Peas boast an almost universal appeal. They deserve their popularity, because they are both good for you and easy to grow! In western Washington we often get cool summers that make growing tomatoes a challenge, but the true Northwest gardener just calls those "pea years."
Archaeologists and historians have unearthed peas in ancient tombs and have found dated pictures and writings discussing the virtues of the pea. They think the garden pea originated in either China or Egypt.
The Chinese believed that their emperor, Shu Nung, discovered peas 5000 years ago. Called the Chinese Father of Agriculture, he is said to have wandered around the countryside observing and collecting plants, looking for those which might be suitable for food or medicine. Potential edibles were fed to a dog, then a servant and, if both survived, the emperor himself would taste the new food.
In Norse mythology, Thor gave peas to humans as a punishment, not a gift. One version of the legend says that he sent flying dragons to use them to fill up and foul all of the wells on earth. The dragons were a little clumsy though, and some of the peas landed on fertile ground, giving the people a new vegetable. To calm and flatter the even angrier Thor, the mortals dedicated the vegetable to him and ate peas only on his day, Thursday.
The earliest charred remains of peas were found at Troy and at Thebes in Egyptian tombs of the 12th dynasty. Peas were not a common staple in early history. Romans preferred the taste of chickpeas and of certain vetch and lupine seed. In the Middle Ages, peas were regarded as Lenten fare. They were dried and kept against times of famine.
Dried peas were among the essentials needed by people preparing to sail to the American colonies. They were nutritious, would keep indefinitely and required little storage space on the ship. When English colonists arrived in America, peas were one of the first crops to be planted. A 1635 list of supplies required for one colonist for one year included "one bushell of Pease."
It was fairly late in the 17th century that Europeans started eating peas fresh. They were a delicacy and became very fashionable. Lots of breeding has been done on peas, so there are now many different kinds with different characteristics.
Depending on the variety of pea you plant, you can either bend or stretch to get them at harvest time. Peas come in dwarf (close to the ground) or climbing varieties (which will crawl in tangles and snarls, if you don't give them something to climb).
Shelling peas are meant to be shelled, since their pods are too fibrous to eat.
Snow peas or sugar peas, on the other hand, barely have any peas at all inside. Eat them when their pods are still flat and tender. This is the kind found in Chinese stir-fry meals.
Snap peas also have edible pods and they snap like green beans when ready to eat. The pod grows tight around the peas and should be picked when young and tender. Be sure to check for strings along the center vein, as some cultivars need to have the strings pulled before eating.
Peas are a cool season crop. They should be planted when the soil temperature is at least 55° F, but before it gets too warm. For those without soil thermometers, this usually means late February in sandy soils and/or raised beds and March where soils tend to be heavier. If your soil is too cold and wet when you sow your peas, chances are they won't grow and you'll have to plant them again. (Peas are one of the few vegetables that really like the kind of heavy soils we often have around Puget Sound. They may be earlier in a sandy soil, but they won't be as productive.)
To sow seeds in rows, make a furrow about two and one-half inches deep. Sprinkle bone meal (about one pound every 15-20 feet) along the bottom. Drag a stake or rake handle down the row to mix the bone meal with the soil. Sow your pea seeds thickly on top of that, a couple of seeds to an inch! The bone meal provides ample phosphorous to the young seedlings at a time when the cold soil makes it hard for the seedlings to tap into nutrients. Peas really need a soil pH of about 6, so add lime if necessary.
Peas will germinate in 1 1/2 - 2 weeks. Protect them from birds, if needed, with twigs or chicken wire placed on the soil.
If you have never grown peas in your garden before, you may want to mix pea "inoculant" (a Rhizobia bacteria mixture) into your soil. Peas are in the legume family. With the aid of soilborne bacteria they can take nitrogen gas from the air and turn it into a plant-usable form. This process, called nitrogen-fixation, happens in little root nodules. After harvest, the pea vines are sent to the compost, but many roots are left in the soil. These decay and provide nitrogen for the next crop.
PESTS AND DISEASES
As well-liked and popular as peas are, many varieties have a fatal flaw: they are susceptible to Enation Mosaic Virus. It takes just one infected aphid to transmit this lethal disease to a pea vine. Once contaminated, the vine will slowly weaken, turn yellow, make distorted pods and die. How can this be prevented? First of all, get your peas planted early and growing vigorously before the warm weather, when the aphids hatch. This way, most vines will have produced a good crop by early spring before falling prey to the ravages of the disease. Second, choose enation-resistant varieties when possible.
Powdery mildew is another troublesome disease, recognized by a whitish covering on the leaves. It's most destructive in warm weather, so again it is best to plant early and use short-season varieties. Dusting with sulfur can give control, but it may take many applications.
Pea leaf weevil is the only insect that usually troubles peas. These are the critters that make scalloped edges on young leaves until the plants grow above 6 inches. Rotate your pea plantings to avoid weevil buildup in the soil. Fertilize with blood meal, fish emulsion or manure tea to push vine growth quickly past the susceptible period.
|Maestro||Shelling||Dwarf||X||110||Multiple pickings. Mildew resistant.|
|Sugar Snap||Snap||Tall Climbing||115||Excellent flavor. Sow early.|
|Sugar Ann||Snap||Semi-dwarf||95||Very tasty|
|Green Arrow||Shelling||Semi-dwarf||X||105||May need support.|
|Oregon Sugar Pod II||Snow pea||Climbing||X||105||Prolific|
|Oregon Giant||Snow pea||Climbing||X||105||Large pods. Mildew resistant.|
|Sugar Daddy||Snap||Semi-dwarf||X||100||Stringless pods|
|Oregon Trail||Shelling||Semi-dwarf||X||120||Mildew resistant|
|Dwarf = 18-20 inches||Semi-dwarf = 24-30 inches||Climbing = 3-6 feet|
For more information contact your local WSU Extension Office.