A heavy cropping vegetable, the humble pea is the staple of many allotments and vegetable gardens. As well as being filled with flavor and nutrition, they are also pleasingly easy to grow. But did you know that there is more than one type of pea?
In fact there are 3 main types of peas. This guide will explain the key differences between each of the types of peas as well as sharing growing and care tips. The information contained in this article is designed to help you to select the best types of peas for your garden, ensuring that you can enjoy a crop of sweet tasting vegetables.
The pea plant is both easy to grow and full of nutrition.
What is a Pea Plant?
The pea plant has been cultivated for centuries. Interestingly fossilized pea pods dating back over 10,000 years have been discovered in Switzerland.
Introduced to North America by Christopher Colombus, the pea plant quickly gained popularity and today remains a staple of both the vegetable garden and many peoples diets.
As well as being filled with flavor the pea is also a good source of key nutrients, including fiber, Vitamins A and C, folate, potassium, iron and magnesium. One of the most versatile vegetables, you can use many types of peas in soups, stir-fries, purees, rice, salads or even just eat them as a fresh, healthy snack.
Often called a vegetable, the pea plant is, in fact, a legume. Legumes are plants that produce pods with, usually, edible seeds. Other commonly grown legumes include peanuts, chickpeas and French beans.
There are 3 different types of peas.
Today the many different types of peas are split into 3 categories:
- English Pea,
- Snow Pea,
- Sugar Snap Pea.
Each of these types of peas are subtly different from the others. Each cultivar also contains many different varieties.
English Pea Plants
The English Pea (Pisum sativum), also known as the Garden or Shell pea is the most common of the 3 types of peas. Easy to grow, the English Pea has a smooth, fleshy pod which is often cylindrical in shape. Initially flat as the seeds inside grow and develop, the pod becomes plumper.
The pod, essentially a protective shell, is tough and fibrous. It is also inedible. Instead the edible peas which are inside the pod must be shelled. A ripe Garden Pea is plump, round and sweet tasting.
Many English Pea cultivars are tall, vining plants that require staking to keep their sprawling growth under control.
Sweet and full of nutrients, today some people avoid growing English Pea plants because of the shelling required. However, in my opinion, the shelling is well worth the effort. While fresh or frozen shelled peas are commonly sold in stores and markets they often lack the sweetness of a freshly shelled pea.
The English Pea develops inside a pod and must be shelled before use.
Popular English Pea cultivars include:
- Spring Pea, a popular variety thanks to its heavy cropping pods, on average each pod contains 7 mildly sweet seeds. They are typically ready for harvest within 60 days of germination.
- Survivor Pea is an almost leafless variety of pea plant, Survivors produce lots of tough, stringy vines which cling together as they scale up to 2 ft tall. Ead pod typically has 8 seeds.
- Wando is a popular cultivar thanks to its hardy nature. Happy to grow during warm spells, unlike other cultivars that may become dormant, Wando’s produce dark green pods which contain on average 7 or 8 sweet seeds. Wando’s are good for both freezing or drying. They are typically ready for harvest in 70 days.
- Garden Sweet, is a sweet variety which is usually ready for harvest in 75 days. One of the best tasting types of peas, the pods are typically 3.5 inches long and contain up to 9 seeds.
- Maestro, another high yielding cultivar, Maestro pods are usually 4.5 inches long and can contain 10 sweet seeds. Typically ready for harvest within 60 days this is a good late summer or early fall choice.
- Little Marvel is prized for its medium sized, sweet and tender peas. They are typically ready for harvest within 65 days.
- Misty Shell is another of the more prolific types of peas, producing masses of 3 inch long pods each containing 7 to 8 seeds. The plump pods are typically ready for harvest within 60 days.
- Thomas Laxton types of peas are around 4 inches long and contain 8 or 9 plump, dark green seeds with a moderately sweet flavor.
- Lincoln is a large variety producing 7 to 8 seeds per pod. A sweet variety, Lincoln’s are heat tolerant and freeze well. They are typically ready for picking in 70 days.
