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Pisum sativum

Sweet pea – Lathyrum odoratus

Pea Tall Sugar – the first pods of snap peas in mid-June; they can be picked at this stage or left to fatten a little more

Sweet green peas are a modern development. Dried peas were the valued part of older diets, especially for how well they stored, making them a fallback in times of famine – see the Carlin pea variety below. Productive plants for peas are perhaps 6000 years old, from the Mediterranean region.

Peas are in the legume Fabaceae family, along with all the beans we grow, lentils and peanuts. The roots of most legume plants form a symbiotic relationship with certain rhizobia bacteria in soil, which convert atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia, thence to nitrates, resulting in more growth. The nitrates are in pink clusters or nodules, on the roots of legumes that are growing strongly.

  • However most nodules are used by the plants themselves, and as few as 3% remain once pods are picked and leaves are yellowing.

Fresh pods of green, sweet peas provide fewer calories than dried peas and are a luxury food for a brief time of year. They were bred first in Holland, then later in gardens of the British aristocracy. They spread to North America, where green peas are called ‘English peas’.

Since the 1950s, there has been much breeding of new varieties for growing green peas in large fields. They all ripen at the same time, enabling mechanical harvesting, followed by immediate freezing to conserve the sugars.

  • As a result, green peas have morphed into a relatively cheap, convenient and staple vegetable.
  • This is compared to when the work is done manually in gardens, where the output per hour is far lower, although for a highly desirable result.
  • Homegrown peas are one of the luxury pinnacles of home gardening. They require an investment of time for growing, supporting, picking, shelling and clearing.
  • Mangetout peas with edible pods increase the harvest and decrease preparation time.
  • Pea shoots are great options for extending the season of pea flavours.
28th April – fleece over beds, all planted and sown; during April I keep the covers over seedlings all the time – this was a -3 °C/27 ° F morning, with peas pushing the fleece up on the right
The same view just 16 days later, showing how well the plants are growing, with Tall Sugar peas on the right
2nd June, just another 19 days later – we see rapid growth of peas at this time of year

Sweet peas are also Fabaceae but in a different genus – Lathyrus. Perennial sweet peas are Lathyrus latifolius.

In my unheated greenhouse in mid-January – these sweet peas were sown in November, to be transplanted outside in early March
Homesaved sweet pea in September – this is a typical colour of my homesaved seed
I sowed the sweet peas in February in the greenhouse and transplanted them here in early April; this is now mid-July and we are enjoying many sweet-scented harvests

Harvest period

  • Shoots are the growing tips of plants, with many picks possible from each sowing and earlier in the season than pea pods. Days from seed to first harvest: 35–50.
  • Pods, days from seed to first harvest: 90–110, depending on the type of pod, the height of the plant, and how full you like the pods.
Pea plants for shoots in early April, grown outside with fleece protection; they are now at a point where a pick can happen
A pea risotto in July, made with spelt wheat
12th May – see how pea plants are hardy to frost, these were grown for shoots; these plants survived fine, but there was a little yellowing to the tips

  • Best climate is mild and temperate, with summer not too hot and dry.

Why grow them

Flavour, tenderness, sweetness and bright colour. There are plenty of reasons to grow your own, especially the extra sweetness and flavour. They taste so much better than most commercial garden peas.

Pea shoots make an early green harvest, while for pods you have many types and plant sizes to choose from. Not to mention the joy of picking and eating a few peas and pods while in the garden.

Kelvedon Wonder is an early podding pea
Sugar Snap peas are mangetout, despite having full pods, and the peas have a high sugar content
Dried pulses in January, after I had soaked and boiled the Borlotti beans on the left and Alderman peas on the right – both are delicious and store for a year or more

Pattern of growth

Peas are hardy annuals, so they resist frost and complete their life cycle within a year or less. Only if you sow just before winter, to overwinter as small plants, do they survive into a second year.

Most new growth happens in spring when leaves are super healthy. The strongest flowering happens in late spring, and the best podding in early summer. All of which points to sowing in very early spring, to catch that season of health and abundance.

