If you want peas, prepare for war

peas sown in gutters

To riff on Vegetius, you’d better get ready for major hostilities if you’re planning on growing peas.

I gave up sowing them direct years ago. Waste of time: They’re either eaten by rodents before germination or destroyed by bean weevil just after.

Even if you raise them in plastic guttering (as above) and transplant, you’re locked in combat thereafter with pigeons, slugs/snails, pea moth and just about every other evil bastard on the vegetable plot.

It’s astonishing that this was one of the first mass-cultivated vegetables in Europe, an essential staple for Greeks, Romans and our mediaeval ancestors. Most of the others (parsnips, wheat – or rather, spelt) aren’t too tricky to grow. But peas are a heart-breaker.

I’ve no idea how they kept the pests at bay. Cicero, who goes on a bit about home vegetable growing, offers no clue. Nor, as far as I can see, does Varro.

So, because this is the web – and you simply never know who’s reading – here’s a question to any experts in prehistoric and/or Classical agriculture that may occasionally dip into soilman.net:

Just how did the Romans kept the pigeons off their bloody peas? Any ideas?

[Fine point of interest: Varro goes into great detail about cultivating grapevines. If you’re organic and grow grapes, you may find his hints and tips useful]

21 Responses to “If you want peas, prepare for war”

  1. Rampant_Weasel Says:

    maybe because they had so much slave labour tending the crops that the wildlife never came near?
    i realise im not a greek or roman expert but thought i`d poke me nose in anyway…as you do 🙂

  2. Simon Says:

    I cover my emerging peas in chicken wire then when they’re about 6 inches high take it away, put up the supports and away they go. Never had any other problems other than a bit of pea moth.

  3. Simon Says:

    Soilman, I know nothing about classical truths, but maybe the Romans just didn’t have the pigeons to deal with. I believe they are (in theory) cliff birds from the seaside which kind of drifted in land as urbanization threw up buildings looking like cliffs and crap for them to eat in our anthropogenic waste. If the Romans didn’t have tall buildings near the pea site, they shouldn’t have had the problem.
    Where I live we have practically no pigeons. But often the mice eat my peas out of the ground before the shoots even clear the soil surface. I love the little mice (much cuter than pigeons) but I wish they would eat more mousy stuff and leave my peas alone.
    One good word about pigeons – the breast is very tasty with a rich gravy and … some peas.

  4. Soilman Says:

    Weasel: I’m amused by the mental picture of thousands of slaves in loincloths standing in fields and frantically waving their arms at pigeons all day…

    Simon 1: These are the moments I fear I’ve walked into a parallel universe. Growing peas, for me, is a 100% gold-plated arse ache. Particularly in the battle with pigeons. I’m stunned to hear you find it easy!

    Simon 2: Interesting point about pigeons and their natural habitat. Maybe they simply weren’t there. Anyone know?

  5. Tanya Walton Says:

    No idea soilman though I have to say I don’t have too much of a problem with the pests on my peas. I find if I sow them a little later than stated I tend to miss the pea moth and with the current pheasants lording our allotments the pigeons are keeping well away. I did have a rabbit problem one years but a maze of string solved that problem for me!!

    Incidentally I sow me peas directly into the ground!!

  6. Soilman Says:

    Tanya, don’t the pheasants try to eat everything??

  7. Mike Says:

    “In Medieval Britain scarecrows were live boys who were 9 years old or older. Known as bird scarers or bird shooers, they patrolled wheat fields carrying bags of stones. If crows or starlings landed in the fields they would chase them off by waving their arms and throwing the stones.” –


    Got any bored kids in your neighborhood?:)

  8. Soilman Says:

    Too, too many Mike. But they’re too busy throwing stones at bus stops to be interested in patrolling my allotment.

  9. mikes dad Says:

    somebody told me that soaking the seeds in paraffin was worth a try and this may be true as never had a problem before this year when I was too lazy to soak them and guess what , something has eaten them .

  10. Tanya Walton Says:

    Sm…funnily enough I was worried about the pheasants parading around the plot but they don’t touch the crops at all….they come from over the field for shelter and thats about it….i am becoming quite fond of them….though I do wonder whether it would be classed as poaching if I caught them on my allotment…I’m rather partial to pheasant!!

