Popular Varieties: Onward, Hurst Green Shaft, Kelvedon Wonder
Store At: Refrigerated; eat as soon as possible after picking, the sugars turn to starch quickly.
Comes From: Temperate zones; it is a cool weather crop and does not do well over 20°C.
Seasonality: June to September
What is it about peas that evoke such a memory of childhood? It's odd how popping open such a simple pod to find it bursting full of these little bombs of sugar is so entrancing, and it's hard to resist popping them straight in the mouth.
Peas are one of those crops that just must be grown in the home garden to experience the proper taste, for as soon as peas are picked off the plant, they start converting their sugars to starches. If you're buying in a supermarket or grocers, it could be anywhere from 3-7 days since they've been on the plant, or longer, and not many of the pods will taste that good. Some will though - look for the medium sized ones, rather than the ones bulging and splitting at the sides with huge peas in. They may look good, but they won't taste as good.
Of course, you don't have to go for the regular peas; there are other types around, such as mangetout and sugarsnap. These varieties typically have much smaller peas in, but the peas are not removed; the pods should be topped and tailed and any stringiness removed, then cooked (boiled or steamed) in their entirety, pod and all. They should only be cooked for a few minutes, just enough to soften them a little, but to still retain a hint of crunchiness.
Did we mention how easy and fun peas are to grow? Pop some in a pot, and you'll get practically complete (100%) germination. A few weeks later, plant them alongside some canes or netting, protect them from the birds when they're young, and little more than a month later you'll be rewarded with one of the finest tasting vegetables available.
Peas are one of the oldest crops known to man. It is known for sure that they were originally cultivated around the same time as wheat and barley, around about 7,800 BC, but recently evidence has been uncovered of peas in archaeological dig sites in the Middle or Near East which date back to nearly 10,000 BC, although it is not known whether this represents cultivated varieties or wild strains. By 2,000 BC, pea cultivation had spread throughout Europe and east into India and China.
Peas were exceptionally popular in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, being consumed in great quantities. It is believed that the Romans introduced them into Britain. In Ancient Greece they were known as pison, which translates to "peason" in English. This eventually got shortened to "pease" around about the reign of Charles I, and by the the 18th century, this finally dropped to "pea".
However despite this popularity of peas, one thing hasn't been clear to this point - all this eating of peas was done with old varieties of peas, which were eaten dried or ground! The tender, delicious varieties we see today were developed in the 16th Century by Italian gardeners, and even then it took nearly a century before the new varieties would replace the older ones.
Peas were introduced to America just after the time of Christopher Columbus, and of course, as with many vegetables, they were championed by President Thomas Jefferson, who listed them as his favourite vegetable; indeed, he and his friends ran annual pea competitions, to see who could grow them the earliest.
The primary use for peas is of course eating, but in many ways, shapes and forms.
The obvious and first use is steamed or boiled, for a very short time; they should still retain some crunchiness to have the best taste. They can also be frozen, canned or dried, or even made into flour. Pea growing tips can also be eaten raw, and the green foliage of the plant is used as a vegetable in its own right in parts of Asia and Africa The leaves can also be used as a pot herb.
Some varieties such as sugarsnap or mangetout are grown for their young pods, which are eaten whole.
Peas are a cool weather crop; they will start growing when the temperatures reach 10°C, grow best between 15 and 20°C, and some varieties stop growing at much over 20°C. In contrast, winter hardy varieties can survive temperatures down to -10°C with ease.
Peas are so easy to grow it's a crime not trying it! One of the best ways we've found is to pop some peas in a pot of compost, planting them about an inch deep; in a 4" (10cm) diameter pot, you can get 6 or 7 seeds. Put them in a propagator on a windowledge or in a greenhouse, starting in late March, and within 2 weeks they'll be about 3 inches high and ready for planting out. You can start them straight in the ground, but they won't germinate easily until early to Mid May with any kind of reliability, when the soil temperatures warm up. Apparently peas don't like their roots being disturbed, but we've had no problem with breaking 8-10 plants out of a small pot and planting them; they're currently racing their way up the supports as we write this!
Peas prefer well dug soil with plenty of organic material in. Don't add any nitrogen to the soil though, peas are a nitrogen fixing crop - that is, they extract nitrogen from the air, and convert it into nitrates stored in the soil.
Either way, there are plenty of ways to grow them. Ideally, they like twiggy support, so if you have any branches to take off any trees, keep the smaller bits to grow peas up. Or, canes work just fine - either do small wigwams of bamboo canes, or setup some netting between canes as we do, and let the peas climb the netting. They'll do this with the greatest of ease, using tendrils.
In the early stages of growth, they are very attractive to birds, particularly sparrows, and require protection. There are lots of different ways of doing this; our favourite is short twigs or canes sticking out of the soil around them, or some netting over the top. Another method we\'re trialling is some old CDs dangling from string above the peas which is apparently very reliable at keeping birds off.
Peas have two requirements. The first one is moisture; especially when it's dry, don't let peas get too dry; if they do, they'll just put all their energy into producing the seeds and then die. They don't need much water until the first flowers appear, but then they should be well watered. The amount of water they are given is sometimes reflected in the peas; nice succulent juicy peas are far tastier than dry, mealy peas!
The second requirement is harvesting! The more you harvest, the more you get is sometimes the rule. The longer you keep picking the pods, the more they'll keep growing, until the plant is exhausted, usually after a couple of months.
When finished, don't pull the plants out - instead, chop the tops off and dig the roots into the soil. The roots of peas are covered in little nodules which contain the nitrogen pulled out of the air, and digging them into the soil incorporates this nitrogen ready for the next crop.
- How to grow peas
- Growing Peas
- Newcrop Fact Sheet
- Peas on Wikipedia
There are three different types of peas; sugarsnap and mangetout, which are both eaten as pods (including the varieties Delikett and Sugar Ann), and “regular” peas, which are broken into first and second early, and maincrop, which include varieties such as Kelvedon Wonder, Fortune, Hurst Green Shaft and Onward.
A sugar snap variety, Sugar Ann has pale green, fleshy, sweet pods, and is ideal raw or in stir fries. They are very early, and heavy yielding, and with successional sowing the picking season can be very long.
A first early variety, this is a newly bred British variety for petis pois; they have small, dark green peas which hold their colour and taste after freezing.
Hurst Green Shaft
A superbly yielding variety, Hurst Green Shaft have 9-11 peas per pod. It is a short plant, up to 30 inches tall, as a second early variety.
An early variety, Kelvedon Wonder is a classic, reliable variety, and is very disease resistant.
Probably the most widely grown main crop variety, Onward produces jam-packed double podded wrinkled peas, with enormous yields and excellent flavour.
A first early variety, Round has very good winter hardiness, and has very good flavour.