Another advantage of early sowing is that, if you want to save seed, there is enough fine weather before the dampness of autumn for pods and seeds to dry on the plants.

  • See below for one variety that is good for out of season, summer sowing.

Two harvests

As well as pea pods, you can harvest plant shoots – tender stems with pea flavour. Some have edible tendrils too, if you use marrowfat peas as the seed, and any variety can work for shoots.

If you want to keep picking shoots from one sowing, for six to eight weeks in springtime, I suggest a planting area for shoots only, as in the photos below, and a different area for pods.

9th May – pea plants for shoots; these have been picked three times so far in a cold April – see how we planted this bed in the section ‘Hardening off’ below
The same plants 16 days later, after some big picks and now in their fullest week of growth

Suitable for containers/shade?

Look for varieties described as ‘dwarf’, suitable for containers. Sweet Sahara is one, which I am growing in 2021.

Peas can grow in the shade, just less exuberantly unless summers are hot. In hot climates, I recommend some shade because the fast rate of growth means that roots need a lot of water.

17th October – this sowing is for pea shoots, so I have scattered many seeds
Three weeks later on 7th November, we see leaves appearing; the first harvest was three weeks later
November – compost filled boxes before planting; I want to compare growth in two composts – homemade is on the right
11th February – the same planting of peas for shoots in homemade compost on the left and Champions blend on the right


There is a First and Second Early categorisation, which was more highlighted in gardening when pea pods were the prized harvest. Also perhaps when fleece covers and cloches were not available, meaning that early crops had more value.

  • First Early types are round-seeded and more cold hardy: you can sow them in November, although that never worked for me. Dwarf varieties, such as Meteor and Feltham First, can crop by late spring.
  • Second Early types grow wrinkled seeds, and are all the varieties listed below. I have separated them according to eventual height and the type of pod they grow.

Wrinkled peas have more sugar, from not having an enzyme called SBEI. They can hold more water when fresh, making the skins wrinkle as they dry. Most garden peas we eat are wrinkled seed types, with high sugar content.

  • Gregor Mendel preferred the sweetness of wrinkled peas, and their difference to round ones inspired his trials of the 1860s, resulting in his laws of genetic inheritance.

Round peas are the dominant shape genetically, with more starch, and they hold less water when fresh. They are grown more for animal food, and as dry pulses to eat.


There are hundreds of pea varieties, with a huge range of characteristics. My list below is short but sweet, to give you an idea of what to look for

  • A note on heights – if your soil is fertile and the weather favourable, plants may grow taller than advertised. And vice versa in poor conditions.

PODDING peas are for shelling, usually green and sweet.

Dwarf to medium height

  • Kelvedon Wonder, 45–50 cm/18–24 in, is a heavy cropper, quite early.
  • Hurst Greenshaft, 60–75 cm/24–30 in, is esteemed for fine flavour.
  • Starlight, 75–105 cm/30–42 in, has small and very full pods over a long period; the peas are not the sweetest, but are dense and filling.
  • Terrain, 90–105cm/36–42 in, crops both in summer and autumn, thanks to its mildew resistance.
10th June – Starlight peas before their first big pick; the supports of 1.2 m/4 ft were, for once, more than needed
20 days later – the same Starlight peas coming to the end of cropping; Jack’s no dig sign on the left and Maravilla di Verona lettuce on the right


  • Alderman, 2 m/6.5 ft, grows large pods with peas of excellent flavour.
The Alderman variety returns fatter pods than the peas inside; the plants grow 2 m/6.5 ft high
19th July – podding Alderman peas during a cool and wet summer
A pea shoot bed in mid-May – these Alderman plants have been picked many times already and keep growing upwards

SNAP peas have edible pods and sweet peas inside; they are fatter plus sweeter compared to mangetout – see below. Sometimes called sugar snaps.

