Home-grown, freshly picked peas are sweet and delicious, better than any you can buy. They’re an easy crop to grow, with climbing and dwarf varieties taking up relatively little ground space, and if you sow several batches you can have harvests throughout the summer
There are several types of peas – peas for shelling (or ‘garden peas’), as well as mangetouts and sugarsnaps – all grown in a similar way. The plants come in various sizes, from tall varieties that reach 1.8m (6ft), down to dwarf varieties of just 45cm (18in), so there are choices to suit all plots.
Sow small batches every few weeks from early spring, for harvests through summer and into autumn, and pick the pods regularly to encourage more to form. You can also harvest young pea shoots, to add to salads.
Month by Month
Peas are more varied than you might expect – there are peas for shelling (garden peas), mangetouts and sugarsnaps; green, yellow or purple pods; tall, medium or dwarf plants, early varieties and maincrops. So take your pick – or, better still, why not grow several?
Varieties of peas for shelling produce either smooth or wrinkled peas. Smooth varieties are hardier, so are better for early sowings. Wrinkled varieties are for late spring or summer sowing, and have a sweeter flavour.
Varieties are classed as earlies or maincrops, growing progressively taller and taking longer to crop:
- First earlies – sow March to early June, start harvesting in about 12 weeks
- Second earlies – sow March to June, start harvesting in 13–14 weeks
- Maincrops – sow March to June, start harvesting in 14–16 weeks
Some varieties produce particularly long pods, containing up to 10 peas, others a bigger overall crop. Varieties can also vary in height from just 45cm (18in) right up to 1.8m (6ft).
Mangetout and sugarsnap varieties, which are picked before the peas mature, are the easiest to grow and tend to produce larger crops. There are several particularly decorative varieties with purple or yellow pods and mauve or blue flowers.
Marrowfat varieties are grown to full maturity and dried, for use in stews and casseroles, or for making mushy peas. Petit pois varieties have very small, sweet-flavoured peas.
Some varieties are even sold purely for pea shoots, rather than pods, and can be grown on a sunny windowsill.
When choosing varieties, look in particular for those with an RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM), which shows they performed well in trials – see our list of AGM fruit and veg.
What and where to buy
You can buy a wide choice of pea varieties as seed in garden centres and from online seed suppliers. Many also sell young plants in spring and early summer, ready for immediate planting.
Preparing the Ground
Peas like a sunny position and good drainage. They prefer neutral to slightly alkaline soil, so if your soil is acidic, add lime.
Weed the ground thoroughly, then fork in lots of well-rotted manure or garden compost – at least two bucketfuls per square metre/yard. Ideally do this a few weeks ahead of sowing or planting out, or even the previous autumn if you’ve planned out your growing site early enough.
Peas are easy to grow from seed sown in spring and into early summer, either outdoors where they are to grow, or indoors to get them off to an early, reliable start.
Sowing under cover in February or March allows you to get an early start, particularly if your soil is cold and wet, when seeds may fail to germinate or may rot outdoors. You can also sow in autumn and keep plants indoors over winter, for planting out in early spring. Indoor sowing can protect the seeds from being eaten by mice.
Fill deep modular trays, small pots or cardboard tubes with multi-purpose compost. Sow up to three seeds per pot, or one per narrow tube or module, inserting them about 5cm (2in) deep.
Alternatively, sow peas along a length of guttering filled with multi-purpose compost, spacing seeds about 7.5cm (3in) apart in a double row. This makes transplanting outside easy, as you have ready-made rows that can simply be slid into a trench.
Indoor-sown peas can be planted out in March and April, once they’re about 20cm (8in) tall – see Planting out, below.
The main outdoor sowing season is from March to June. Pea seeds won’t germinate in cold conditions, so wait until the soil reaches about 10°C (50°F). If spring is slow to arrive, warm the soil with polythene sheeting or a cloche before sowing, then protect the seedlings with cloches or fleece. However, peas do generally prefer cooler weather and grow well in a cool spring. Avoid sowing in very damp soil though, as the seeds may rot.
For taller varieties, sow seeds 7.5cm (3in) apart in either a single row, or a double row with 30cm (1ft) between them (for the supports). Generous spacing between the rows makes these large plants easier to support and improves air circulation, which deters powdery mildew.
