Growing Peas the Right Way — From Sugar Snap to Homesteader

Growing peas can be a new experience each planting season depending on the varieties grown.

Vertical Vegetables Fruit Cover

“Vertical Vegetable and Fruit,” by Rhonda Massingham Hart, explores the vertical possibilities of popular garden foods.

Cover Courtesy Storey Publishing

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For anyone who wants to grow food in small spaces, Vertical Vegetables and Fruit (Storey Publishing, 2011) has the solution: Grow up! With tepees, trellises, cages, hanging baskets, wall pockets, stacking pots and multilevel raised beds, gardeners can reap bountiful harvests from the tiniest areas — even an alley, a balcony, rooftop or a windowsill. Master gardener Rhonda Massingham Hart shows you how to construct the site, prepare the soil, and plant and care for vegetables and fruit to produce big yields. From beans on a tepee to tomatoes on a wire archway, cucumbers on a trellis, and kiwis on a clothesline, Hart has something to fit every gardener’s needs. The following excerpt comes from chapter 6, “Peas.” 

You can buy this book from the GRIT store: Vertical Vegetables and Fruit.

Oh, how gardeners need peas. Peas (Pisum sativum) are among the first seeds to be planted in the garden in the spring. Within just a few weeks, their energetic growth, delightful early flowers, and succulent, sweet pods reward the gardener for getting an early start, often during those so-called spring days when the weather is still cold and dreary, and the motivation to be outdoors is low.

Not only do they reward your earliest efforts directly with tasty and abundant crops, but peas also benefit the gardener by more indirect means. Like all legumes, peas, through nodules in their root system, fix nitrogen into the soil by converting it from atmospheric gas into a form usable by plants.

Pea Varieties

Peas differ greatly in growth habit, pod formation, and days to maturity. While many pea vines reach for the sky, merrily scaling 6-foot (2 m) trellises, some dwarf varieties stop short, reaching only 24 to 30 inches (51–76 cm) tall. Tall types need a good solid framework to grow up lest they sprawl into a tangle, and even dwarf varieties benefit from a structural support.

Pod types include English (also called garden or shelling peas), which are shelled to be eaten; snap peas, which are eaten pod and all; and snow peas, which are eaten while the pods are flat and immature. Differing days to maturity allows you to plant several types to extend the harvest all season long. With so many varieties available, consider the following descriptions as only a small sampler of your choices.

Shelling Peas

Shelling peas come in both tall and dwarf varieties. Like shelling beans, they are grown until the peas are fully formed in the pods, then harvested, shelled, and cooked before eating. Unlike beans, they are not left on the vine to dry.

Alderman, also called Tall Telephone (OP, 85 days), is a late-maturing variety, best known for huge, easy shelling pods that hold six to eight fine-flavored peas each. It grows 6 to 8 feet (2–2.5 m) tall and matures in 85 days for a late-season harvest.

Lincoln, also called Homesteader (OP, 66 days), grows reliably even as the weather heats up. Three-foot-long (1 m) vines produce smallish pods, about 3 inches (8 cm) long, packed with nine small, ultra-sweet peas apiece. This variety is highly recommended for freezing.

Wando (hybrid, 68 days) is another heat-tolerant, late-maturing variety, touted for its versatility whether used fresh, canned, or frozen. It matures with six to eight medium-sized peas per pod.

Eclipse (hybrid, 67 days) is hailed as “the world’s first super-sweet pea,” owing to its high sugar content — 20 to 30 percent more than other varieties. Harvest lasts longer than with many other varieties, as these peas hold their sugar content exceptionally well. Eclipse is resistant to powdery mildew.

Mr. Big (hybrid, 58–62 days) was a 2000 AAS winner. It grows well throughout the United States, yielding 4- to 6-inch (10–15 cm) pods of six to ten sweet-tasting peas each. Vines grow only 2 to 3 feet long (0.5–1 m) but still need trellising for support. Picked peas stay sweet and tender longer than most others.

Maestro (OP, 60 days) is the shortest of the group, growing up to only 22 inches (56 cm) tall. It offers long, narrow pods of eight or nine sweet, tender peas starting in just 60 days over an extended period of harvest. It is resistant to powdery mildew and enation (a viral infection).

Snap Peas

Snap peas, sometimes called sugar snap peas, are the result of crossing shelling peas with snow peas. They have the plump shape of the former and the sweet flavor of the latter. Some varieties have a fibrous string running the length of the pods, but the entire pod can be eaten. Dwarf and tall vining varieties are available.

Sugar Snap (OP, 70 days), an AAS winner, is the original Sugar Snap variety, and as new and improved varieties abound, it is getting harder to find. Vines grow to 6 feet (1.8 m) and require strong support. Peas are about 3 inches (7.6 cm) long, well filled, and sweetly delicious. Multiple plantings, 7 to 10 days apart, are recommended for extended harvest.

Super Sugar Snap (OP, 58 days) usurps its predecessor’s reputation as it sets fuller fruit, about a week earlier in the season, and yields bigger harvests, all with improved disease resistance.