Dwarf to medium height

  • Sugar Ann, 24 cm/60 in, can be grown without supports, produces decent harvests from compact plants and is harder to pick than taller peas.
  • Cascadia, 75–90 cm/30–36 in, gives many nicely filled pods and is easy to manage.
Cascadia snap peas on 3rd June – there were as many well-filled pods as you can see flowers; they started as two little lines of transplants, six weeks earlier
Tall Sugar peas in June – these were from a March sowing so they have grown well in spring, their best time of year, to give a healthy harvest in early summer


  • Tall Sugar, 2 m/6.5 ft, has been a favourite since I first grew it in 1998, and I have kept seed since – sweet, full pods.

MANGETOUT are picked before peas swell because by that stage their pods have sinews. Also called snow peas and Chinese peas.

  • Oregon Sugar Pod, 1.2–1.5 m/4–5 ft, is highly productive and has sweet pods when they are picked young.
  • Golden Sweet, up to 1.8 m/6 ft, grows lovely yellow pods and is productive too.
Oregon Sugar Pod peas, 1.5 m/5 ft high; well podded and good to pick now on 20th June – sown in early March
27th May – Delikata peas grew to 1.5 m/5 ft and this double row of 1.5 m/5 ft gave 3.3 kg/7.2 lb of pods through June
A mid-June harvest of Delikett podding peas; the first pick of Sunset F1 cauliflower and Azur Purple kohlrabi

PULSE/SOUP peas are round not wrinkled, best harvested dry and stored like any dry pulse.

  • Carlin is an old English variety, and could support its o.9 m/3 ft height if grown in a block – see the photos below.
9th June – Carlin pea flowers from a sowing in modules in early April, using peas from a Hodmedods packet of peas for eating
15th June with lentils, yacon and Carlin pea plants; the lentils were also from a food packet and grew well, but yielded little for the amount of attention and time we invested
3rd August – the same bed and plants, with now dry Carlin peas and lentils almost dry; the yacon is growing large

sow & propagate
Transplant - Size, time of year, Spacing, support
container growing
Prune and train plants/thin fruit
Harvest times and method
Potential problems
21st June – peas for shoots at the solstice; the last harvest has just been taken and these are about to be cleared
The same bed after clearing; I used a hoe to cut the pea stems rapidly, leaving most roots still in the ground


Pea plants make a large volume of stem and leaf, excellent for the compost heap after the last harvest. The question is how to clear it from any space – a wheelbarrow is useful.  We also run the rotary lawnmower over the top of any bundle of pea plants before composting, to break the stems and speed decomposition.

For a long bed, we walk on top with the lawnmower on its highest setting. This both cuts the stems and clears them into the hod, whence to the compost heap.

In arid climates, you could just cut the stems at ground level, with a knife or scythe. Leave the pea plants there, perhaps walk on them to squash down, and transplant new vegetables through the pea mulch.

28th June, before clearing these pea plants – this is the same bed that was under snow in March (photo above)
Later that day, clearing the pea shoot plants with a lawnmower
The pea shoot bed has now been cleared but is leaving some leaf mulch behind
3rd July – new plantings of lettuce nearest, then endive and chicory
30th August – the bed is on the left and has already given six-weekly harvests of salad; it is now interplanted with Brokali, fennel and kohlrabi between the lettuce plants
7th October – the interplants of Brokali and fennel are giving third harvests of the year, and no extra compost or feeding has been required

Follow with

From early sowings, the options are any vegetables that grow in the second half of the year, according to your climate.

Peas for shoots often finish by solstice, and options to follow include transplanting beetroot, Savoy cabbage, broccoli, leeks, radicchio or celery.

A month before you clear podding pea plants, check my sowing timeline for ideas, and make sure to have transplants ready as soon as you clear space. See also Lesson 7, Course 3A, for an explanation of how I underplanted celeriac very close to pea plants, illustrated in this photo.

Spot the interplant of celeriac beside the peas – I removed the latter within a week of the last harvest; the celeriac grew fine and averaged 700 g/1.5 lb each, after trimming the roots at harvest