Shorter varieties need less space between rows, as a few twiggy sticks should suffice for support. They are usually sown in a triple row in a flat-bottomed trench. Use a draw hoe to make the trench, 5cm (2in) deep and 15cm (6in) wide. Sow three rows using the full width, staggering the seeds so they’re about 7.5cm (3in) apart. Cover with soil, then lightly firm and water well.
If sowing additional sets of rows, space them at a distance equal to the height of the variety you are growing.
To get harvests throughout the summer, either sow several batches of an early variety every few weeks, or make one sowing of both early and maincrop varieties, as they will mature at different times.
Protect seedlings from slugs and snails, especially in damp conditions, and from pigeons.
Sowing for ‘pea shoots’
You can also sow pea seeds specifically for harvesting the tender shoot tips or ‘pea shoots’, to use in salads. Sow at any time indoors, into seedtrays filled with multi-purpose compost, inserting seeds 2.5cm (1in) deep and spacing them 2.5cm (1in) apart.
Keep well watered and in bright light, and harvest the young plants in three to four weeks, when 10–15cm (4–6in) tall. If you cut the stems about 2.5cm (1in) from the base, they may re-sprout to provide a second harvest.
You can plant indoor-raised or bought plants outside from March onwards, once they’re about 20cm (8in) tall.
First, harden off the seedlings to acclimatise them to outdoor conditions. Do this by placing them in a cold frame or under a cloche for a week. Alternatively, take them outdoors during the day, then bring in at night for a week, and the following week leave them out in a sheltered spot all day and night.
Plant into prepared ground (see above), about 7.5cm (3in) apart, taking care not to disturb the roots. Firm in gently and water well. Arrange in rows as described in Sowing outdoors, above – planting shorter varieties in a triple row, and taller varieties in either a single row or a double row with 30cm between them to allow space for supports.
If the plants were grown in a length of guttering (see Sowing indoors, above), simply dig out a shallow trench of similar dimensions to the guttering, then gently slide the compost and plants into it, with minimum disturbance to the roots. Firm in gently, then water well.
If planting another set of rows, allow plenty of space between, for good air circulation – ideally equal to the expected height of the plants (check the seed packet for details).
Once young pea plants are settled in and growing strongly, they shouldn’t need watering, except in particularly dry spells. But do give them a good watering once they start to flower, and again two weeks later to help the pods to swell. While cropping, check the soil moisture at root level regularly and water if necessary.
Regular watering during cropping also helps to deter powdery mildew, but take care not to wet the leaves – water at the base of the plants, not over them.
Add a thick mulch of garden compost around the plants to help stop the soil drying out in summer and to deter weeds.
Most peas, apart from dwarf cultivars, need supports to scramble up. Put this in place soon after the seedlings appear or when planting out:
- For taller varieties, use netting or chicken wire attached to posts or bamboo canes. Some varieties can grow up to 1.8m (6ft) tall and become top heavy, so make sure the supports are suitably tall and sturdy, especially in windy sites.
- For smaller varieties, use pea sticks (twiggy stems) inserted between the plants
By choosing different types and cultivars, you can harvest from June through to October. Pick regularly, otherwise the plants will stop producing flowers and pods. If you have a large crop, pick them all rather than leaving them on the plants, then freeze any excess.
The pods of shelling/garden peas are ready to harvest when they’re well filled. Mangetout and sugarsnap peas should be picked when the pods are about 7.5cm (3in) long, just as the peas are starting to develop. Plants will crop for several weeks. Pods develop lower down on the plants first, so work your way up when picking.
Pea shoots can be harvested from the tips of young plants. They taste like fresh peas and are a great addition to salads or stir-fries. But don’t take many from each plant, as it can hinder cropping. Alternatively, grow plants specifically for their shoots (see Sowing for ‘pea shoots’, above), harvesting within a few weeks of sowing, when tender and delicious.
Unless peas are sown under cover, several pests can be troublesome in the early stages, including mice (which eat newly sown seeds), slugs and snails (see our tips on how to stop slugs and snails) and pigeons (cover young plants with fleece).
However, once established, peas are generally trouble free – although do look out for powdery mildew, especially in hot, dry summers, and pea moth damage. Notches in the leaves are caused by pea and bean weevils, but the damage is cosmetic and doesn’t usually affect cropping.
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