Question: I would like to grow peas. Should I plant them in the fall or spring? And what growing conditions do they require?
Answer: Peas thrive in the cool weather that fall provides. Some Southern California gardeners plant two crops of peas--one in September and another in February, when the last peas are harvested from the previous crop.
Warm weather, however, shortens the harvest season. Once temperatures reach 90 degrees, pea production dramatically declines. The ideal temperature is 70 degrees during the day and 50 degrees at night.
The following are some suggestions that will help you grow a successful crop of peas:
* Plant peas in an area with full sun and well-drained soil that has been amended with compost or other organic matter.
* Plant seeds in September or October. They should be ready to harvest about 60 to 70 days after planting, depending on variety.
* Add a low-nitrogen fertilizer such as blood meal to the soil before you plant. Although established pea vines such as legumes can pull 70% of the nitrogen they need from the air, young pea plants need the extra nitrogen to get started. To assure a large harvest, many gardeners purchase rhizobia to inoculate their seed before planting. Nodules on the plant roots form a relationship with these tiny bacteria (rhizobia) and through this relationship extract nitrogen form the air.
These rhizobia are available via mail order from seed companies and come with directions for use. It is important that you get the correct rhizobium for peas, and that it is fresh and alive when it is used.
* Peas are generally sown 1 to 2 inches deep and 1 to 2 inches apart in rows 24 to 36 inches apart. Kept moist, they should germinate in about seven to 14 days. Many gardeners soak the seeds overnight in moist paper towels to soften the seed coat and hasten germination. If you choose to do this, do not soak them too long because they might become overly soft and rot. Use caution so as not to damage the tiny white shoot that will appear when it sprouts.
* Peas need a consistent supply of water for optimum production. Apply water in a furrow or with drip or soaker hoses. These methods are preferable to overhead irrigation because wet foliage can promote fungal diseases such as mildew.
* Provide peas with a support structure such as a trellis or tomato cages. Shorter cultivars can be grown without trellises, but production and quality will be lower. There are generally three categories of peas that you may wish to consider growing:
* China, snow or sugar peas. Snow peas are very easy to grow and rarely have germination problems. There are tall climbing varieties such as Mammoth Melting Sugar, which is a productive sweet-tasting snow pea that grows 4 to 5 feet tall and is ready to harvest in 68 days. It is resistant to fusarium wilt.
There are several bush varieties to consider, including Oregon Sugar Pod II, which has 20 5- to 30-inch vines, resistance to powdery mildew and fusarium wilt, and will be ready to harvest 65 days after planting. Oregon Giant, growing to 30 inches tall, is resistant to most pea diseases as well.
Two others to consider are Dwarf Grey Sugar, which is resistant to fusarium wilt, and Short 'n Sweet, which matures in only 50 days.
* English shelling peas (bush and vine form). English peas taste very good but require more space than the other types and they have to be shelled. There are dwarf and tall varieties and those that ripen early, mid- and late-season.
Dwarf vines to consider are Little Marvel, Progress No. 9 (Laxton's Progress) and Greater Progress. These are resistant to fusarium wilt.
Larger vines that are reputed to do well in California are Freezonian, which is resistant to most pea diseases, including fusarium wilt; Green Arrow, which is resistant to downy mildew, fusarium wilt and other viruses; and Maestro, which is resistant to Mosaic virus, fusarium wilt and other viruses.
* Snap peas (thick edible pods): There are a variety of cultivars recommended for planting in California. Some follow:
Sugar Snap is the most widely planted sugar snap type grown commercially in California. It is resistant to most diseases, grows to a height of 6 feet and is ready to harvest in about 70 days.
Sugar Ann is a 15- to 24-inch dwarf that is resistant to most diseases, including powdery mildew. It is ready to harvest in about 56 days.
Sweet Snap (semi-dwarf), Sugar Rae (dwarf), and Sugar Daddy (stringless, dwarf) are all resistant to powdery mildew.
Sugar Mel, a 2- to 3-foot tall variety, has been reported to be more heat tolerant than other sugar snaps. You might want to consider this variety if you attempt to plant a second crop in February. Unlike the others, this pea needs warmer conditions to sprout successfully. It is resistant to powdery mildew and is ready to harvest in 60 to 70 days.
Here are some recommendations when harvesting peas:
* Off-the-vine peas lose their sugar within hours, so pick, shell and eat them as soon as possible. Pick peas regularly to extend the harvest.
* Use two hands to pick the peas (one hand to hold the stem and the other to pick off the pod), to avoid pulling the vine from the ground.
* Snow peas can be harvested any time after the pod begins to emerge from the flower. Try to pick them while they are flat and the first sign of seed development. They won't have the intense sweetness if you harvest them early (before the peas swell and the pods begin to curl around). If you wait too long, they will be overripe, tough and starchy.
* Snap peas should be bright green, a bit plump and snap in two. They can be harvested any time after they emerge from the flower until they are completely filled out. Eat them whole (pod and all) or shelled.
* Begin harvesting shelled peas (whether bush or vine) once the seeds and pods are well-developed but still tender enough to crush between your fingers without breaking them in two. They should still have a sheen to them. Start checking about three weeks after the plant flowers.
Have a problem in your yard? University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Master Gardeners are here to help. These trained and certified horticultural volunteers are dedicated to extending research-based, scientifically accurate information to the public about home horticulture and pest management. They are involved with a variety of outreach programs, including the UCCE Master Garden hotline, which provides answers to specific questions. You can reach the hotline at (714) 708-1646 or send e-mail to email@example.com. Calls and e-mail are picked up daily and are generally returned within two to three days.