Today, we’ll explore how to plant and cultivate peas in our organic garden, starting from their seeding up to the harvest. Peas are among the most common vegetables on our tables. Unfortunately, their consumption in canned or frozen form, which comes from industrial processing, has become the norm. Consuming fresh and controlled products, as one can imagine, is undoubtedly better. Peas cultivated using organic methods are far superior in quality compared to those found on supermarket shelves and in refrigerated counters, both in taste and sensory properties.
To allow those interested to grow organic peas in their home garden, we have decided to publish these step-by-step guidelines on how to proceed and address the issues related to this crop.
Let’s start by exploring its origins.
Origin of Peas
The cultivation of peas, Pisum sativum, is an herbaceous crop belonging to the Leguminosae family. It is one of the oldest plants ever cultivated by humans. The beginning of pea cultivation dates back to the Neolithic period. The origin of peas is believed to be in the northern regions of India. From there, they spread to Europe and then rapidly across the rest of the world.
Characteristics of the Pea Plant
The pea plant is an annual glaucous plant, meaning it has a light green color with white shades due to a waxy patina on its surface, and it is glabrous, meaning it is without hairs.
The stem of the pea plant is cylindrical, very thin, weak (easily bends), and typically has several branches. Depending on the variety, it can be as short as 30 cm (dwarf varieties prostrate to the ground) or as long as 2.5 meters (climbing varieties).
The root is of the taproot type, meaning it goes deep into the soil, reaching up to 80 cm. Additionally, it has numerous lateral root branches.
The Leaves and Tendrils
The leaves are pinnate, arranged in rows of 2 or 3 pairs on both sides of the central vein of the stem. Some leaves transform into tendrils, true climbing organs of the plant. At the vegetative apex, a central tendril develops, which is highly developed and branched.
The flowers have long peduncles and can vary in number from 1 to 4, originating from the axillary racemes of the stem. Garden peas have very showy white corollas, while varieties used in livestock or wild varieties have purple corollas. Peas are self-pollinating.
The Pod, Shoots, and Pea Seeds
From the flowers, the typical green, smooth, and roundish pods develop. Their size varies, and each pod can produce between 4 to 10 seeds.
Pea seeds are generally round and come in various sizes. An important distinction lies between peas that produce smooth seeds and those that produce wrinkled seeds. Smooth-seeded varieties mostly contain starch, which means the farmer must harvest them at the right ripening stage; otherwise, they lose sweetness and tend to harden. Wrinkled seeds, on the other hand, are rich in soluble sugars, ensuring they remain sweet even when fully mature.
From the seeds, when planted in the ground, the shoots emerge, characterized by hypogeal germination, meaning the cotyledons remain underground, and only the delicate stem, called epicotyl, emerges.
Varieties of Peas to Sow
Deciding to cultivate peas offers several varieties to choose from, depending on the intended use. Peas can be grown for fresh consumption (garden peas), for industrial processing through canning and freezing (field peas), or for producing dried grains for human or livestock feed.
Another essential variety distinction concerns the plant’s vegetative development, which includes:
- Dwarf varieties
- Semi-dwarf varieties
- Climbing varieties
Dwarf peas have a semi-erect posture and a determinate growth, meaning they tend to mature at the same time. Climbing varieties, on the other hand, have indeterminate growth, resulting in a more extended period of fruiting.
Unfortunately, the selection of local varieties is relatively limited and has been largely replaced by high-yield hybrid varieties. However, it should be noted that the quality of these hybrid peas is lower.
In any case, your choice should focus on a variety suitable for fresh consumption, preferably selecting wrinkled seeds for their superior quality. Choosing between a dwarf or climbing variety will impact the cultivation method.
How to Cultivate Peas
Choosing to cultivate peas means opting for a very rustic cultivation that adapts well to humid climates and low temperatures.
The seeds can germinate even in soil with a temperature of 4 °C. However, the ideal vegetative growth occurs at temperatures between 10 °C and 20 °C.
Once germinated, until the first 4-5 pairs of leaves form, peas can withstand temperatures as low as -8 °C. For this reason, they are usually sown in the autumn period, in October in the northern regions and November in the southern ones.
