prime time for peas

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Spring-sow a crop of tender, sweet shelling peas to savor their classic flavor at its peak.

ANTICIPATION FILLS THE AIR in spring. Months of eating store-bought produce and last season's preserves have whetted our appetites for the first sweet mouthfuls. Peas, sown when the air and soil are still chilly and picked just weeks later, are one of spring's fresh treats.

"When you're hoeing the garden on a warm spring day, there's no better snack than a freshly shelled pea," says Organic Gardening reader Jackie Smith of Belle Plaine, Minnesota.

Peas come in several forms: sugar snap, snow, and the classic English or shelling peas. This article focuses on shelling peas. They differ from sugar snap and snow peas because the large, edible seeds--the peas--must be removed from tough, fibrous, inedible pods; with the other sorts, the entire pod is edible. Another name for snow peas is mangetout (French for "eat all"). Peas are a cool-season crop, and they are finished and out of the garden in plenty of time to make room for tomatoes and other warm-weather plants. Pea roots also add the vital nutrient nitrogen to the soil. So after the harvest, cut the vines at the base to leave the roots in the soil.
Perfect Planting Time

Folk wisdom names St. Patrick's Day as the perfect day to sow peas. But that doesn't necessarily suit all climate zones. Pea plants survive nearly freezing temperatures, but the seeds don't germinate in cold, wet soil, so the best time to sow peas is at the point between when the soil's too cold and the air temperature's too hot.

Where winter weather is consistently cold and lasts into early spring (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 and north), the conditions are typically not favorable for sowing peas until April. In slightly warmer regions, sow in mid-March to early April. Wait for the soil to stay above 45°F and to be damp but not soggy; excess moisture can cause pea seeds to rot.

Gardeners in Zone 8 can actually beat the St. Patrick's Day target by a couple of months, starting their first pea planting as early as January. In warm-winter climates, gardeners face the opposite challenge of those in the North, says Andy Wilson of the Pinellas County Extension Service in Florida. Southern gardeners must wait until fall or winter for the soil to cool down. September is the earliest that gardeners in Zones 9b and warmer should consider starting peas. Their pea season lasts until February or March, when their Northern counterparts are just gearing up.
Maximize the Harvest

With such a short season, having a plan ensures that you can grow enough peas to make the time and effort worthwhile. Three strategies help: Sow varieties that mature at different rates, succession-sow, and, in cooler climates, sow spring and fall crops.

Early and late varieties. The easiest way to extend pea-growing season is to sow at least two different varieties: one that starts bearing pods quickly (in 55 days or less) and one that needs 65 days or more to begin producing. Smith cautions that early varieties have drawbacks. "There are fewer pods, they often don't fill completely, and the peas are smaller," she says. "But they will hold you over until the later-season varieties kick in." The so-called "main season" varieties start later but continue to flower and produce pods until the weather gets hot. They also stay sweeter longer.

Succession sowing. After sowing the first batch of pea seeds, sow another one a week or two later and a third a week or two after that. This sets you up to harvest a new crop continuously through spring and also guarantees the harvest in the event that unfavorable weather wipes out an early planting.

Fall crop. Growing peas in autumn is the norm for hot climates, but it can extend the pea season in cooler regions, too. In the North, gardeners sow peas in midsummer to harvest in fall. The key is to cool the soil for the seeds to germinate, then keep the plants cool so they will flower (they don't in hot weather). Try Jackie Smith's clever trick: She sets bales of straw directly on the planting bed in July, leaving them there for about a week. This helps trap moisture in the soil, cooling it. Keep pea plants shaded and cooler as they grow in late summer by planting them behind tall crops, such as corn or tomatoes.
Microbe Management

Once you've determined the best time for sowing peas, the rest is easy. Find a site that gets at least 4 hours of sun--6 hours or more gives the best yield. Sunlight also helps to keep the vines dry, preventing mildew and fungal disease from tarnishing the crop.

Peas grow best in well-drained soil, but there's no need to sow them in your most fertile spot. Legumes, including peas, feed themselves by pulling nitrogen out of the air (literally) and "fixing" it in nodules that form on their roots. Peas do this with the help of rhizobium bacteria, soil-based microorganisms that have a symbiotic relationship with peas and other legumes. This type of bacteria is commonly found in soil, but many gardeners enhance the existing population by treating pea seeds with a specially formulated inoculant powder before planting them.

