Peas are one of the easiest crops to grow in your polytunnel. Early peas can be great for getting in an early crop. When you choose to grow them, you could get a crop in one form or another as early as June. While peas can be grown throughout the summer months and often into early autumn, there are a number of reasons why you should consider getting in an early crop.
Why Grow Early Peas?
Peas are a healthy and delicious crop that is definitely a great addition to a polytunnel garden. They can be a fantastic choice whenever in the year you choose to grow them. Not only do they taste wonderful, straight from the vine or cooked up in a range of recipes. They also have a number of benefits in the garden.
First and foremost, the pea plant is a legume. As a legume, it is a ‘nitrogen fixer’. Like other legumes, it hosts beneficial bacteria in its root rhisomes, which take atmospheric nitrogen and make it available for plant uptake in the soil.
Getting in some early peas into a growing area, therefore, can help to boost soil nitrogen and improve fertility before you transplant hungry summer crops like, for example, summer brassicas, or tomatoes or squash into position.
In my polytunnel, I often follow a crop of early peas and their companion crops with tomatoes, basil and other leafy greens. I sometimes also follow an early pea crop with kale and other leafy green brassicas sown in summer to see us through the autumn and winter months to come.
Making sure that you choose early peas can be a good idea for year-round polytunnel growers. It can often mean that this crop will be out of the way before mid-summer, leaving time for another crop to follow it before colder weather arrives once more.
Types of Early Peas To Grow
Before we go any further, it is important to understand what exactly we mean by ‘early peas’. There are actually a number of different early-to-mature, quick to harvest options that you could consider. The main types of early pea to grow are:
First Early Peas
First early peas are those that are hardy enough to plant in autumn for overwintering. But they can also be sown very early in the year and will generally be only slightly behind overwintered crops. These sorts of peas generally have smooth and round rather than wrinkled and shrivelled seeds.
Very early peas that you could consider planting include:
Pea Petit Provencal
Second Early Peas
Second early peas are a little later to crop than the first early peas, but they still crop early enough to leave time for successional planting of other crops in the second part of the season.
Some second early pea varieties to consider include:
Pea Early Onward
You could also consider growing some mange tout as an early pea harvest. With mange tout, you will eat the whole pod while it is young, flat and tender.
Some mange tout varieties to consider growing in your polytunnel include:
Oregon Sugar Pod
Sweet Pea Horizon
Shiraz Purple Mange Tout
‘Bijou’ Giant Sugar Pea
‘Golden Sweet’ Yellow-Podded Mange Tout
Growing mange tout is a great way to get in an early pea harvest in your polytunnel. But you can also sow successionally for a continual mange tout supply throughout the growing season.
Sugar Snap Peas
Finally, early peas could also be sugar snap peas. Sugar snaps are picked mature and you will eat the pods as well as the peas forming inside. Sow these early and you could also get a harvest of these before mid-summer.
Some interesting options to consider include:
Jessy Dwarf Sugar Snap Pea
‘Lusaka’ Sugar Snap
First peas can be sown as early as late January or February indoors, and from March direct in your polytunnel. It is often better to sow them in modules or biodegradable containers rather than sowing direct. This is because they can often be eaten by rodents if you sow them direct in the ground.
Even when you are sowing and growing peas undercover in a polytunnel, early sowings may still benefit from some additional protection in the form of a cloche, row cover or mini polytunnel as well. You can sow early peas closely and then thin out the shoots to use in salads early in the year when less other fresh food is available.
You may also think about other companion crops to grow alongside your peas at around the same time. One option to consider are another nitrogen fixing plant – broad beans. You could also consider sowing some early carrots, lettuce, chard or perpetual spinach around and between your peas.
Before you plant out your peas in your polytunnel, think about what (if any) support they will require. Make sure that you have prepared the area well, with a good top-dressing of organic matter, and built or placed any supports that are required before planting.
When you harvest your peas will, of course, depend on which type you are growing. If you are growing first or second early peas for shelling, you will harvest once the pods are full. If will eat the empty pods (as in the case of mange tout) or the peas and their pods (as with sugar snap peas), you will harvest earlier.
Generally speaking, if you sow peas early, you should be able to harvest them from the beginning of June. And perhaps, in extreme examples and ideal conditions, as early as May. Grow successional plantings of these pea types, or maincrop varieties too, and you can continue to harvest peas right through until August and September.
Peas are often simply a snack to be enjoyed, there and then, as you spend time in your polytunnel garden. They are at their best and sweetest when picked and eaten straight from the plant. Peas have been known to entice even the most reluctant of young gardeners into the polytunnel, and are definitely a great way to get little ones to eat their greens.
What To Do With Your Peas
If the early peas do make it indoors, it is best to prepare and eat them as soon as possible. Of course, you can eat them raw in a range of salads. You can also lightly cook them in a wide range of recipes.
For example, consider making a simple stir fry with mange tour or sugarsnaps and early spring greens. Add early peas to a pasta dish, a casserole, soup or risotto. Bake them into a frittata, a quiche, a pie or a tart. You will find that, whenever in the year they are grown, peas are a versatile vegetable that you can use in a huge range of recipes.
Too many peas to use up all at once? Consider freezing some quickly to preserve their goodness and pop them in the freezer to enjoy later in the year.
It is very easy to grow peas, and if you want to grow plenty this year in your polytunnel, it is a great idea to get started early. So why not order some pea seeds and get sowing?
Do you grow peas in your polytunnel? Which varieties would you recommend? What do you plant with them, and when do you sow and harvest your crop? Let us know in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.