Getting started with peas

Bill Kerr discusses factors to take into account when growing peas.

Peas struggle to grow in the heat, and cannot be planted later than September in most areas
Photo: Bill Kerr

Peas used to be widely grown and sold on the fresh market. This has changed due to the cost of harvesting and the housewife’s reluctance to shell peas when she can buy frozen peas. But ‘garden peas’ are not all that’s on offer.

There are the flat-podded types, which have been extremely popular in the East and places like France for many years. These are often referred to as snow peas or mangetout peas. ‘Mangetout’ is French for ‘eat all’, as in that country the snow pea is consumed as is, pod and all. Usually the peas inside are still undeveloped.

In the East, they are used extensively in stir fries. In South Africa, snow peas find their way into salads and many other dishes and their popularity is growing, albeit slowly. It’s the kind of vegetable you can grow when you have labour to spare at the time of the year when the peas can be produced.

The other pea option is snap peas, also referred to as sugar snap peas. The American breeder who developed this type had been making crosses between conventional garden peas and snow peas in an attempt to thicken the pod of snow peas without losing the sweetness of garden peas. When he got it right in the late 1960s, he caused quite a stir in the industry. The original variety was called ‘Sugar Snap’. The name has since become generic and generally refers to all snap peas. The same happened with scallop squashes where the variety that launched its popularity was called ‘Patty Pan’.

No strings attached
Snap peas have peas inside the pod but the pod walls are much thicker, as well as sweet and juicy. Ironically, they are at their best just fully developed and not half developed as they are universally marketed in stores. This is probably due to it being difficult for the customer to determine whether they are just mature or over-mature as they look just about the same at this stage.

The original sugar
snap variety had a string that had to be removed before consumption, but since then stringless varieties have been developed. Powdery mildew resistance has also been bred into most varieties. You also have a choice of runner types for leading up poles or determinate types. Both snap peas and snow peas are suitable for fresh marketing.

Production requirements
Although peas are known as a winter crop, there are limitations. Frosts of -3°C damage both pods and flowers. This means that on the Highveld and areas with equivalent cold, you can start planting safely only in July. When flowering starts, the worst cold will be over. Peas do not do well in the heat, so in most areas you have to stop planting in September. In some cool areas, you can plant through summer.

In subtropical areas, you can start planting in March and finish up in early July. Depending on the variety, the rows are spaced about 60cm apart and covered with 2cm of soil. Spacing on the row is about 5cm. When planting for processing
(and that includes mechanical harvesting), a far denser stand is required and the plants are subjected to stress by withholding water when they start flowering to boost flowering in favour of vegetative growth.

When there is sufficient pod set, water is again normalised. This gives the most pods ready for the harvester. For market, the number of handpicking passes will depend on the variety. There is no one-size-fits-all plan for fertilisation. This will depend entirely on a soil analysis.