Native to southern Europe. Some peas are for shelling, some have edible pods, and others can be eaten either way. If you have space and don’t mind the extra step of building some kind of support, grow tall (vining) peas on trellises, strings, or chicken wire; they climb by tendrils to 6 ft. or more and bear heavily. Bush types are more commonly grown in home gardens; no support is required, though they can be grown on short trellises for easy picking.
Among shelling peas, superior bush varieties include ‘Mr. Big’, ‘Green Arrow’, and ‘Maestro’. In France, tiny peas called petits pois are considered a delicacy because of their tenderness and sweet flavor. These aren’t just immature versions of shelling peas; they’re genetically smaller (2–3 in. long at maturity), with six to nine small peas per pod. Two common varieties are ‘Waverex’ and ‘Precovelle’.
An unusually good vegetable (and one popular in Asian cooking) is the edible-pod pea, usually called snow or sugar pea. ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’ is a tall variety; ‘Manoa Sugar’ is a tall type developed for Hawaii gardens. ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ and ‘Oregon Giant’ are bush varieties. ‘Snow Wind’ has few leaves on its upper stems, putting all its energy into producing peas.
‘Super Sugar Snap’ (tall), ‘Sugar Ann’ (bush), and semi leafless ‘Sugar Lace’ (bush) combine the qualities of shelling peas and edible-pod peas. You can eat the immature pods, eat pods and peas together as you would string beans (the most popular way), or wait for the peas to mature and harvest them for shelling.
All peas are easy to grow when conditions are right. They need coolness and humidity and must be planted at just the right time. Where winters are cold, sow as early in spring as the ground can be worked; for a fall crop, sow about 12 weeks before the first frost date. Where winters are mild, plant at any time from fall to early spring, but don’t sow after midwinter in areas where spring days quickly become too warm for peas. Successive plantings several days apart will lengthen the bearing season; most varieties are ready to pick 60 to 70 days from planting.
Grow peas in slightly acid to slightly alkaline soil that is water retentive but fast draining. Soak seeds overnight in water before planting them. If planting in winter, sow 1/2–1 in. deep. At other times of year, sow 2 in. deep in light soil, 1/2–1 in. deep in heavy soil. Leave 2 ft. between rows for bush types, 5 ft. for tall vines; thin seedlings to 2–4 in. apart. (Thinnings can be steamed or stir-fried.) Moisten ground thoroughly before planting; then hold off on watering until seedlings are up. Plants need little fertilizer, but if soil is very light give one application of complete fertilizer about 6 weeks after planting. If weather turns warm and dry, supply water in furrows; overhead watering encourages mildew. Provide support for vining peas as soon as tendrils form.
When peas reach harvesting size, pick all pods that are ready; if seeds are allowed to ripen, the plant will stop producing. Begin harvesting peas for shelling when the pods have swelled to almost a cylindrical shape but before they lose their bright green color. Harvest edible-pod peas when they’re 2–3 in. long, before the seeds begin to swell. Vines are brittle; steady them with one hand while picking with the other. Refrigerate peas unwashed, and use as soon as possible.