same way.

Direct sow them in the garden

Peas don’t like their roots disturbed, so direct sow them in rows. Choose a sunny, well-draining spot. Sow seeds about two inches apart and one inch deep. Space rows far enough to walk between them when harvesting.

Provide support

Peas are generally small vines and need something to climb up. In my garden, I put up re-usable fencing just for the peas and take it down once they’re finished.

Add a soil inoculant

This is optional. Peas are legumes so they “fix” nitrogen, taking it from the air and changing it to a form the plant can use. That’s good for the peas and whatever else you plant in that area afterward.

Peas require certain bacteria for this process which are often present in the soil. To be sure you’ve got the right bacteria in your garden, buy an inoculant. Follow the instructions on the package to coat the seeds before planting, or apply the inoculant to your soil.

How To Grow and Care for Peas

Follow these best practices for success.

Weed carefully

Carefully remove any weeds that grow up around the rows so you don’t disturb the roots of the pea vines.

Water if you don’t get rain

As with most vegetable crops, if you have dry periods, water the peas. Because peas fix nitrogen in the soil, it isn’t necessary to fertilize them.

Protect from rabbits

Rabbits may nibble down young pea vines, so consider fencing around your garden to keep rabbits out if they’re problematic in your area. Insect pests generally don’t bother peas.

How To Harvest Peas

Pick peas every other day or so as they ripen. The best time is early morning, when the moisture content in the peas will be at its highest. Hold the vine in one hand and pull the pea pod off with your other hand to avoid damaging the vines, which may still be flowering and producing more peas.

If you are unsure if your peas are ready to harvest, pick a pea and taste it. The pods for snap and snow peas should be tender and not taste starchy. The shelling peas should taste slightly sweet.

Snow peas

Pick snow peas when the pods are still flat before you see the seeds forming.

Snap peas

Sugar snap peas (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon) in the gardenNatalie Ruffing/Getty Images

Pick snap peas when they are two to three inches long. They should be plump as well.

Shelling peas

Pick shelling peas when the pods are plump and rounded, and you can see the shape of the pea seeds inside. Remove (shell out) the peas from the pods. Toss or compost the pods and enjoy your fresh peas.

Remember that the sugars in the peas turn to starch when stored, so eat your peas soon after picking to ensure you have the best tasting peas possible.

Compost old vines

Once it warms up to summertime temperatures, peas are done. Vines will stop growing and quickly turn brown. Then it’s time to pull out the vines and put them on your compost pile.

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Carol J. Michel
Carol J. Michel is an award-winning author of several books including five gardening humor books and one children's book. As the holder of degrees from Purdue University in both horticulture and computer technology, she spent over three decades making a living in healthcare IT while making a life in her garden. She started writing about gardening on her blog called May Dreams Gardens which lead to numerous magazine articles, her books, and a podcast called The Gardenangelists. She was recently named a GardenComm Fellow by Garden Communicators International.