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Pisum sativum. Leguminosae. Annuals grown for their edible seeds produced in pods; the wide range of cultivars includes some in which the entire immature pod may be eaten. The species is believed to have originated in Central or Southeast Asia but is no longer found in the wild. It was cultivated in Southwest Asia in early times, from where it was introduced to India and China. Although there are numerous references to the use of peas as a food in Europe during the 15th century, these relate to the ripe seeds and the habit of eating green peas probably did not spread from the European continent to Britain until well into the 16th century. Cultivation is now widespread in temperate regions and highland areas of the tropics.

Most cultivars thrive in a cool, humid climate with temperatures in the range 13-18ºC. A minimum soil temperature of 10ºC is required for germination. Peas are normally harvested from early summer until autumn but the season can be advanced by providing early protection with plastic or glass cloches. Garden peas can be boiled and served as a vegetable or used in the preparation of soups and stews. They may also be frozen or stored dry for later use. Mangetout cultivars are harvested and cooked entire when the peas are immature; some more recent cultivars can also be allowed to mature and are shelled in the normal way – these are the sugar peas which, as their name suggests, are exceptionally sweet. Mangetout peas can also be frozen. Peas require an open but sheltered site. Soils should be fertile and deeply cultivated, preferably incorporating manure or compost in the previous autumn to improve moisture retention. Light dressings of nitrogenous fertilisers will assist in establishing the crop but high levels will supress the activity of the nitrogen-fixing Rhizobium nodules. A pH range of 6.0-7.5 is optimum and liming should be carried out if the soil is more acid. Overliming of organic soils can lead to the unavailability of manganese. Avoid growing peas on the same site for more than one year in five to avoid the build-up of soil-borne diseases.

Peas germinate poorly at temperatures below 10ºC, when losses are liable to be high due to mice damage and fungal and bacterial diseases attacking the seed. Sowing should therefore be delayed until temperatures increase during late spring, or alternatively earlier sowings should be carried out under cloches. An early sowing should be followed by further sowings at about 3-4 week intervals until mid-summer to provide continuity of harvests. Alternatively, continuity can be achieved from a single sowing using a range of cultivars from different seasonal groups. Autumn harvests, when weather conditions permit, can be obtained from a summer sowing of an early dwarf cultivar. In mild frost-free areas it may be possible to overwinter an autumn-sown crop to provide an early harvest the following spring although cloche protection may be advisable, depending on the local climate.

Seeds should be sown 4cm deep at about 5cm intervals, either in a 20cm-wide flat bottomed drill or in a single row in a V-shaped drill. The distance between the drills should be similar to the height of the peas at maturity, which may vary from 45cm to 115cm depending on the cultivar. A number of alternative planting patterns is possible, including the use of 1m-widebeds in which peas are raised at a spacing of between 5-7cm. Whichever system is used, peas should be provided with support from an early stage as soon as they produce tendrils, using traditional pea-sticks or wide mesh netting.

Young plants should be kept free of weeds and during flowering and pod set should be kept well-watered. Mulching during early development will help conserve moisture and keeps roots cool. Pods should be harvested regularly at a tender stage to ensure continued cropping. The pods of sugar and mangetout types should be harvested at an earlier stage, when the seeds first start to show signs of swelling. Fresh peas can be stored for up to ten days at temperatures close to freezing point and in conditions of high humidity. Where dried peas are required for storage, pods should be left on the plants to full maturity, when the uprooted vines should be hung in a dry, well-ventilated place to complete drying.

A wide range of cultivars is available, which may be divided broadly into wrinkle-seeded and round-seeded types. The latter have a low sugar content but, being hardier, are more suitable for cultivation during the colder months of the year, including overwintering. Cultivars also differ in their time to maturity. The earlier types are lower-yielding but depending on the temperatures will mature within 11-12 weeks, reaching a final height of about 45cm. The higher-yielding maincrop selections require up to 14 weeks and may be over 1.5m tall. Near-leafless cultivars have been developed, primarily for commercial cultivation, but a few are available to gardeners. Mangetout or sugar peas are eaten pods and all; snap peas combine succulent pods with full-sized peas.

Recommended cultivars. Early wrinkle-seeded: ‘Hurst Beagle’, ‘Early Onward’, ‘Kelvedon Wonder’. Maincrop wrinkle-seeded: ‘Alderman’, ‘Husrt Green Shaft’, ‘Onward’, ‘Purple Podded’, ‘Waverex’ (petit pois). Early round-seeded: ‘Alaska’, ‘Douce Provence’, ‘Early Frosty’, ‘Feltham First’ (dwarf), ‘Meteor’, ‘Pilot’. Maincrop round-seeded: ‘Freezonian’, ‘Green Arrow’, ‘Knight’, ‘Laxton’s Progress A9 (dwarf), ‘Nova’ (self-supporting, good freezer), ‘Makana’, (self-supporting), ‘Sparkle’ (dwarf), ‘Tall Telephone’ (up to 2m tall), ‘Thomas Laxton’, ‘Wando’ (cold-resistant). Semi-leafless: ‘Lacy Lady’, ‘Novella’. Mangetout or sugar peas: ‘Carouby de Mausanne’, ‘Dwarf Grey Sugar’, ‘Dwarf White Sugar’, ‘Edula’, ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’, ‘Osaya Endo’ (climbing: large pods), ‘Snowflake’, ‘Tezieravenir’. Snap peas: ‘Sugar Ann’, ‘Sugar Bon’, ‘Sugar Daddy’, ‘Sugar Mel’, ‘Sugar Rae’, ‘Sugar Snap’.

Pests that may attack peas include birds, mice, pea moth and pea thrips; common diseases include damping-off, downy mildew and black root rot. The most serious diseases of peas are downy mildew and fusarium wilt. Foot rot is a common disease encouraged by wet conditions, as are other fungal root rots. Powdery mildew can be damaging to late crops and there are several important virus diseases.

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