The legume family, which is largely made up of peas and beans, is vital for us organic gardeners because of its ability to provide its own nitrogen. This is one of the great miracles of nature. Leguminous plants are able to grab nitrogen from the air and hold it on bacteria, which are found in little white nodules on their roots. They then distribute that nitrogen (one of the three vital elements for successful plant growth – the other two being phosphate and potassium) to nourish themselves, whilst also leaving it behind in the soil for other plants to use.
So for those of you who struggle to get loads of fertility into your garden or your container soil the legume family is perfect for you.
Amongst all the peas and beans there are it is peas that are my absolute favourite. I like them raw, cooked, straight from the plant, in salads, mange tout, sugar snap, you name it. And all the time I am enjoying them I am smug and happy that they are doing my soil good!
Like most vegetable plants with big seed peas are uncomplicated when it comes to soil types. They will grow happily in any garden soil from thin sand to heavy clay. This is because they have good thick roots that get down into any soil and quickly start nourishing themselves through their nitrogen-fixing ability.
If you are growing them in a container you can use any soil or compost you like and be confident of good results.
One of the tricks to know for good peas is that in the cool temperate zone of north Western Europe peas grow best in the first half of the season. Don’t sow peas after the middle of June and expect good results. The best peas always come before midsummer. This is mainly because they prefer the cooler temperatures of the early part of the growing season.
The spacing for peas is simple. Whether you are growing in a row in the garden or in a container they need three inches or five centimetres between seeds.
Peas come in all shapes and sizes from early varieties that can be sown in January and be cropping by June, to big, lazy marrowfat peas that are otherwise known as mushy peas. I grow four types of peas, Feltham First which is an early, Hurst Greenshaft which is a bit later and the best tasting pea ever, Sugar Snap which is the type you eat whole with peas inside, and Carouby de Moussane, a tall mange tout pea with a beautiful purple flower which you also eat whole but is flat.
All peas need support because they are climbing plants. Thankfully they have tendrils, little curly leaf extensions that help them to cling on to the support, but they must have supports for that to happen. You can use solid twigs that you drive into the ground, or a have a post at each end of the row with wires or netting slung between the posts.
You need to get the support system in place before the plants get more than a few centimetres high otherwise you risk breaking them. You also need to know how high your cop will get to determine the height of your supports. The seed packet will indicate this It might be anywhere between 0.75m for Feltham First to 2m+ for Carouby de Moussane.
Netting is good because you can use it year after year, but it is a bit of a struggle cleaning the old dead foliage out of it at the end of the season.
I use twigs because I have them and I can recycle them in other ways once the crop is finished, mainly as kindling.
The loveliest thing with peas is that the moment you see any swelling it is time to start picking. The smaller the pea the more succulent it will be. It’s the same with mange tout. These need to picked when they are small because they get stringy very quickly harvest.
If you get a glut and can’t keep up with fresh eating then pick, pod and blanche the peas in boiling water for one minute before freezing them. They keep very well this way.
Saving seed and crop removal
Peas are a very good crop to save seed from for next year. Saving you money in the process. After you have been harvesting for a couple of weeks and the peas become fewer, the foliage begins to lose its strong green colour and the crop generally appears to be on the wane, earmark some big, juicy pods for seed saving.
Let the crop die off, leave it in the ground and notice that the pea pods will change colour from green to brown. If you need to remove the crop to make way for something else go ahead and do son while being sure to remove the drying pea pods. Detach them from the plants and lay them out in the sun to dry indoors. Over the course of a week or so the pod will become parchment like and almost crispy. Remove the peas when they are bullet-hard, dry and wrinkly and store them in a tin where the mice can’t get them.
To remove the crop simply pull it out of the ground and take it to the compost heap. It might need some chopping up because compost heaps and bins are not good at digesting big balls of stringy foliage with lots of air spaces.
Pests and Diseases
The problems arrive late in the season which is why I recommend peas as a crop to grow before midsummer. The crop may suffer from powdery mildew which affects both foliage and pods. Much worse is the attention of the pea moth, the grub of which will burrow through the pod and into the peas themselves. You rarely get these before June but in late summer they pose a real threat and will ruin a crop. Another good reason to get your peas grown early. Also they can be removed and make space for late season salads or even winter brassicas.
In the early part of the season pea seed is vulnerable to mice at a time of year when the furry ones are on the look out for extra food. Because they burrow underground it can be a problem in the garden. On account of this you might prefer to raise peas in trays or modules and transplant them to try and keep the mice away at the sowing/germination stage.
Cooking and nutrition.
A good source of protein peas are also high in vitamins. The only possible way to cook peas is to steam them for a couple of minutes until they either split open like baby broad beans or show little dimples in the skin. The best way of all to eat them is raw.