- Early Perfection is a distinctive cultivar thanks to its crescent shaped pods. Each pod contains around 9 medium sized seeds. A prolific variety, Early Perfection tolerates hot, dry weather well and is usually ready for harvest in 65 days.
The Snow Pea, or Chinese Pea (Pisum sativum var saccharatum) is a popular ingredient in Chinese cuisine. Also known as Mangetout, which is French for “to eat it all”, these types of peas are easily identified thanks to their flat pots which do not develop a distinct, plump pea seed. Unlike Garden types of peas, the Snow Pea is grown for its edible pods.
As it develops the Snow Pea maintains a distinctive, flat pod.
Popular types of Snow Pea include:
- Gray Sugar produces 3 inch tender pods filled with sweet seed. This variety is typically ready for picking within 65 days.
- Sugar Daddy produces sweet and tender peas in 3 inch long pods. The pods are ready for harvest within 70 days.
- Snowbird is one of the smaller cultivars, rarely exceeding 18 inches in height. Despite its short stature this is a heavy yielding plant, producing masses of sweet pods which are ready for harvest within 60 days of sowing.
- Oregon Sugar Pod is a taller type of Snow pea, capable of reaching over 2.5 ft. in height. A reliable cultivar it produces a sweet, tender pea which is pleasingly disease resistant. They are typically ready for picking in 70 days.
- Mammoth Melting Sugar is another tall variety, capable of growing up to 5 ft in ideal conditions. Mammoth Melting Sugar is popular for its large thick pods which have a sweet flavor. Ready for harvest in 70 days, this is a good cooking pea.
- Avalanche is a prolific variety prized for its dark, 6 inch long sweet and tender pods. It is also pleasingly disease resistant.
While Sugar Snaps (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon) may look like Garden types of peas but upon closer inspection you will notice a key difference. The pods of the Snap Pea are more cylindrical than other types of peas. This is because the Sugar Snap is a hybrid cross of the Snow Pea and a mutant Garden Pea. Consequently Sugar Snap’s contain some of the best properties of each parent plant.
Like Garden types of peas, the seeds of the Snap Pea should be allowed to plump out and become round before harvesting. While the pea can be shelled, there is no real need to because the thick, crisp pods are also edible. This means that like Snow types of peas, Snaps can be cooked in their pods. Sugar Snaps are also more tolerant of hot weather than Garden types of peas. At their most productive when the weather is nice, as soon as the weather becomes unpleasant the productivity of the Sugar Snap may start to suffer.
The pod of the Snap Pea is rounder than other types of peas.
Common Snap Pea varieties include:
- Sugar Snap, a reliable, award winning cultivar that can reach upto 6 ft. A heavy yielding variety, the pods are 3 inches long and very sweet.
- Sugar Bon is a disease resistant cultivar, producing 3 inch long sweet pods which are ready for harvest in 55 days.
- Sugar Ann is a sweet, crisp podding variety. Ready for harvest in 55 days, each pod contains about 7 peas. Sugar Ann is a pleasingly disease resistant cultivar.
- Super Snappy plants are prized for their large pods, which can hold up to 10 sweet seeds. The crispy pods are also pleasingly sweet. Disease resistant, the pods are usually ready for harvest within 65 days.
- Super Sugar Snap VP is another prolific variety, while the plants can reach up to 6 ft tall the pods are typically around 3 inches long. Disease resistant, this variety is sweeter than the Sugar Snap cultivar. The plant’s pods take around 65 days to mature.
How to Grow Pea Plants
All types of peas are easy to grow from seed. A staple of the vegetable garden, with just a little care and attention your pea plants supply you with a bountiful crop of fresh peas throughout the summer months. If you want a steady supply throughout the summer, instead of sowing all the seeds at once, sow a few every two weeks. This is known as successional planting.
For an early start on your crop, start some seeds undercover in biodegradable pots such as these Jiffy Pots. Following germination, wait for the soil temperatures to warm and the last frost date to pass before hardening off your seedlings and transplanting out into the garden.
