Sadly, the peas featured below are the last survivors of a pack: they do not serve as examples of ‘the perfect peas’.
They began their lives in an edible sprout container in the kitchen (with all the other peas). They were then planted in the garden with some garlic for company (I didn’t yet know the ‘companion planting rule’ of peas: don’t plant peas near garlic) and then re-planted in these little pots… with one little stick for support.
Poor peas… but thank goodness there’s still time to try again. And since I want to get it right next time, I’ve done a lot of research on how to grow peas properly. In this post I summarise important facts that cover the life-span of a pea plant. Hope it’s useful to other new vege gardeners!
Topics include what peas need to grow into healthy plants (eg. soil, planting, growing and maintenance requirements), growing problems (and solutions), harvesting (and how to freeze bonus crops), saving seeds, composting the remains of the pea and tips on what to plant next, capitalising on the fact that pea plants leave valuable nitrogen behind in the soil for future generations of plants.
WHAT HEALTHY PEAS NEED
Correct Position and Timing
Planting time will depend on the variety of pea you’re sowing, as well as where you live in the world. It’s important to check planting guides for your particular area. (Capetonians who enjoy Winter rainfall can look forward to planting peas from April to August. South Africans can generally plant peas from March to July).
Position your peas in a sunny area.
Peas do well in a neutral, compost-rich soil (lime can help reduce an overly acidic soil). To ensure that your plants don’t grow too fast, refrain from adding fertiliser at the planting stage (and avoid high nitrogen fertilisers). Rather use a light dressing shortly before planting.
Correct Planting Technique
Soak your pea seeds for 12 hours or so before planting them directly into your prepared soil. Allow 15 to 20cm of growing space between each pea and a depth of around 5cm below ground level. Cover and water.
If you’re not sure of the quality of your seed, plant three peas together. Your seedlings should emerge a week to ten days after planting. You can then keep the strongest plant and cut away the weaker ones.
Carrots, beans, radish and parsnips are good companion plants for peas. Don’t forget that peas shouldn’t get too close to garlic!
Well Prepared Containers (for those who don’t have spare ground)
Don’t use my already potted pea-pots as an example — they are too small but it’s too late to transplant them now.
Your container should have a minimum depth of about 15cm and must have holes at the bottom to facilitate proper drainage. Before sowing, place stones (or other drainage material) in the bottom of your pot.
Although it doesn’t matter what your container is made of, it’s worth finding out the pros and cons of the material to accommodate for a happier plant.
A Good Diet (NB!)
Give your peas a regular dose of organic compost and water with liquid fertiliser once a week — this will encourage their health and add to their flavour. Natural liquid fertilisers can be made with manure, compost, comfrey, seaweed or weeds.
Protect your peas from extreme heat and wind.
Keep the soil moist by watering the ground around the plant rather than the leaves. The morning is a good time to water your plants.
Surround your seedlings with wood ash, compost, leaf mulch etc. Mulch helps prevent excessive evaporation in hot weather while keeping the soil warm in cool weather. It also helps to build the soil. I’ve used seaweed and sponges found on the beach as a mulch in the pic below.
You can test the moisture content below the surface by pushing your finger into the ground.
Support climbing peas with a trellis, a tepee, a wire tower, poles or sticks as soon as tendrils appear.
By removing weeds you ‘kill two birds with one stone': you remove plants that compete for nutrients which you can then use to make a natural fertiliser. To make ‘weed tea’, soak a bunch of weeds in some water for a couple of weeks and then strain before watering your plants.
‘Good’, healthy weeds like dandelion, fat-hen, stinging nettle (see above) and chickweed can be cooked and eaten — otherwise use unwanted healthy weeds as mulch or to feed your compost bin.
However, diseased weeds must be burnt or sent straight to the garbage bin.
GROWING PROBLEMS (and some natural solutions)
Weak-looking plants are possibly suffering from starvation. To ensure healthy plants with strong immune systems, keep the soil well-fed with nutrients and trace elements. Tall, thin, spindly plants may have enough food but not enough sunshine. Try adding some bone meal and blood meal to the soil if you have plants that are growing too slowly.
You may encounter problems with aphids, mice, slugs, cutworm or birds along the way. A great many pests can be controlled naturally by providing healthy soil and balanced habitats (that encourage natural predators like spiders, lizards, lady birds and frogs).
Slugs can be discouraged by sprinkling broken egg shells around plants. Diatomite can be used as a second line of defense against snails. Diatomite also discourages aphids if you sprinkle it on leaves and the heart of new leaves.
To prevent cutworm from devastating your seedlings, cut toilet rolls into three parts and sink the base of each section into the earth around your seed. Leave the top section above the ground. If mice are a problem, try growing your seeds indoors in toilet rolls — they will be ready for planting when the roots show at the bottom of the roll.
Stop birds from eating your seeds and seedlings by covering your crop with netting.
If all goes well, you should be able to harvest your fresh home-grown peas 14 to 16 weeks after planting. The younger peas are, the sweeter they are so pick your garden peas regularly! To do so, hold the stem firmly with one hand while pulling the pod skywards with your other hand.
Pea shoots can be cut when they are around 10cm, to be used in salads and stir-fries.
Frozen peas keep well for as long as a year. They can be cooked in their frozen state and will be ready to eat within minutes. If you have a bountiful harvest, why not make the most of your freezer?
To freeze garden peas, first shell them and then blanch them in boiling water for a minute. (Sugarsnaps and mangetouts should be blanched for two minutes). Dip them into icy cold water or cool them under running cold water. Finally, dry them and place them in freezer bags.
SAVING PEA SEEDS
Leave a few pea pods on the plant if you wish to save some seeds. The first pods are often the the best. Mark them and leave them to mature and dry on the plant. Alternatively, you can cut the plant at ground level and hang it to dry in an airy environment (away from sunlight). Store unattacked, disease-free dried pods in a container.
COMPOSTING & PLANTING
And finally… make use of peas’ ‘underground gift’ …
Compost whatever remains of the plant but leave the roots in the earth! The reason? Pea roots harbour valuable nitrogen-fixing nodules. Make the most of this gift from your peas by planting a heavy-feeding leafy crop next. Leaves will be stronger and greener, thanks to the nitrogen-enriched soil.
I used the following truly inspiring books (and will be referring back to them many times in the future):
Pot it Grow it Eat it by Kathryn Hawkins (a British book)
One Magic Square by Lolo Houbein (an Australian book that’s been adapted for various countries)
Grow to Live by Pat Featherstone (proudly South African)
I also attended Pat Featherstone’s excellent Grow to Live weekend course at Soil for Life in Constantia. This is highly recommended for new organic vegetable gardeners in Cape Town, although it’s not only for beginners.