The young plant, if there are no prolonged frost episodes, can withstand the winter cold. When temperatures start to rise, it resumes vigorous growth.
Another period for direct sowing is in January (in regions not too cold) and February. In these cases, the focus is on rapid spring growth.
Naturally, sowing in autumn gives us a slight advantage in the final harvest compared to winter sowing.
If you want to start cultivating peas in January, but the temperatures are too rigid for direct sowing in the ground, you can use the trick of sowing in seedbeds. This way, you will have seedlings ready for transplanting by early February.
However, flowering and pod production require higher temperatures and a longer photoperiod, typical of spring.
Furthermore, late frosts are still a concern during the flowering phase.
Another precaution is not to go too far with the sowing period, for example, in March/April. During this period, pea cultivation can extend until the summer months. This endangers the final quality, as the pea crop tends to mature quickly and harden the seeds in hot weather.
How to Sow Peas
The seeds are buried at a depth of about 3-4 cm in special holes (seedbeds). It is advisable to use a couple of seeds per hole (you can find the seeds here).
The distance to maintain between one plant and another is 20 cm, and at least 60 cm between rows.
Soil and Fertilization
Pea cultivation adapts well to any type of soil. Ideal soils are loose, well-ventilated, and well-draining, with a pH between 6 and 7, which is fairly neutral.
Fertilization for peas should be kept to a minimum. Being a leguminous plant, it is a nitrogen-fixing species and therefore does not require significant organic fertilization.
Great attention must be paid to irrigation, or rather, the absence of it, as peas are grown from autumn to spring. Peas are very sensitive to waterlogged soil, and excess water could compromise the entire harvest. Therefore, it is crucial to have well-draining soil.
Cultural Care and Provision of Supports
As mentioned earlier, peas tend to spread on the ground if they do not find adequate support to climb. This characteristic is acceptable when cultivating dwarf varieties, which are the ones most commonly grown for industrial purposes. However, if you decide to cultivate climbing peas, which are the most common for fresh consumption, you need to provide suitable supports.
The system we recommend involves a wooden pole structure on which a plastic net is fixed. On this net, the plants can easily climb upwards.
This way, the peas will grow vertically and avoid the risk of sprawling on the ground.
Weeding and Hilling
Other care needed when cultivating peas is weeding, which involves removing weeds, and hilling.
The hilling operation is generally done when the plant is very young to protect it from the cold. It also helps strengthen the stem and stimulates the production of lateral branches.
Harvesting is done when the pods are fully ripe, staggered in climbing varieties and more uniformly in dwarf varieties.
To determine if the seed is mature, you can touch the pod to see if it is firm enough. Sometimes the pods may appear full, but the seeds inside have not fully developed.
A more reliable method is to open one pod and examine the seed. At that point, you will be certain of the correct degree of maturity.
However, be careful because once you start harvesting, one pod after another, there is a risk of not leaving any for the table!
Biological Pest Control
Among the main pests encountered when deciding to cultivate peas are aphids, both green and black ones. They attack the plant, causing its deterioration. At the beginning of infestation, you can use natural products such as nettle macerate and garlic macerate, which are both very effective against aphids.
However, if the infestation is more severe and cannot be controlled solely by using macerates, you can resort to neem oil.
Another troublesome pest encountered when cultivating peas is the pea weevil. This pest directly attacks the seeds, and the larvae overwinter inside them. We will discuss in more detail the treatment and biological defense against this insect soon. For now, happy organic cultivation!
- Utah State University – “Peas in the Garden” – A comprehensive guide on growing peas, discussing ideal conditions, varieties, and prevention of weeds and insects.
- Colorado State University – “Give peas a chance: building soil health and maintaining yields in drylands” – Discusses a study on the impact of pea crops on soil health, highlighting the increase in soil organic matter.
- ResearchGate – “Nitrogen feeding of winter peas at the spring vegetation recovery stage” – The study investigates the impact of different doses and timing of mineral nitrogen application on the tuberization process and crop productivity of winter peas.