Plant Peas, Please

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Garden pea vines with pods

Plant pea seeds outdoors in February for spring harvest.

Garden peas and their relatives, snow peas and sugar snaps, are among the earliest vegetables gardeners can plant for spring harvest. These simple and productive crops can be grown by anyone with a small sunny area and can be sown outdoors without protection in central North Carolina as early as late January.

When and where to plant

Peas grow best in full sun and well-drained soil that is not too acidic, ideally with a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.5. If you are unsure of your soil’s pH level, contact your local Extension office to learn how to have a sample analyzed. You can also grow peas in large containers filled with potting soil, but may need to plant several containers, each sown with several pea seed, to yield enough for “a mess of peas”.

Pea seed germinate when soil temperatures reach 45 degrees. Currently soil temperatures in central North Carolina are averaging in the mid to upper 40’s and are steadily rising as air temperature and day length increase. Seed planted in colder soils will sit in the ground until temperatures warm.

When deciding how much area to plant keep in mind a 100’ row of garden peas will yield around 40 pounds of peas, while the same length row of sugar snaps or snow peas can yield 65+ pounds of pods over a three to four week harvest period. If you’re growing in containers, snow peas or sugar snaps may be a better option since they are more productive. Sugar snaps are my favorite because they are so versatile and delicious – plus there is no waste since you eat the peas and the pod!

Successive sowings can be made every three weeks to prolong the harvest season. Make the last planting before mid-March to allow enough time for the peas to mature before hot weather sets in. Garden, snap and snow peas that mature when temperatures are above 80° will be starchy and tough, though snap and snow peas typically tolerate warmer temperatures better than garden peas.

In heavy clay soils, peas benefit from being planted in mounded rows, which improve drainage, or in raised beds. One way to get your peas in on time and avoid working in wet soils is to prepare your planting rows in the fall.

Planting tips

Soaking pea seeds in a jar of water for six to eight hours immediately before planting will help them germinate faster but is not absolutely necessary. Seeds may also be treated with Rhizobium inoculant, a natural bacterium that helps peas and other legumes convert nitrogen from the air into a form plants can use. If you are planting peas in an area where peas or beans have not grown before, treating pea seeds with inoculant before planting may improve growth. Pea inoculum can be purchased from garden centers or online seed companies.

To apply inoculant simply pour some into a bag, add the seeds and shake until the peas are coated. Immediately plant treated seed in the garden. Sow seeds an inch deep and one to two inches apart. Water well after sowing and keep the soil moist until seedlings begin to emerge, usually within seven to ten days. Germination will take longer in colder soils. After planting, install a low, three to four foot tall trellis such as pea fencing, chicken wire or a latticework of twiggy branches for the vines to climb upon. High fertility will cause excessive vine growth and poor yields so be conservative with fertilizer applications.

Harvest tips

Fresh peas will be ready to harvest 65 to 80 days after planting. When the pea pods swell they are ready to be picked. Garden peas and sugar snaps are of the best quality when they are fully expanded but immature, before they become hard and starchy. Snow peas should be harvested when the pods are still flat. Pick garden peas immediately before you plant to shell and cook them – their quality and sweetness deteriorates rapidly; Sugar snaps and snow peas keep longer – pods stored in the refrigerator for three to five days post-harvest will taste almost as good as those freshly picked.

Learn more from these Extension resources:

Check soil temperatures and other weather conditions via the CRONOS network

Use Extension Search to find research based information from Cooperative Extension systems across the U.S.

Visit your local Cooperative Extension office to learn more about gardening and landscape care. Go to https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/local-county-center to find your county Extension center.

Subscribe to the Chatham Gardener email list to receive timely updates on sustainable lawn, garden, and landscape care for the central NC Piedmont.