Sugar Sprint (OP, 61 days) produces quickly, offering up heavy yields over an extended harvest due to its heat tolerance and resistance to powdery mildew and pea enation. Vines grow only 24 to 30 inches (61–76 cm) long.

Cascadia (OP, 48–60 days) is an exceptionally early producer. Like Sugar Sprint, it is resistant to pea enation and powdery mildew and sets a thick harvest on compact, 32-inch (81 cm) vines.

Snow Peas

Snow peas are those wide, flat pods that are most familiar to nongardeners as a typical ingredient in Chinese food. Always eaten whole, they have a sweet, delicate taste and a tender, crisp texture.

Oregon Sugar Pod II (OP, 65 days) is a long-time favorite that sets bountiful crops on short (30 inch [76 cm]) vines. It is among the easiest to grow, as it is highly disease resistant.

Goliath (OP, 60 days, AAS 2003) offers bountiful yields of sweet, tender, stringless peas on vines up to 5 feet (1.5 m) long.

Sandy (OP, 75 days) is a fairly new introduction. Its 3 1/2- to 4-foot-long (1–1.5 m) vines produce more than the usual amount of coiling tendrils, a delicacy served steamed in various Asian dishes.

Mammoth Melting Sugar (OP, 65 days) erupts in vigorous vines that quickly swarm to about 5 feet (2.5 m) in length. Pods have a unique, sweet, delicate taste that melts in the mouth. Stringless pods just keep on coming the more you pick them.

Site and Soil Requirements

Although peas need full sun early in the season, they appreciate partial shade during the summer. All varieties can tolerate frost, but few do well in hot weather. Though some varieties are more heat tolerant than others, peas are cool-season plants and will not flower or set fruit in very hot weather.

Peas do not require especially fertile ground. They do well in just about anything but heavy clay. A little compost or aged manure at planting time should supply all the nutrients that are needed for the plants to get off to a good start.

Phosphorus or potash deficiency can cause leaves to curl or turn purple. Wood ashes (5 to 10 pounds [2–4 kg] per 100 square feet [30 m2]) will provide both of these nutrients. Ashes also serve to buffer extremely acid soils. Peas do best in a pH range of 5.5 to 7.5.

Well-drained soil is essential to healthy pea vines. Plants take in oxygen through their roots, and soggy soil can deprive them of as much as 90 percent of the oxygen that they need. It also interferes with the plant’s ability to take up nitrogen. Soils rich in organic matter are pea heaven not only because of the improved drainage, but also because of a healthy nutrient content. Lighten clay by working in compost, peat, or other organic matter.

Planting Guidelines

Peas generally do not take well to transplanting. If you can’t resist the urge, start them indoors in peat pots and set them out, pots and all. But there is little to be gained with this method. You’re better off preparing your site the previous fall so you can direct-seed at the earliest possible opportunity. Germination takes 7 to 14 days in soil temperatures of 40°F (4°C) or warmer.

On the day before planting, soak the peas overnight in warm water to relax the tough seed coat. Soaking plumps up the dehydrated seeds and helps to speed germination. It also makes them more receptive to inoculate.

Plant the seeds 2 inches (5 cm) deep in heavy or warmed soil, or 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep in lighter or still cool (not frozen) ground. Peas enjoy their own company and do well when they are crowded. There are two ways to take advantage of this for a space-saving garden.

One is to crowd lower-growing varieties together in wide beds and support the entire bed with a zigzag twine support. The plants will crowd out weeds, shade each others’ roots, and lean on one another for support, all while producing record numbers of peas per square foot.

A more intensive ground-saving method is to plant them in double rows, spaced 3 inches (8 cm) apart each way along a pea fence or trellis.

Training Peas to Grow Up

Many varieties of pea vines are enthusiastic climbers that easily top heights of 6 feet (2 m). Grasping, coiling tendrils anchor the vines to any stationary support, including each other and slow-moving gardeners.

The type of trellis depends on whether you are growing standard or dwarf varieties. Even the shortest vines will flop into a tangled mass without some type of support. Two-foot-tall (0.5 m) pea fences, or even just branches pushed into the soil alongside the plants, will take care of the dwarfs, but the taller-growing varieties need a more substantial support. A pea trellis must be tall enough to accommodate the length of the vines, which will produce fruit all the way to their tops.

Vertical fences made of wire mesh or rows of twine strung either vertically or horizontally work well, though vines will need occasional guidance to find their way from one horizontal “rung” to the next. Similarly constructed A-frames are perfect for peas because two double rows can be grown side by side. Tepees are also good pea trellises.

Until the vines find the plant support, they may need a little help. Lean the young vines into the support material, perhaps by weaving the tips of the vines among the strands. Once the tendrils contact the support, they will coil around tightly as the vine continues to grow upward. No tying or additional support is necessary.

Peas are very hardy in that they grow vigorously, can withstand frost, and are fairly drought tolerant, but they cannot take the heat. Early planting is a must. The seeds must be kept moist to germinate, but once they sprout, they require surprisingly little water until they flower. At this point, 1 inch (2.5 cm) of water per week will suffice.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Vertical Vegetables and Fruits: Creative Gardening Techniques for Growing Up in Small Spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart and published by Storey Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Vertical Vegetables and Fruits.