Peas are one of the vegetable grower’s favourite plants. From marrowfat to petite-pois, round seeded to wrinkled, edible podded to shelling and short (requiring little or no support) to enormously tall (almost requiring scaffolding) there is a pea variety to satisfy just about everyone. Easy and fun to grow, it’s well worth making room for some in your garden.
Growing marrowfat vs. petit-pois peas
Marrowfat peas are simply green peas left to mature and dry on the vine. They can be stored in airtight containers and make great mushy peas, soups etc. Most pea varieties will eventually reach a ‘marrowfat’ stage, but some are more suitable than others.
Petite-pois is French for ‘small peas’. Almost any pea, if picked early enough, will supply you with small peas which will be very sweet and tasty. Some varieties have been bred to produce smaller peas than others.
Growing round vs. wrinkled peas
Generally, round seed peas can survive colder, damper conditions than their wrinkled cousins. This means they are often sown in the autumn to overwinter and mature in early spring. Round-seeded peas become starchy faster than wrinkled, and while that doesn’t matter for ‘mushy’ peas it means they are not always great as shelled peas. Frost will make pea plants wilt, and if the stems fold over they are unlikely to recover, so support is a must. Even so, in a serious cold snap you may lose the lot. A polytunnel or greenhouse can give them the extra protection they need, and helps them grow and mature faster when spring finally arrives.
Wrinkled seed peas are much less hardy and it’s not worth trying to overwinter them. These include most of the good shelling peas and also the ‘edible pod’ varieties – see below.
Round seed: Douce Provence
Wrinkled seed: Green Shaft, Kelvedon Wonder
Growing ‘fat’ vs. ‘flat’ edible-podded peas
Sugarsnaps are an edible-podded ‘fat’ pea, and they are amazing. They’re best home-grown (you just can’t get the same quality from shops) and are at their sweetest when the pods really fatten up, just before the sugar starts to convert to starch. Don’t bother to cook them – just pick, and eat.
Snow, or ‘mangetout’ (French for ‘eat all’) peas are picked while the pods are still flat, making them a good choice for an early crop as you don’t have to wait for the peas to form. Not as sweet as sugarsnap, they are a delicious addition to meals such as stir-fries.
Fat: Sugarsnap, Sugar Ann
Flat: Norli, Carouby de Mausanne
Growing tall vs. short peas
Traditional varieties of peas are generally tall (2+ metres) and are ideal for a garden with limited space. They are now more difficult to find since the agricultural industry wants shorter plants that can be picked by machine. However, tall pea varieties give you the double bonus of great flavour as well as a long harvest season – so long as you provide strong support and have a good ladder for harvest time.
It’s easy to underestimate just how big and heavy tall pea plants can become once the pods start to fill. What might have seemed like an adequate support early in the season might suddenly turn out not to be strong enough. It’s much harder to reinforce supports later, so o make sure you build for strength in the first place.
Some varieties of short peas only grow 25-35cms tall and tie to each other with tendrils. These need no additional support but aren’t likely to provide a long season. Nevertheless, as so little time is spent developing height, they tend to be the earliest peas in the garden and will tide you over until the taller varieties have grown.
Tall: Telephone, Alderman
Short: Markana, Oskar (an incredibly early variety)
Pea growing tips
Sow round varieties in September and October for over-wintering, and wrinkled seeds in February (under cover) or March (outside). A common misconception is that because the legumes create nitrogen-bearing nodules on their roots, they need no additional nutrients. Not so. While they do form nodules, they only do so closer to maturity – and they need feeding until then. Add some compost before sowing, but don’t overdo it or you may end up with a fine crop of leaves but not many peas. Peas can cope with a wide range of soils from sand to heavy clay.
Rodents will dig up peas even if the plant is already several centimetres tall. If this is a problem in your area, start the seeds in biodegradable pots. That way they can grow past the ‘mice’ stage before being set out, and you won’t disturb the roots when planting them.
If you see ‘v’ shaped chunks missing from leaves on young plants, it’s a sure sign that birds have found them. Net them securely, but far enough away from the plants so that pea tendrils don’t grip the netting. You can then remove it when the plants are tall enough to grow away from any damage.
If you find tiny maggots when shelling peas it means they have been attacked by the Pea Moth. To avoid this, sow very early and/or very late, avoiding the time when the adult moths are most common.
Support: Strong, strong, strong. And make sure you allow enough room for the width of the row, not just its length. Plants can easily spread 50cms away from the supports on both sides, especially the side facing the sun.
Harvesting: Keep picking your peas, or the plants will stop producing them. If some pods look as if they’re a bit past it, pick them even if you’re not going to eat them, or the plant will shut down for the season. Peas are a cool-weather crop and will usually stop producing if temperatures rise to over 20°C (68°F).
Seed saving: Peas are self-pollinating and so it’s very easy to save seeds for next year. However, don’t wait too long, especially if you have any mice around. Once they get a taste for dried peas, they’ll snag the lot! Try to wait until the pods have begun to dry out – the outer casing becomes much thinner and brittle. At this point, even if the peas inside are still soft, you can harvest the pods – or even entire plants. The peas should be allowed to air-dry in a protected spot until they’re completely hard, at which point they can be safely stored for next year – or soup!