Starting undercover helps to extend the growing season.
Growing from seed is cheaper than purchasing transplants. If you purchase from specialist seed companies you are also able to access a wider range of varieties. However, if you don’t have the time or space to grow from seed you can also purchase transplants from your local garden store. Transplants are young plants ready for transplanting into the garden.
Before transplanting, prepare the soil by working in lots of compost or organic matter. Improving the soil is particularly important in heavy or poor draining soils. If your soil is too poor, or you do not have the room to grow pea plants in the ground, you can also grow pea plants in planters and containers. These should be filled with fresh, balanced potting soil. If you want to learn more about growing any types of peas in containers, this is a great guide.
Where to Plant
Your chosen planting site should be as light and sunny as possible. Ideally your growing pea plants should receive 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight each day. While full sun is preferred the plants also grow in partial sun but cropping may not be as prolific.
When the seedlings are ready, make a hole in the soil. It should be large enough to comfortably hold the seedling. If you are growing in biodegradable pots the plants can be placed in the soil whilst still in the pot. As the plant grows the pot breaks down. Otherwise, carefully remove the plant from the pot. Gently tease the roots apart before placing the seedling in the center of the hole. The top of the root system should sit level with, or slightly below, soil level. After planting, firm down the soil, be careful not to overly compact it. Water the soil well.
Remember to correctly space your plants out. Larger varieties require more space than smaller types. The exact spacing requirement of your chosen variety is printed on the plant label or seed packet.
The Gutter Method
You can also start all types of peas in a gutter. Not only does this method protect the seeds from pests such as mice, it also makes transplanting a lot easier. All you need is a clean piece of house rain guttering. If the guttering is too long to handle, cut it down to a more manageable size.
Half fill the gutter with fresh, general purpose compost. Sow the seeds 1 to 2 inches apart and cover with a thin layer of compost. Water in well. After sowing, the gutter can be placed in a cold frame or greenhouse. Short pieces can also be placed on a sunny windowsill.
Aim to keep the soil evenly moist. Following germination, continue to grow the seeds in the gutter until you are ready to transplant. The seedlings should be 2 to 4 inches tall before you begin transplanting.
To transplant gutter started pea seedlings into the prepared soil, make a furrow the right depth and length to hold the gutter. Then simply slide the seedlings and earth out of the gutter and into the soil. You can also make small furrows and slide out in sections.
Firm down the soil and water well.
Caring for Pea Plants
Most types of peas are cool weather crops. This means that they struggle and may become dormant if the weather becomes too warm. Dormant plants do not flower or fruit. Mulching the soil and watering regularly helps to keep plants cool. You can also use a Shade Cloth to keep sensitive specimens cool.
If you are sowing the seeds in the growing position, wait until the seedlings are at least 2 inches tall before mulching.
Tall varieties will also require some form of support such as staking. Stakes are best installed when transplanting the seedlings. Jollybower Garden Stakes are made of bamboo. This means that they utilize natural materials to provide growing plants with sturdy support. Many types of peas set out tendrils which help them to climb structures. These naturally entwine with the support. To encourage the process, loosely tie the plant to the bamboo support.
Water your pea plants regularly. This is particularly important when they are growing and producing pods. During this period you may need to water the soil at least once a week.
Pea plants do not require huge amounts of fertilizer to start flowering or producing pods. If you do need to feed your plants avoid nitrogen heavy fertilizers. These encourage plants to produce lots of foliage to the detriment of pea pods. A liquid fertilizer is easy to apply, simply mix it in a watering can with fresh water and apply as part of the watering routine.
Planting in a light position and watering regularly encourages lots of flowers to form. Following pollination each flower develops a pod.
Depending on the types of peas you are growing the plants can take between 50 and 80 days to produce mature pods. Exactly how long is outlined on the back of the seed packet or plant label. Typically plants are quicker to fruit and flower if the soil is warm.