  11. Ford Says:

    I sowed a 150 cm. row a while back – one pea is doing very well! I have no luck with peas!

  12. Jaette Says:

    The only trouble I have with peas is preventing them from rotting in cold, wet ground. I suspect the difference is that you are raising vegetables in an area near where their wild progenitors lived. It may be the agronomic equivalent of the “enemy release hypothesis” for invasive species – growing a plant away from the pests it evolved with may decrease its pest load. A little like growing potatoes in Europe before the arrival of Phytophthora infestans. Best of luck Soilman. Makes me glad all I have to deal with is cold.

  13. Jaette Says:

    I just read what I wrote last night. It was entirely tangential and had nothing to do with answering your question. My apologies. I do not know much about how the Romans farmed, but I suggest that may not matter. Since the Romans farmed, many crops have undergone strong artificial selection to make them more palatable – to us and pests. This type of selection can make plants generally finicky too.

    As an example, think how much easier it is to grow kale – a crop similar to what the Romans grew – than it is to grow cauliflower – the same species but the result of more intense selection for longer time. The best way to test this hypothesis would be to plant “wild” or less modified peas near your garden peas and see if the wild type is less susceptible to your pests. Perhaps field peas would do the trick as a stand in for wild?

    And thus science trumps the humanities yet again.

  14. Soilman Says:

    Not at all, Jaette, I rather enjoyed your ‘enemy release’ theory. Perhaps there was a ‘golden age’ for French beans and sweetcorn, too, before the New World bugs made it to European shores? (‘Fraid they’re all here now, goddammit).

    Good point about the selected varieties. The peas I’m growing now must be a long, long way – genetically speaking – from the ones the Romans knew. Theirs were probably less tasty, less hardy, less prolific… and ergo less attractive to pests!

  15. The Idiot Says:

    Maybe I shall sow some peas, then snaffle the pigeons.

    Somewhere, on a pigeon’s blog, a young pigeon will be asking why peas took away Uncle Nigel.

  16. Rachael Says:

    Perhaps the Romans ate pigeon pie with their peas?
    I have never had problems with mice before, only pigeons and pea moths. This year I carefully netted against pigeons, and only about 5 peas came up…so it’s got to be mice. As an experiment I have just re-sown with pre-chitted seed but I’m not holding out much hope.
    Every year I vow never to bother with peas again, but they are just such nice seeds I can’t resist!

  17. altadenahiker Says:

    Jaette is probably right. I grew peas last year and decided against it this year, as the whole shelling business is too labor intensive.

    But the peas had other ideas and self-sowed. And the pea plants have lots and lots of peas pods, which I just may choose to ignore. Although that would mean more peas next year.

  18. Julie Says:

    Peas= rot,enation virus, cats, mice, thrips, birds (they’re the worst) My theory is there is one perfect moment each year to plant my peas the moment between all the predators and I just have to keep replanting until I find that window of opportunity. Good thing I save my own seed, but sometimes it’s a near thing. Why do I persist?
    PS the Romans undoubtedly saved their own seeds too.

  19. Trevor Says:

    Perhaps a visit to your nearest arable farmer growing peas would be more beneficial than waiting for a reply from a classical agriculture expert? They should be able to tell you what preventions, if any, that they take for a healthy crop of peas.
    Me? I sow more than advised and usually get good germination. My tip, don’t sow too early. In my experience, a wet, cold soil is a killer for most germination of seeds, especially peas and beans as they have to be sowed quite deep.
    Good luck anyway, its all good fun in the end!

  20. Soilman Says:

    I was brought up in the country, Trevor. The way farmers deter pigeons is either to encourage local hunters to shoot them (the usual deal is that you can keep all the pigeons you shoot – on fields of brassicas this can amount to dozens per day if you’ve got a good hide and can shoot straight), and/or use bird-scarers (which fire empty shotgun cartridges at irregular intervals) in their fields.

    I’m guessing neither of these solutions were available to the Romans.

  21. Mal Says:

    Roman peas were more like lentils than “piselli novelli” which only date back to the 1300s. Pigeons have got taste!