Few things say "spring" like that first taste of peas, picked fresh from the garden. Once you've grown your own, those frozen (or canned) peas at the supermarket just don't measure up anymore. They're barely even the same food!
Luckily, peas are easy to grow in any size garden, in the ground or in containers. The only real tricks to growing peas are planting them at the right time (avoiding the heat of summer -- they stop producing once it gets hot) and providing plenty of water. Manage those two things, and if you have them planted in the right spot, you'll have plenty of fresh peas this spring (or fall!)
Types of Peas
When many of us think of peas, we think of shelling peas. If you're a fan of Asian cuisine, you've no doubt become familiar with snow peas as well. Snap peas are delectable, with their crisp, edible pods. And soup peas, which don't get enough press in my humble opinion, are necessary if you love a good bowl of split pea soup in the middle of winter as much as I do.
Shelling Peas: These are also sometimes called "English peas." These are the peas you grow to harvest the tiny round peas inside the pods. They are ready to harvest when the pods are plump and begin to develop a waxy-looking sheen.
Snap Peas: Snap peas have edible pods, and are ready to harvest when the pod is starting to plump up. They are delicious in soups, stews, or for fresh snacking.
Snow Peas: These tender edible-podded peas are ready to harvest when they are three inches long and the peas inside the pod are just starting to plump up.
Soup Peas: These peas, also known as "split peas," are left to dry on the vine. They're ready to harvest and store in airtight containers once the pod has dried to a tan color.
The traditional advice is to plant peas on St. Patrick's Day. Like most traditional wisdom, it's true...some of the time. While you do want to plant your peas as early as possible so to take full advantage of cool, perfect pea producing weather, if you plant them too soon they won't germinate any faster. Peas don't like very cold, waterlogged soil. In general, try to plant your peas directly in the garden about four weeks before your last frost date.
To plant peas: Soak the seeds in water overnight to speed germination. If you haven't grown peas in that area of the garden before, sprinkle the seeds with legume inoculant (which often comes with the peas, but you can buy it in any garden center or nursery). Select an area in full sun, and prepare the soil by loosening it to at least 8 inches. Install a trellis, because most peas need something to clamber up on. Plant the peas in two rows, one on each side of the trellis. The peas should be planted one to two inches apart. You won't need to thin them -- they will grow perfectly with this spacing. Keep the area moist until peas germinate, which usually takes about a week to ten days, sooner if you've soaked them first.
How to Grow Peas
Peas are a pretty care-free crop. Be sure to keep them moist, especially once they start producing blossoms. Once the vines are about a foot tall, mulch them heavily with straw to keep the soil as cool as possible and help retain moisture. Once the weather gets consistently hot, the vines will stop producing. Pull them out (leaving the roots in the soil, if possible -- they will add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil) compost them, and plant broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, or Brussels sprouts. All of these crops are notorious nitrogen hogs that will benefit from the additional nitrogen in the soil from growing the peas.
How to Harvest Peas
When the peas are ready (see "Types of Peas," above, to determine when that is based on which type of pea you're growing) use two hands to harvest your peas. Use one hand to hold onto the vine, and the other to pluck the pod from the vine. Trying to pull the peas off with one hand damages the vines, and you could end up ripping off more vine than you intended.
As you can see, peas are an easy crop to grow in spring. With a little planning and a little extra babying, a fall crop of peas is also possible in northern climates. But even if you are only able to grow peas in spring, they are well worth the little bit of effort you put into them!