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Peas please

The humble green pea is one of the most common and popular vegetables. Served in traditional, home-made meals and modern restaurant cuisine alike, the versatile pea is rich in both nutrients and history.

Fossil peas have been found in Bronze age excavations, and it is thought the pea could be native to Italy, China, Malta or Sri Lanka. Other theories have peas coming from North Africa and the Middle East, while there is evidence of them growing wild around Greece, Turkey and Jordan and even in India at least 4000 years ago. Even the 5th millennium Egyptians enjoyed peas!

Records say Roman legionaries gathered peas from the sandy soils of Judea to supplement their rations, and wild peas can still be found growing in Afghanistan. While the exact origin of the pea is uncertain, their spread across the globe was completed when Europeans settlers introducing peas to the new world.

Given that the pea is so widespread, it comes as no surprise that there are hundreds of varieties - the Romans used to grow at least 37 varieties! This characteristic made peas an interesting subject for Gregor Johann Mendel in the 19th Century. Through growing and cross-breeding peas of different shapes, sizes and colours Mendel was able to discover the basic laws of inheritance, earning him recognition as the founding father of the modern science of genetics.


While peas are often classed as a vegetable, they are actually botanically considered a fruit as it is the seed pod or the seeds that are eaten. The scientific name for peas is Pisum sativum. They are from the Fabaceae family and are part of the greater group of legumes. The main purpose of growing peas is for the edible seeds, however as a legume the plant has a beneficial relationship with a nitrogen fixing bacteria called Rhizobia which can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form available to the plant.

Diet-wise, the pea is a nutrient-rich, staple crop. 100g of peas only has 81 calories, and 100 calories worth of peas has more protein than a whole egg. Peas are also a good source of dietary fibre, Vitamins C, K and several of the B’s and many other nutrients like iron and zinc.

While dried or mature peas are still a common part of the diet and cuisine of many cultures, the most common peas in our diets are the immature green pea. Of these, the most popular varieties are the snow pea, snap pea and sugar pea.

Some pea varieties can be eaten pod and all, but most require shelling. Peas are at their sweetest immediately after harvesting and will quickly lose their sweet flavour as the sugars convert to starch. So if you cannot eat all your freshly-picked peas, it is best to preserve them as soon as you can. Did you know that the proper etiquette for eating peas is to squish them on the back of your fork?

Peas are an easy crop to grow in the home garden. Dwarf varieties need little or no support, and grow to no more than 70cm. Climbing varieties requires sturdy support, as some can get to the lofty heights of 2 metres. The plants have tendrils that easily cling to the structures you have prepared for them. The support can be as simple as sticks and twigs firmly pushed in the ground, or a more aesthetically pleasing trellis design.

Ideally, peas prefer growing in the cool of spring, early summer and again in the autumn. Peas will even grow through a mild winter, although they don’t cope well with the frost. Similarly, they will struggle to grow well in the heat of summer.


Plant in a sunny spot in a rich, fertile soil that is free-draining. Seeds should be sown 5cm apart into moist soil. Try to avoid frequent watering (other than to keep the soil moist) while peas are germinating as they are prone to rot in waterlogged soils. To provide a good harvest for a family of four, a 3-metre row is a good number of plants. If you don’t have that kind of space, succession planting every few weeks over the pea growing season will ensure a continuous supply.

Peas are vulnerable to fungal infections like downy and powdery mildew so ensure they have good spacing and good airflow around them and when watering, water at the soil, not on the leaves. The pea flower contains both male (stamen) and female (pistil) parts and is self-fertile. It doesn’t need bees to assist with pollination.

Your peas will generally be ready for harvest after 60–70 days. You will be able to tell when they are ready as the pods will look fat and feel full and firm. If the pods become wrinkly then they have gone too far to be sweet tender green peas.

It is important to make sure you pick every pea pod that is ready, as if a pea reaches maturity, the plant will have achieved its purpose of creating seed for its next generation and produce no more. However, when harvested as immature seeds pods the plant will continue to attempt to create its progeny and so the more you pick the more you will get.