territorial seed company, serge pea, shelling pea, best pea varieties
Serge Pea. Image courtesy of Territorial Seed Company.
Nothing says spring like that first crop of succulent, bright green peas harvested from the garden. Get planting soon and you too can step out the door in a couple of months with a big bowl and fill it with bright green pods for eating, cooking or preserving.

In addition to being one of the earliest spring crops, peas are easy to plant. The seeds are big - just poke them a half to one inch deep into prepared ground.

There's still time to plant peas through the end of the month. Pea planting season starts in mid-February and runs through March in our region. Plant too early and seeds can rot; plant too late and plants can become heat stressed and succumb to disease. Now's the perfect time.

Peas are ready to harvest in 55 to 85 days, depending on variety. If you can't plant until the very end of March, be sure to choose a quick-growing, enation-resistant variety. Quick-to-harvest varieties that are enation-tolerant or resistant include Cascadia, Sugar Sprint, and Sugar Star.

There are three main types of pea: shelling peas, snow peas and sugar snaps.

Shelling peas, of course, are grown for the plump, round seeds that can be eaten fresh, frozen or canned. The pods can be eaten when young but become increasingly tough and stringy as the seeds ripen within. Good varieties for our area include quick-growing, petite Dakota; enation-resistant and petite Serge; and the old-fashioned, late vine Tall Telephone (Alderman).

Snow peas are harvested young for their delicious, flat pods and are ideal for sauteeing. Compact Avalance is a good variety, as is dwarf Oregon Sugar Pod II.

Sugar snaps are the most versatile: perfect for fresh eating, salads or cooking, with fat seeds and delicious, tender, crunchy pods, even when plump. They can even be shelled, although it would be a shame to waste the pods. Sugar Daddy, Sugar Ann and Cascadia are fine bush sugar snaps. Tall sugar snap vines good for our region include Super Sugar Snap and Sweet Xing.

Peas can be found in bush varieties or vines that reach 6+ feet tall. If you don’t want to trellis them or aren’t planting them on a fence, choose bush varieties (typically about 2.5 feet tall). If you have trellises or a fence, choose vining types - because they are larger plants, also produce more. Inexpensive bamboo stakes can be easily stuck in the ground to support the vines - or use tomato cages. The peas can come out when you're ready to plant tomatoes outdoors.

Plant peas in well-drained soil rich in phosphorus (the middle number in the fertilizer equation) - apply rock phosphate or bone meal according to directions. They also appreciate well-composted manure. Add a few shovel-fuls to the planting area and really dig it in. Full sun is best, although some protection from hot afternoon sun in summer can extend production: peas are cool-season crops and will decline quickly when the weather turns hot. In cooler summers, peas can keep flowering and producing through July and into August.

Peas are best direct-sown in the ground where they will grow. If you want to get all fancy – and improve flowering and production – buy a packet of legume inoculant. This nasty-smelling black powder is mixed with a bit of water and the seeds are tossed with it to inoculate them for a day or so before sowing. The inoculant packet suggests a few hours of pea-water-seed contact but I have been known to let them soak for a couple of days. Just be careful to plant quickly – the seeds and inoculant are alive, and must never dry out!

I always use Sluggo non-toxic slug bait along the row, applied when I plant, so that the slug population is low by the time the peas emerge. Slugs can decimate your new baby peas and it can look like the seeds never even sprouted, since the slugs just mow the sprouts down as they emerge.

Find pea seeds at your favorite local nursery:

Livingscape Nursery; Naomi's Organic Farm Supply; Pistils Nursery; Portland Homestead Supply Company; and the Urban Farm Store all sell a good selection of varieties.

If your local nursery runs out of peas, order directly from Adaptive Seeds, Uprising Seeds, Siskiyou Seeds, Horizon Herbs, Territorial Seed, New Dimension Seed or Nichols Garden Nursery. Outside our region, Renees Garden is in Felton, CA and Baker Creek Seed in Mansfield, MO also sell great pea varieties.

For more home and garden ideas and inspiration, sign up for our weekly At Home newsletter, subscribe to our RSS Feed, and visit our Home & Design page.