Like corn, peas taste sweetest immediately after harvest, making them a good choice for growing in the home vegetable garden. Hundreds of varieties exist, including old-fashioned garden peas with inedible shells or edible shell varieties, such as snap peas, sugar peas, snow peas and Chinese peas. Peas come from the legume family and have been cultivated for thousands of years. They were first domesticated by Neolithic farmers 8,000 years ago in the Near East. Today, gardeners grow them for their sweet taste and crisp texture.
Peas are grown from round seeds, 1/4 inch in diameter, planted 1 to 2 inches deep in the soil. Bright pink peas have been treated with a fungicide to ward off the many diseases peas are prone to. Keep treated seeds away from children and pets. Peas don't tolerate temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's best to plant them in late March to mid-April, in temperate climates, or as soon as the soil can be worked. Peas sprout in soil that is 60 degrees Fahrenheit within nine to 13 days. In soil below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they may take four to five months. Additionally, peas need even moisture to germinate.
Peas grow on climbing vines and the first sprouts emerge as 2-inch vines with one or two small oval leaves. The plants soon begin to grow taller and produce more leaves.
Pea plants produce violet or white blossoms four weeks after germination. They are pollinated by wind and insects. Avoid heavy watering during this time, which can reduce pollination. Peas need a strong support system to climb on. Try trellises, stakes or even tree branches placed in the ground. Peas grow up to 8 feet high and spread 1/2 to 1 foot wide.
Peas develop as long, thin pods 60 days after planting, depending on conditions. Pick peas as soon as you can feel peas formed in the shells. Picking them even a day late, according to landscape designer Barbara Damrosch, can result in starchy, dry peas. Look for peas forming at the bottoms of the vines first. Snap them off carefully and eat them promptly or freeze them.
Like all legumes, peas fix nitrogen in the soil, making it more available to other plants. Rotate peas every year, planting them in a different garden location to improve soil throughout your plot. Additionally, peas are prone to some fungus that can build up in the soil. Cleaning up all garden debris in the fall and rotating crops helps prevent the spread of disease.
Pea vines are fragile and easily damaged by cultivation or by stepping on them. Pull weeds gently by hand, rather than by hoe, and keep them trellised. Additionally, feeding peas a high-nitrogen fertilizer will result in lush vegetative growth with few peas. Dig a few shovelfuls of compost or manure into the soil before planting to fertilize them instead.