Oh! Sweet Pea -- A Cool Season Delight

Oh! Sweet Pea-A Cool Season Delight!

Here is a crop that is a challenge to grow but literally feeds itself and is one of those vegetables that is particularly delicious when consumed minutes after harvest. We are talking about Peas Pisum sativum , a cool season crop, not to be confused with southern peas such as black eyed and crowder peas.

In the early days of our country peas were like tomatoes are today, perhaps the most popular garden crop. Thomas Jefferson, imagepart-time president and full-time gardener, was renowned for his interest in peas. He grew 15 different types of peas in his garden at Monticello. He enjoyed competing with his neighbors to see who would produce the first crop of peas each spring. The winner would serve the new peas to the others in celebration of winning the contest.

Unfortunately, we are not as lucky as Jefferson was when it comes to the ideal climate for growing peas. The trick to growing peas successfully in Texas involves planting them in the fall, not Spring; about 8 to 10 weeks before your average freeze date. Those of you who garden in far South Texas can safely plant peas in the winter, too, as long as they mature before temperatures exceed 75 degrees. Peas need to grow and mature during cool weather and can handle temperatures down to the mid 20-degree range but a freeze during bloom set can damage the flowers and result in a failed crop. So, you can see, some luck with the weather can be helpful as well.

Types of Peas

There are several types of peas including English peas; snow peas and sugar snap peas. Some varieties are dwarf, making them excellent choices for small gardens. image As with any vegetable you should grow what you like to eat. Personally, it is hard to beat a mess of freshly picked sugar snap peas lightly steamed and drizzled in butter. But some folks like to grow dried peas to use in soups and stews or snow peas as a delicate addition to Chinese and other oriental dishes.

The other main difference between peas is that some varieties have wrinkled seed and some are smooth. The wrinkled seed varieties are usually sweeter but more sensitive to cold weather. If you are planting both types of seed try planting the wrinkled seed variety as an early crop followed in a few weeks by the smooth seeded variety to extend your harvest.

Soil Preparation

Peas will grow on just about any soil type from sand to heavy clay and prefer a soil pH between 6.5 and 7.5. If your soil is outside that range consider modifying it with lime if it is acid or with iron if it is alkaline. Peas are a legume and have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air so they usually do not need much supplemental fertilizer. They form a beneficial relationship with bacteria that is usually present in the soil. If this is the first time you have grown peas or other legumes in your garden you may want to inoculate your seed with a powdered form of this bacteria. You can purchase this innoculant from most mail order seed companies and local garden centers. To apply simply dampen the seed and place it along with the powder into a paper bag and shake well just before planting.

If you are planting peas where you gardened this past spring then imageyour soil fertility should be sufficient. If you are in doubt, add a half-pound of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 20 feet of row or about ¼ pound of well-rotted barnyard manure per square foot. Too much fertilizer will result big vines but few peas so do not overdo it.

Additionally, peas must have good drainage so consider using raised beds if you garden in soggy, clay soil. Soil crusting can be a problem with peas as well as other legumes as they will literally pull their heads off as they emerge from dry, crusted soil. To help eliminate this problem pre-soak the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches just prior to planting and keep the soil moist as the seedlings emerge.

How To Plant

Rows should be spaced as wide as the expected mature height of the variety since this varies from variety to variety. If you are planting a variety that is expected to reach a height of 36 inches then plant your rows at least 36 inches a part. You can plant double rows of dwarf varieties, 12 to 14 inches apart and allow several feet between double rows for air circulation and to serve as a walkway. Dig a shallow furrow and sprinkle the seed about two to three inches apart. If the weather cooperates, the seed should emerge within a week to 12 days. At this time, dwarf varieties should be thinned to 3-inch spacing while taller varieties should be thinned to a 5-inch spacing. Rather than pulling the plants up when thinning, use a pair of scissors to snip them so as not to damage the roots of the remaining plants.

We like to plant ours dwarf peas the lazy way. That is, we prepare a bed about 36 inches across. Then we scatter our seed across the bed about 3 to 4 inches apart and rake the seed into the soil. A few of the seed will stay on top but we always get a good stand this way and it saves our backs.

Provide Support

For best result provide some type of support for your peas right after you plant them. All varieties (even the dwarf ones) need some support. You can use chicken wire, tomato cages or short pieces of brush/tree branches. Make sure the support is adequate for the variety you planted. If you wait until your peas are up and growing you may damage the plants and their roots by waiting to install support then.


If you are lucky Mother Nature will supply all the water that your peas will need to be productive. Check you vines often and if the soil is dry at a depth of one inch go ahead and soak the soil to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. If you allow the soil to dry out between watering your vines will shed their blooms, resulting a poor crop. Also, apply a 2 to 3 inch layer of mulch such as grass clippings or leaves to the bed soon after your seeds have emerged.

Insects, Disease

Few insects bother peas however; aphids can be can be a problem. You can control them with an insecticidal soap or an approved such as malathion. Occasionally, other foliage feeding insects like grasshoppers can be a problem. Fiber row cover can be used successfully to protect young pea plants from insect damage until they become well established.

Powdery mildew can literally wipe out a crop of peas. Be sure to provide good air circulation around your plants, use drip irrigation, harvest only when dry and apply sulphur at the first sign of mildew. Plants infected by Powdery mildew look like they have been dusted with baby powder.


When you harvest depends on which type of pea you are growing but always try to harvest peas just before you plan to eat them as the sugar that makes them sweet will convert rather quickly to starch. And if you are the first to harvest a crop of sweet, succulent peas, do as Thomas Jefferson did, give us a call and we would be happy to enjoy them with you.


Willhite Seed Company

PO Box 23

Poolville, TX 76487

(800) 828-1840