Peas are a wonderful cool season crop! They're one of the earliest crops you can plant in the spring in most of the country because the seeds will germinate a lower temperatures. Warmer parts of the country plant peas over their mild winter season.
There are basically 3 types of garden peas: shelling, snap, and snow.
Shelling Peas (also called garden peas, English peas, or sweet peas) have an inedible pod. You have to "shell" them, or take them out of the pod, to eat them. Shelling is an extra step that takes time and patience, but it's not difficult to do.
It takes a lot of pods to make a serving of shelled peas! In my own experience, I got roughly 40% peas by weight from my harvest. That is, if I harvested 16 oz. of peas in the pod from the garden, after I shelled them, I'd have only 6.4 ounces of peas for my meal. This means 9.4 ounces of the pea pods I picked are simply sent to the compost bin. It's not very efficient!
This means if you want to grow enough peas for freezing, you need a lot of pea plants!
People still grow shelling peas because fresh peas from the garden have an amazing flavor, much more complex than peas you can buy at the store. Like tomatoes and sweet corn, the flavor degrades quickly once the peas have been picked. Growing your own is pretty much the only way to get this flavor.
Snap Peas have an edible pod. The peas inside are grown to mature size. There is no shelling step, and there's very little waste after harvest. Many have a tough "string" going down one side of the pod, and removing it makes eating the snap peas more enjoyable. "Stringing" snap peas is a bit of work.
Since you can eat the pods, you will get that fresh pea flavor in two textures - the pea itself and the pod.
Snow Peas also have an edible pod. The pea inside the pod is immature and the pod is basically flat. Most varieties are "stringless" meaning they don't have the tough string to remove. Again, much less waste after harvest, and more vegetable is produced in the same space.
The texture of snow peas is less like round peas since the harvested pod is the main part of the vegetable.
All three types grow basically the same way.
Peas can be planted as early as 4-6 weeks before the last frost date in your area. Peas do not transplant well, so plant the seed directly in the garden. Some sources recommend soaking the pea seed and allowing it to sprout before planting.
Peas are planted early because they can tolerate a light frost. The colder it is, the slower the peas will grow, however. Their growth will speed up with warmer soil and air temperature in mid spring.
Once the temperature gets much warmer in late spring and early summer, the plants will turn brown, dry up and stop producing.
Peas don't mind growing close to one another. You can grow a lot of peas in a small space. Read the seed packet for the spacing, but I've seen recommendations from 1" apart to 4" apart.
Pea seed may be treated with a fungicide to reduce the possibility that the seed will rot in the ground before growing. Rot can be a problem for pea seeds because the spring season can be rainy and the ground remains soggy. The fungicides, applied to the seed in a powdered form, are not organic.
Peas benefit from being planted with inoculant. Inoculant is a granulated bacteria product that fixes nitrogen from the atmosphere. The bacteria take nitrogen molecules from the air (air pockets in the soil, in this case), and combine them with other elements to make nitrogen compounds such as nitrates, nitrites, and ammonia. The plant can take take up these compounds more easily than nitrogen from the air. The end result is that the plant grows better and produces more harvest.
Inoculant can be used with other legume garden plants like lima beans and lentils. An excellent beginner article about nitrogen fixation can be found on the Encyclopedia Britannica website: nitrogen fixation. Really interesting stuff if you're a biology buff!
To plant the pea seed with inoculant, you basically have to get the inoculant granules in close proximity with the pea seeds as they grow. You can sprinkle some in the row or holes where you plant each seed, or if you soak the seed, you can mix the granules with the moist seeds and it will cling. The pea plant's roots must grow in the presence of the inoculant bacteria for it to be effective. Extra inoculant in the growing area does not negatively impact the soil.
You can buy inoculant from seed companies. It's not required, but it really helps your plants grow and produce well. Inoculant can be organic.
Peas are vining plants. For ease in harvest and to keep the crop off the ground where it may rot, most peas should be grown up a trellis or some other kind of support. However, some varieties of peas are small enough such that support is not really needed. Read the recommendation on the seed packet whether to trellis your variety or not.
The vines climb up a trellis or up each other, if no trellis. Trellises keep the peas off the ground and reduces the possibility the growing vines and pods will rot. It may be easier to harvest your peas if they are growing up a trellis.
Place your trellis at the same time you plant the peas. The bottom of the trellis should be a few inches above the soil. Once the seeds sprout, the seedling will quickly find the trellis and weave its tendrils up as it grows.
Peas grow best in direct sunlight and like moist, but not soggy soil.
Peas are ready to harvest in about 60-70 days. The pods of shelling peas and snap peas should be plump with the maturing peas when you pick them. If you let the peas grow too long, they will become tough and starchy, and they are no good to eat fresh. It takes a little practice to spot the perfect size pea pod to pick.
You can eat peas raw, fresh off the vine - it's a spring garden delight! Sample your peas to help you learn the perfect pod size to pick.
Snow peas are picked when the pods are still flat. The pods are slightly translucent, and you should be able to see tiny pea seeds inside, but the pods aren't swelling yet.
The pods are firmly attached to the vine and usually take two hands to pluck off without damaging the plant. I like to use a pair of small scissors to snip off my peas neatly and efficiently.
Pea plants will continue to produce up to a point. The plants slow down production because of age and hotter temperatures. At this point, it's time to pull out the crop and open up the space for another planting.
Peas have the best flavor when they are prepared from freshly picked harvest. Eating them the same day they were picked is optimal! But if you can't use them right away, they can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. You can also freeze the fresh peas after blanching them in boiling water, plunging into cold water and draining. You can freeze them in plastic containers or plastic bags.
When freezing shelling peas, shell them first before freezing. Snow and snap peas can be frozen whole.
Peas are easy to grow and produce a delightful crop early in the season. Peas are a great crop for beginner gardeners, too.