My children have taught me that it is more fun to graze a garden than to harvest its produce, bring it into the house, wash it, prepare it, or cook it, or refrigerate it for later.
Apologies to my wife. I used to grow snap peas for her because she likes to make stir fries, but these days all of our garden peas are the shelling types because that’s what the kids like to graze on.
It’s here in late January or early February that the plants start to have enough plump pods to draw the kids. They park next to the plants and pick away.
Timing and climate
The pea plants that we are grazing on now were sown back in October. That’s one of the two best times to sow peas in Southern California.
Peas like it cool. So they get up and growing through the fall as it cools down from summer, then the plants slow down a bit in December when the days are short, but speed up again when days lengthen in January.
The other best time to sow peas is now, late January or early February. Sow them now and they grow fast and taste great all the way through spring.
It is also fine to sow or plant peas anytime between October and February. Earlier than October has never worked so well for me, however. Perhaps it’s because it’s still too warm. Between 55 and 65 is said to be ideal. Later than February reduces your harvest since temperatures get uncomfortably warm for peas by summer.
Cool does not mean shady
Even though peas like cool temperatures, they also like lots of sun. My best pea crops have grown through the winter in locations that get sun all day long.
Yet! I made a mistake with one row of peas this last October and sowed them where they are in the shade of our house starting at lunch time. Here on February 1 they are barely starting to produce.
Compare these to the peas in the photo above taken in early February a couple years ago. Those plants were also sown in October, but in full sun, and they were much bigger and productive. What a difference sunshine can make.
Sowing and planting
My tried and true method for sowing peas is to first make sure the garden soil is thoroughly wet. In October, that might mean watering. In February, it’s likely that the rain has already done that for you.
Second, I use a stick to poke holes a knuckle or two deep and a couple inches apart. The peas can be dropped right in the holes, covered up, watered lightly to settle the soil, and then left on their own. No more watering until the pea plants are up and growing with a few leaves. In fact, if you insist on watering before the plants are up and growing, there’s a chance you’ll rot the seeds. Resist that urge.
That’s the way I usually do it. However, sometimes I pre-soak the seeds. Just drop them in a cup of water for a day or two before sowing.
It’s unnecessary, but sometimes I do it for the October sowing because October can still be very warm and the soil hasn’t been rained on for months and I just like knowing the seeds are fully imbibed before being sown.
Also, I sometimes sow my seeds in trays instead of directly in the garden. The advantage of this is in saving time and garden space.
It’s the same as buying pea seedlings at a nursery. You don’t take up weeks of garden space while seeds are germinating and getting up to size there.
Pea plants transplant just fine. But you do have to be aware that they grow fast and their roots get big and bound in the modules before the tops (leaves) of the plants look big. They have extremely vigorous roots. Because of this, if buying seedlings at a nursery, I’d choose small plants rather than large rootbound ones.
My preference is for sowing peas instead of buying seedlings though. They’re just so easy to succeed at. Small children can even do it well since the seeds are so big and easy to handle. My boys ages three and five sowed these peas all on their own on December 18.
I also use many of my own saved pea seeds. Toward the end of the harvest season in spring, I let some pods that are particularly big and full of peas continue developing on the plant until they start to yellow and dry. At that point, I pick them and let them fully dry in my garage. They keep well for months, until it’s time to sow peas again in October.
The plants I’ve grown from my own saved seed have always produced well. Oddly, I did get one plant this year that has abnormally colorful flowers. If it tastes good, then I’ll save a couple of its pods for seed and see if the color comes through in its progeny.
If you want to eat the whole pod, then you’ll grow edible-pod types, also called snap or sugar snap or snow peas. Their pods are more tender and don’t have a fibrous string like the shelling types have. You’ll be disappointed if you want to eat the whole pod but don’t grow edible-pod varieties. There are lots of good edible-pod varieties, many with “Oregon” or “Sugar” or “Snap” in their names.
Some varieties of peas grow taller than others. The shorter varieties of peas are often called bush or dwarf and they can be grown without anything to climb up, but it’s best to plant two rows so the plants can lean on and grab each other. They climb on their neighbors to a degree.
The more you can get any pea plant to grow up off the ground rather than crawl on the ground, the easier it will be to harvest. And the taller ones, usually called climbing or pole types, definitely grow best if given something to climb. They will wrap their tendrils around things and climb surprisingly high.
Lots of structures can work: chain link fences, netting, poles, tomato cages. The way I most often provide something for my peas to climb on is by placing stakes at the ends of the rows (and in the middle if rows are long) and running twine between the stakes. It works although it is a chore.
You can wait until the plants are five or six inches tall, then run twine on either side of them to gather the plants together and get them standing more erect. Then run horizontal lines of twine every five inches or so up the stakes. Pea plants climb such a set up pretty well for me.
In winter, picking peas is leisurely. They grow slowly in winter. In spring, they seem to go from too slim to too fat every time you turn your back. In spring, you need to harvest almost every day.
For edible-pod types, harvest before the peas bulge much inside the pod. For shelling peas, they’re best harvested when the pods are fat but before they lose their green shine. Wait just a bit too long and the peas will be tough and starchy. Harvest too early and the peas will be small but at least they’ll be tender and sweet.
For best results, graze daily by gathering a handful to eat with your brother on the shady porch.
Or, if you’re older and stronger, haul loads up the nearest rock.
The only disease or pest that I’ve experienced on peas is powdery mildew. But it’s nothing to worry about. Powdery mildew appears on pea plants every year as it warms in spring. I do nothing to fight it. Keep harvesting until the powdery mildew gets too bad and the pea plants decline.
Then enjoy the change of seasons. Sorry boys, everything has a season. Let’s plant some tomatoes or corn or melons here. Go grab an apricot or a nectarine to snack on.
Yes, yes, it was cool that you got the peas to climb up the sunflowers.
But now it’s the sunflowers’ turn.
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