My granddaddy, the same man who planted enough corn to feed his large family and several random church groups every year, detested peas. It didn’t matter if you called them English peas, sugar snaps, edible pod peas, or garden peas. He’d take one whiff of them cooking and start grumbling about chinaberries. The grandkids all learned early on to ask Granny before repeating anything Granddaddy said about peas least our mommas reacquaint us with their bars of soap.
Growing up, we either ate out of the garden or the freezer. If Granddaddy didn’t grow it or my daddy didn’t shoot it, we rarely ate it. English peas weren’t on the menu.
Then my college roommate introduced me to raw sugar snaps. It was love at first bite.
Now, I plant peas but not for drying, freezing, or canning. My peas are gardener snacks. These go hand in hand with ripe strawberries that scream eat me except the berries have greater odds they’ll make it back to the house.
Garden pea, field pea, spring pea, English pea, common pea, green pea, and Austrian winter pea, are all varieties of Pisum sativum L. ssp. Sativum.
Like cowpeas, these are all nitrogen fixing.
Austrian winter peas can survive temperatures as low as 0 ⁰F and are most often used as an animal forage or seeded with cereal rye as a nitrogen-fixing cover crop. They grow back after grazing. Although the greens and the peas are both edible, you grow Austrian winter peas for your dirt, not the market.
The other varieties are all marketable but are slightly less cold tolerant, surviving temperatures down to 14 ⁰F uncovered.
Peas produce best at temperatures between 55 ⁰F and 64 ⁰F.
Inoculating your peas with select strains of Rhizobia bacteria increases both their nitrogen-fixing activity and their productivity.
Typically, inoculate is sold as “X amount per pound of seed.” The exact amounts vary by producer. If you’re seed saving or ordering your seed early, wait and get your inoculate closer to your planting date. The longer it sits on the shelf, the less viable it is.
Do not buy inoculate from a supplier you do not know. These are live bacteria. Using last year’s inoculate is about as effective as dusting your seeds with sand.
Only get it from reputable farm supplies and seed stores. Don’t be afraid to ask them about the expiration date.
For a quick estimate, use the spreadsheet to calculate how much seed you need.
Peas are soil builders.
Test your soil’s nutrient levels before planting. You may not need fertilizer—too much nitrogen results in more vines and fewer peas.
Incorporate fertilizer as follows:
- 15 – 20 lbs/acre of nitrogen,
- 40 – 75 lbs/acre of phosphorus, and
- potassium as needed based on a soil test.
Incorporate 15 – 20 lbs/acre of nitrogen during pre-planting.
Should you hydroprime your peas?
Hydropriming peas for 12 – 24 hours may increase their germination rate by a few percentage points. However, their unprimed germination rate is between 93% and 98%, depending on temperature. In a lab, 96.7% unprimed versus 98.3% after hydropriming represents a statistically significant gain. However, I doubt anyone will notice a difference between the two in a garden.
Personally, this tiny increase isn’t worth the effort.
Growing your peas along a fence or string trellis will make harvesting easier. However, you must train your peas along the top rung of the trellis and not let them outgrow it. If they do, they’ll bend under their own weight and eventually crimp themselves off before they produce peas. Strong winds are also more likely damage trellised peas.
That said, trellising produces a higher quality pea. This is important if you’re growing edible pod peas for the farmer’s market.
Before planting, conduct a germination test. Compared with other crops, pea seed has an extremely short lifespan and is only viable for a few years.
Select a field with good drainage. This helps prevent root and stem rots.
Sow peas in the spring as soon as the soil temperature reaches 45⁰F. Peas germinate poorly when the temperature is above 75 ⁰F.
For fall peas, plant them 8 weeks before your first frost date. However, be aware that zones 8 and 9 may be too hot for fall peas. It depends on the year.
pH: 5.5 to 7.0
Maturity: 60 days after planting
Yield: approximately 5,000 lbs per acre.
Yes, you can start peas in the greenhouse and transplant them. I know your gardening book says you can’t. The pea seedlings currently sitting in my greenhouse disagree.
For a small pea patch, starting the peas in soil blocks and then transplanting after they get their first true leaf buys you a few more weeks to finish prepping the garden. I haven’t personally had much luck with plastic seedling pots or peat pots. I suspect this is due to their shallow root systems and transplant shock.
Row spacing: 6 – 12”*
Seed spacing: 3 – 4”
Planting depth: 1.5 – 3”
Drill seeding rate: 50 – 80 lbs/acre
Broadcast seeding rate: 90 – 100 lbs/acre.
* Note, trellis systems will increase the row spacing by as much as 6’. If using a trellis, you may wish to plant double rows.
Peas cannot outcompete weeds. Keep your peas weeded. After they’re a few inches tall, mulch them with straw or chopped leaves. This will keep the weeds under control and protect the shallow roots.
Harvesting, Storage, and Marketing
Harvest fresh-eating peas when the pods reach 3 ½” – 4” long. Some varieties may be shorter than this guideline. Hydrocool your peas as quickly as possible. Then, store them at 32 ⁰F to 36 ⁰F; 90% – 98% relative humidity.
At the Farmer’s Market
Display shelling peas, but leave most of your edible pod peas in the cooler. Use clamshells or baskets to showcase your edible pod peas.
To cut down on both packaging costs and waste, consider using paper lunch bags as packaging. Put a sticker on them with your farm’s name and contact information. This is a little more budget friendly than clamshells, and it lets you market your packaging as being environmentally friendly.
Pick your crop green and either eat them in the pod or shell them. Shelled peas may be frozen or canned. For split peas, let them dry in the field. Then thresh and winnow them.
Cover Crop Notes
In zones 5 and below, Austrian winter peas work best as an early summer cover crop. However, in zones 6 and above, they are a fall sown, winter cover crop. For fall planting, seeding begins around mid-September for the lower zones and extends through October in Zone 9. Combining them with a strong stemmed crop like cereal rye, barley, or some wheats gives them something to climb and also provides some protection from extreme weather.
To combine peas with a grain cover crop, take the recommended amount of peas per acre and multiply it by 0.75. Then take the recommended amount of grain per acre and multiply it by 0.66. This will give you the best blend.
A good snowfall also acts as an insulator and can protect the peas even when the temperature drops into the negative digits.
They detest summer. When the temperature soars above 90 ⁰F, their flowers shrivel and fall off. I don’t know if mine wilted because of the extreme temperature (for Austrian winter peas, not Georgia) or the humidity. Either way, expect problems if you experience an unusually mild winter.
To maximize their nitrogen contribution, lightly disc, till, or mow your peas immediately after full bloom.
In the southeast, winter peas consistently outproduce hairy vetch in terms of both dry matter and nitrogen. Although they can’t outcompete weeds like hairy vetch, they probably won’t take over your garden. Hairy vetch can.
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