Early spring is pea planting time -- for sweet peas that is. While this traditional spring crop can go in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked, don't try early planting with their southern pea cousins. Also known as cowpeas, field peas, black-eyed peas and crowder peas, these warmth lovers won't tolerate any frost and should be planted only after the soil is warm and all danger of frost is past.
The classic spring sweet pea, also called English or shelling pea, forms pods that are opened to reveal a row of sweet, plump peas inside. Thriving in cool weather, it does best as a spring or fall crop in most parts of the country. Another pea for spring planting is the edible-podded snow pea or sugar pea. No shelling needed -- the large flat pod is eaten with along with the peas inside before they begin to swell. Like beans, shelling and snow peas are legumes whose roots host a type of bacteria that lets the plants "fix" and use nitrogen from the air.
Heat-loving southern peas originated in India in prehistoric times, spreading to Africa from whence they came to America. They, too, are in the legume family and are sometimes used as a green manure to enrich the soil with nitrogen and organic matter. Southern peas may be eaten fresh when pods are filled but still young and tender, either shelled or pod and all, or the pods may be left to mature and the peas harvested for dry use.
Sweet Peas Sweet peas grow best when the weather is cool, so get your seeds in the ground as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring. If your soil is too cool and wet (below about 40 degrees) seeds can rot before they sprout, however. Cover the soil with black plastic for two weeks prior to planting to warm the soil, allowing for good germination extra early in the season. Plant in well-drained soil, and if this is the first time planting peas or beans in your garden plot, apply a garden pea inoculant to the peas before planting. This introduces the beneficial bacterial that help peas "fix" or take up nitrogen from the air. Provide your peas with a support around which their tendrils can curl. Be sure to set the supports up before you plant your seeds. Peas can also be grown as a fall crop in many areas. Plant about eight weeks before the first fall frost. In mild-winter areas, peas can be grown throughout the winter. Harvest peas when the peas have filled the pods, but the pods are still a bright, not dull, green.
Snow peas Grow these just as you would sweet peas, but harvest them when the pods are full-sized and you can see the beginnings of the peas inside, but they haven't yet started to swell.
Southern PeasThese peas like it warm. Sow them about two to four weeks after the last frost date, when the soil has warmed to at least 60 degrees. Unlike their sweet cousins, southern peas do best when air temperatures are between 70 and 90 degrees. Unless you are growing a bush variety, provide southern peas with a support to grow up; set it in place before you sow the seeds. If you are planting southern peas for the first time in your garden plot, apply an inoculant specifically for southern peas to the seeds before planting. This introduces the beneficial bacterial that help peas "fix" or take up nitrogen from the air. Make succession plantings every two to four weeks for a continuous harvest. Water during dry spells, especially when the plants are flowering or the pods are filling.
Watch out for the cowpea curculio, a serious pest that is often most troublesome in late plantings. Contact you local Cooperative Extension Service office for advice on controls for this insect. Reduce disease problems by avoiding working with plants when they are wet.
Southern peas can be enjoyed either fresh or dried. To eat fresh, pick when the pods are full, but still tender. You can shell the peas or eat them whole, pod and all. For dried peas, harvest after the pods have dried and turned brown or yellow, but before the pods begin to split open.
Q: My southern peas grew into large plants but set very few pods. What went wrong?
A: The most common cause of poor pod formation on southern peas is too much nitrogen fertilizer, which causes plants to make a lot of vegetative (leafy) growth, but form few pods. Southern peas are legumes and, with the aid of special bacteria on their roots, can take up and use nitrogen from the air. Cut back on added nitrogen fertilizer, enriching the soil with aged compost instead.
An infestation of the tiny insect called thrips can also result in poor pod formation. Other signs of thrips damage are curled and malformed leaves on the young plants. Contact your local Cooperative Extension Service office for advice on controlling thrips.