Plants growing in late summer or early fall may experience a frost. While pea plants won’t survive a harsh frost, they can survive light frosts.
Once all the pods have been harvested instead of digging up the plants simply cut the stems off just above the soil line. This enables any remaining unused nitrogen nodules on the roots to return to the soil and benefit the next crop.
Companion planting is the name given to the practice of planting beneficial plants or crops together. Many gardeners find it is an easy, natural way to improve yield and keep their plants healthy. Marigolds are versatile companions that benefit a range of plants, including all types of peas.
Most types of peas benefit from growing alongside:
- Brussels Sprouts,
Avoid placing alliums such as onions, garlic and chives close to your pea plants. These combinations stunt the growth of all types of peas. Gladioli also have a detrimental impact on the growth habit of the pea plant.
Pests and Diseases
Birds can target all types of peas. Netting, suspended over the plants, deters these destructive pests.
Young plants and seedlings require protection from birds.
Most types of peas are largely resistant to pests and diseases. Heirloom or older varieties can sometimes fall victim to issues such as root rot or Fusarium wilt.
Even if you are growing disease resistant varieties, correctly caring for your crops helps to prevent many issues such as powdery mildew. Ensuring that the soil is well draining and the plants are spaced evenly out and not overwatered are simple steps that, if followed, help to prevent a myriad of issues.
Some problems such as root rot are often caused by overwatering. Allow the soil time to dry out before watering. A Gouven Soil Moisture Meter provides a reliable way to gauge the moisture content of your soil, helping to prevent overwatering.
Check the foliage regularly for signs of infestation. Aphids and spider mites can be problematic. A blast from a hose can remove infestations. If the issue persists you may need to treat the affected plants with an insecticidal soap.
Slugs and snails can also be a problem when the plants are young. This article has a range of chemical free, effective methods to protect your plants and keep the pests at bay.
How and When to Harvest
How and when you harvest partly depends on the types of peas that you are growing.
Harvesting English Pea Plants
English or Garden Pea types typically mature quickly. Bush varieties can be ready for harvesting within 50 days.
Garden Pea pods are ripe for harvest when they look plump and full. They will also be bright green in color.
Don’t allow these types of pods to sit on the plant for too long. If the seeds become too big and start to turn yellow it means that they are overripe. Overripe seeds are bitter and starchy.
Harvesting too early means that the pea seeds may be small and not as sweet. You can test the ripeness of the pods by gently squeezing them between your fingers. This enables you to check their tenderness and plumpness.
Garden Pea types do not store well. The natural sugars which make them so sweet can quickly turn starchy. Try to eat the peas within 4 days of harvesting.
Once opened, ripe pods contain a row of plump seeds.
Harvesting Snow Peas
Snow pea plants take longer to mature than other types, even though the peas do not need to develop and plump up before picking. Taller types in particular can take a surprisingly long time.
Interestingly, Snow Pea pods are translucent under sunlight. This enables you to see the seeds inside.
Harvest your Snow Pea pods when they reach their full length but are still flat. Pick the pods as they ripen. Allowing them to remain on the vine for too long causes the pods to lose their sweetness and become tough.
Mature pods left on the vine for too long are best picked and shelled, using the seeds as you would garden types. Overly large seeds may be bitter and are best discarded.
Harvesting Sugar Snaps
Sugar Snap pea types are at their sweetest and crunchiest when the pods first start to plump out. This means that you may need to pick the ripe pods every few days. At this stage the seeds are still developing and are just starting to fill out the pods.
Ripe Snap pods can be snapped like green beans. Some types may have strings on their seams, these should be removed before you cook them.
Sugar Snaps left on the vine for too long may become tough and inedible. While the pods are best discarded the seeds inside can be shelled and used like Garden Pea types.
Plump pods are ready for harvest.
Nothing tastes as sweet as a home grown pea. Each of the different types of peas have their own benefits and attractions. Whichever type, or types, that you decide to grow, the information contained above will help you cultivate a healthy, sweet tasting crop.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.