( Almost) Pea Planting Time
In our part of the Hudson Valley there’s still snow on hard ground in all the low places. But Sunday morning is clock-switching time and the forecast is for everything that’s usually loathsome about March. Furthermore, the stores are festooned with shamrocks and leprechaun hats and green crepe paper ribbons. Two good things to be said for the decor:
1. It reminds you to make soda bread.
2. You are warned that it’s almost pea-planting time, since tradition says you’re supposed to plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day. Where this tradition began nobody seems to know, but where this tradition makes sense are places – like Ireland – where March 17th really IS (more or less) what seed catalogs and garden guides call “ as early in spring as the ground can be worked.”
Not folkloric enough? How about “when the forsythia starts blooming?”
This phenological marker has a special benefit. It not only keeps you from planting your peas too early, it also warns that if you’re so far south you can’t grow forsythia, peas are going to be a major challenge.
Of course, even in prime pea-growing zones ( 4 to 8), getting a handle on “early” can be tricky. The longer cool growing time peas have, the happier they’ll be, but I know from repeated attempts to defy nature that there’s no point in jumping the gun. Peas germinate very slowly in cold soil and rot if the soil stays wet.
Preparing the prospective pea patch in fall is the best way to get a head start; you don’t have to work the ground if it’s already weeded, loosened and topped with compost. Fall prep has given me as much as 2 weeks extra growing time – when I’ve done it. Truth is I don’t do it very often because I very seldom know in fall where next year’s peas are going to go.
All is know is “ not where they were last year or the year before or – if possible, which it usually isn’t – the year before that.” Rotation helps minimize disease ** while spreading the benefit around. (Pea roots contribute nitrogen)
Other Tips for Spring Pea Planting:
* Tall vining peas yield larger and usually tastier crops than the bush kind. They also take up less garden space and are easier to pick. The downside other than trellis building is that they usually take longer to start producing.
(This stem of Carouby de Mausanne, the only snow pea we bother to grow, was photographed in the Maine greenhouse for reasons I no longer remember. The photo is here to validate this tall grower’s ability to keep on bearing well into hot weather. The orange dots on the other side of the wall are the flowers of Spanish Flag, which goes nowhere until full summer. More about Carouby and even more about Sugarsnaps, the best of all snap peas, here.)
* Peas make their own nitrogen, but they also need phosphorus and potassium. Years of compost and manure application mean we probably have enough, but since the seaweed that can supply both is readily available it goes on under the straw mulch. Monthly sprays of liquid seaweed can substitute.
* Using Legume inoculant to add nitrogen-fixing bacteria isn’t strictly necessary, and if there have been peas in the same soil before it may well be redundant. But it doesn’t hurt and it’s not expensive, so I use it every year. My personal pea voodoo.
* The pH does matter. There are parts of the garden that seem to stay acid no matter how much lime we put on. Peas never go there. They prefer near-neutral soil, though just how near varies quite a bit (from 5.8 to 7) with the authority holding forth. Chickweed is a pretty good alkalinity indicator, so we try to use the areas it’s known to blanket unless restrained.
* Peas need steady moisture, especially when they are flowering and setting pods. This is often just when spring rains are abating. My soil being sandy, I plant my peas in a wide shallow trench and mulch right to the edge of same.
* Seed spacing depends on type of pea. Tall vines like Sugarsnap seem to do best with some breathing room , about 2.5 inches apart. Two inches is standard for most bush peas. And dwarf types like Little Marvel are supposed to hold each other up if planted in a 6 inch band, with peas set 1.5 inches apart in every direction. Except that they never do.
* Be supportive. In spite of what they say in catalogs, even low-growing peas need at least a little support when they’re young. Pencil thickness branches with not too many side twigs work well. For ease in picking I keep them shorter than the peas, which do eventually figure it out.
* Gourmet tendrils. Afila peas are the kind that make more tendrils than leaves and they are often marketed as dual purpose, good for both shelling peas and the pretty edible tendrils now showing up at a hotsy-totsy restaurant somewhere near you. Be warned the tendrils on most varieties get tough quickly; only the freshest growth qualifies as a vegetable. Johnny’s Selected Seeds is selling a variety called Gonzo bred specifically for the tendrils and that’s the one I’d plant if tendril harvest were high on my list.
Growing a Fall Crop ( or not)
Peas seem like they should be a fine fall crop. They love cool weather and abundant rain, so what could go wrong?
Answer: You have to plant them in midsummer, when it’s hot and dry. Cool tends to turn to cold just when the crop is starting to set. And fall days just keep getting shorter. Peas are moved to flower by lengthening days, and although they will bloom in fall, they do it grudgingly. Cold weather also slows growth and then next thing you know, frost. A light frost won’t bother the plants but will harm flowers and pods, so here come the row covers.
I mention all this now because hope springs eternal and if you think you might want to try it, it’s best to buy the seeds in spring. By midsummer planting time, seed racks will be full of gaps or gone completely, replaced by fall-planted bulbs.
Early types are the best bet, because they start blooming young and are reputed to be a little less insistent on short nights. Of the earlies, Maestro is the most widely recommended, but I’ve only tried it once ( I keep hoping for snap peas) so can’t offer an opinion.
** Rotation helps less and less as gardens get older because fusarium wilt (Fusarium oxysporum), the fungus most likely to kill northern peas, tends to build up in the soil. There’s no organic way to destroy it and it takes years to starve out.
The form of F. oxysporum that’s specific to peas is different from the one that gets tomatoes, which in turn is different from the melon one or the carnation one, etc., but nothing in nature is that tidy as far as I can tell. The USDA agricultural research database lists 627 fungus-host combinations if you’d like to further depress yourself about this.