There are many varieties of peas: garden peas, sweet peas, English peas, shelling peas, sugar snap peas, snap peas, snow peas, and peas with edible pods. You can also plant dry peas, also called field peas, which mature, harden, and dry.
Snap or sugar snap peas look just like shelling peas but have edible pods. Snow peas are similar but have flat pods.
Peas are a cool-season crop, performing best when temperatures are between 60 and 75 degrees F. Seeds should be planted in spring as soon as you can work the soil and it's dry and loose, not hard and compacted. Peas grow best in soil with good drainage; if you have heavy clay soil, plant them in raised beds or amend the soil with organic material.
Pea seeds germinate when the soil temperature reaches about 60 degrees F.
Plant peas in late summer for a fall harvest; check your seed packet and plant so peas receive the necessary number of days your variety needs to mature before severe, hard frosts hit your area. In general, plant eight to 10 weeks before your first fall frost date.
Don't worry about light to moderate freezes, especially in spring. Light frost damage to the pea plant may shock it into producing more growth and more pods. However, if your pea plants are already flowering, cover and protect them. If the flowers get too cold, they form pods that are small and deformed.
Peas need at least six to eight hours of sunshine per day. Plants produce best in full sun.
Pea seeds are relatively large, so they're ideal for children to plant. Follow package directions, or place the seeds 1 to 2 inches deep into the soil, spacing seeds 1 to 4 inches apart. If you plant in rows, leave about 18 inches between rows. You can also plant them 1 inch apart in bands of soil about 3 inches wide, spacing the bands 2 feet apart.
If your soil is dry and warm, place the seeds deeper in the soil; stay a bit shallower if your soil is moist and cool.
An easy way to plant peas is to make a furrow 1 to 2 inches deep with a hoe, place the seeds in the furrow at the recommended depth, then cover the seeds with the displaced soil.
Water if the soil is dry for better germination. Once the seeds sprout, hold off on watering to encourage the shallow pea plant roots to dig deeper. Once peas begin to flower, keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. Peas should get at least 1 inch of rain or supplemental water per week. It's better to water deeply less frequently than to water often but shallowly.
Regular shelling peas, also called sweet peas and English peas, grow 2 to 3 feet tall. Shorter pea plants can support each other if the seeds are planted close enough together, but adding short stakes or wire fencing at planting time will help them stay upright.
If you grow snow peas, sugar snap peas, and other types with 4- to 8-foot-long vines, you need a wire trellis, netting, or other support. Add the trellis at planting time so you don't disturb the roots or pea plants later. You can also tuck 5-foot-long tree branches deeply into the soil to use as rustic supports.
If space is an issue, seek edible-pod dwarf varieties that only grow 2 to 3 feet tall.
Knowing when to pick peas and pea pods is more of an art than a science. If you pick them too soon, your pods or peas won't be fully filled. If you pick them too late, they may taste starchy instead of sweet and have thick, tough skins. Harvest the pods toward the bottom of the plant, which are the first to mature.
Shelling or sweet peas should be picked when the pods are long and full. The peas inside the pod should be about as big around as the seeds you planted. Test them daily to know when to pick. Immediately shell the peas and chill them in a refrigerator.
All peas should be eaten as soon as possible after harvest. Like sweet corn, the sugars in the peas begin to convert to starch after picking. However, peas keep for several days in perforated plastic bags in a refrigerator.
Snow peas are ready to harvest when they've reached the length described on your seed packet. Keep them picked daily or every other day to ensure you're getting the tastiest produce and so the plant keeps flowering and producing more pods as long as the weather is cool enough.
The pods of sugar snap peas fatten like shelling peas but should be harvested before the peas inside are full-grown. Pick snap peas every one to three days so the plant continues to flower and produce more pods during cool weather.