Served simply with mint and butter, these sweet and tender vegetables are a gardener’s delicious reward after harvest.
Versatile peas are easy to cultivate, can be frozen for months, or dried for use in soups and bredies during winter. Three main varieties are grown and fare well in South Africa: Garden peas (Pisum sativum) About as big as a pencil eraser, the peas are removed from the inedible pod. Snow peas (P. sativum var. saccharatum) Both the peas and round pods are a traditional ingredient in Asian dishes. Sugar peas (P. sativum var. macrocarpon) differ from snow peas in that they have flat pods, and both the peas and pod are larger than snow peas – but like snow peas, they’re also entirely edible.
• Peas are grown in holes about 5cm deep and 8cm apart in furrows. Trellising or some other means of support is necessary for climbers.
• The plants prefer well-drained and oxygenated soil. Enrich clay soil with good compost to improve drainage.
• Peas grow better from seeds than as seedlings, as the plants don’t like having their roots disturbed.
• Plant peas in the cooler weather of late summer or late winter; they can withstand light frost, making the planting times in different climactic regions more flexible, but the flowers and young pods are fairly sensitive. The ideal temperature for planting is between 15ºC and 18ºC. In colder regions, July is the best time as the danger of frost is slight, while elsewhere May and June are the best planting times.
• Water peas well at least once a week to encourage large, juicy pods. The plants have a shallow root system, but won’t need additional compost if they are planted in soil with a pH of 6-7 and high levels of phosphates and potassium.
• Don’t allow the soil to dry out but keep the pressure low if you’re watering with a hosepipe, otherwise you’ll wash away the soil – and the seedlings. Spread a generous mulch of straw or sawdust to improve moisture retention.
• Peas need 6-8 hours of sunlight per day.
• Most peas can be harvested after 100-120 days, depending on the variety and the weather. Read the instructions on the back of the seed pack, or consult your nursery. Peas are prolific – so the more you harvest, the more a plant will fruit.
• Peas are at their best when they’re harvested at the right time. Check the pods for ripeness as harvesting too early will result in a meagre quantity of underdeveloped peas; they’ll be fibrous, without their characteristic crisp sweetness. Pods should develop evenly and be bright green, with no irregularities.
• Use both hands to harvest peas as the stems snap easily – hold the stem in one hand while snapping off the pods with the other.
Pests and diseases
• The biggest threats to peas are root rot and cutworms, of which the American bollworm is the most notorious. Avoid overwatering the plants and use organic insecticides to control worms. Also watch out for white down on leaves, stems and pods. Nurseries will recommend a suitable fungicide, but sulphur is still one of the home gardener’s most effective weapons.
• Keep weeds between the plants at bay by spraying Igran 500 or Terbutryn.
• Rotate peas seasonally with non-leguminous crops such as root vegetables to prevent fungal diseases from building up in the soil.
Peas are a good source of protein, starch, vitamin B, magnesium, iron, potassium and manganese. Dried peas are fibre-rich, while the fresh vegetables provide additional nutrients and antioxidants.
1 Fresh garden peas are delicious raw, in salads, or cooked in a variety of dishes.
2 Snow peas are those tiny, underdeveloped peas that are delicious in salads and stir-fries.
3 Split peas are dried, and perfect for soups.
4 Frozen peas are the most versatile of all; they taste great, are nutritious and, with a bag in your freezer, they’re always on hand.
5 The name says it all: sugar snap peas are sweet, crisp and ideal in salads, or served with a tasty dip such as hummus.
Did you know?
Mangetout, French for ‘eat all’, refers to immature peas which are eaten pod and all, such as sugar and snow peas.