Does adding rhizobium bacteria in the form of an inoculant really make a difference? If you've grown peas within the past 4 or 5 years, the soil probably has plenty of rhizobium already, explains Steve Reiners of Cornell University's Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, New York. But if this is a new garden bed, an inoculant containing millions of live microbes helps start the process. Also, these bacteria are less active in cool, damp soil, so an inoculant makes sure the peas have a sufficient supply from the moment they germinate. The inoculant comes as a powder. Either coat the seeds by shaking them in a plastic bag or mix the powder into the seed furrow when sowing so that it is in contact with the seed.
Grow Up

Pea varieties are typically categorized as either vining or bush. Bush peas are sometimes referred to as "self-supporting." Don't believe it. The average pea variety grows to 3 feet tall. Some top 6 feet. The vines flop under the weight of filling pods. Peas left in a jumble on the ground are prone to disease and become safe harbors for insects. Peas need support, regardless of the variety. Use structures and netting specifically designed for this purpose, or build your own using bamboo, cattle panels, or just twigs.

Sow single rows of peas 2 to 3 feet apart and provide a support for each row. Or sow them in closer double rows, which can share a support down the middle (see our four trellis ideas, pages 58 and 59). In sandy soil, sow peas in a 3- to 4-inch trench. The trench will serve as a water reservoir for the young plants. Fill the trench with compost as the plants grow. The same trick works well for fall planting, because the soil is cooler 4 inches below the surface.

And once the plants grow to be a few inches tall, mulch under the vines with a generous layer of straw or shredded leaves. Pea season is often wet and muddy, and the mulch keeps both you and the pea pods cleaner and drier.
Problem Solving

One distinct advantage peas get from an early and quick growing season: They suffer from very few pests and diseases, and the harvest is often over before the damage is serious. The few problems that do demand attention can be easily treated organically.

Pea aphids flourish among floppy, entangled vines. Spot the tiny pests early, before they have a chance to do much damage, and hose them off. Better yet, stake the vines.

More damaging are thrips, tiny insects that can interfere with pollination and deform the pods and peas. Spray thrips with organic insecticidal soap (found in most garden centers).

Also watch out for pea weevils, which can burrow inside the pea itself. Minimize the weevil population by sowing peas and other legumes in different places in the garden each season. Also, don't save and replant seed that was infested with pea weevils.

Diseases like bacterial blight, fusarium wilt, mosaic virus, and mildew can threaten the pea harvest. To diminish the risk, choose resistant varieties, especially if these diseases have been a problem in prior seasons. Make conditions even less hospitable for disease by leaving space between plants for air to circulate, and be sure to control pests, such as aphids, that spread disease.

All kinds of warm-blooded creatures are tempted in spring to eat peas or their vines before you get a chance to: rabbits, pocket gophers, groundhogs, mice, chickens, dogs, even snack-hungry kids. You can decide how to handle the latter, but fencing is the most reliable way to exclude critters from a patch.
Ready to Eat

Pea pods mature from the bottom of the plant up. Harvest them while the pods are still shiny. A dull pod signals an older pea, and peas get starchy and bitter as they mature. The pods should look plump and feel full to the light squeeze. Go ahead and sample one to know for sure.

Fresh peas keep in the refrigerator for 2 or 3 days. They can also be frozen, after shelling. Blanch briefly and then freeze in small batches for up to 12 months. To prevent peas from freezing into a solid lump, spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet or other flat pan, set the pan in the freezer overnight, and then pour the frozen peas into containers. Serving up a dish of homegrown peas in late winter is all the inspiration needed to make sure peas feature in the spring garden every year.
No. 1 Bamboo Tepee

This classic pea trellis is made by driving three dried bamboo poles, at least 5 feet tall, into the soil and tying them together at the top with twine or a zip tie. Lengths of string tied to U-shaped bamboo stakes give vines a surface to grab onto.
No. 2 Bamboo Trellis

A grid of twine woven between bamboo poles forms a multi-sectioned trellis that can be made as long or as short as you need. Use twine or string made from natural materials, and at the end of the season the entire trellis can be added to the compost pile.
No. 3 Woven Stick Trellis

Interweave branches into a grid pattern and tie them at the joints with twine, wire, or zip ties. Fresh tree prunings, 3 or 4 feet tall, or clippings from shrubs work best. As an alternative to this grid, simply push the branches into the soil and bend the tops over.
No. 4 Basic Stick Trellis

A row of whippy, fresh-cut bamboo branches are joined together at the top and cross-braced with another branch to create the simplest of trellises. Cut sticks at least 5 feet long so there's enough length to anchor them deeply into the soil.
top six Peas for Perfect Picking

Ask a dozen gardeners across the United States to name the pea varieties they prefer to grow, and the same varieties come up again and again. No matter what the hardiness zone, when it comes to growing peas, heat resistance is the key.
Early Season
'Laxton's Progress'

aka 'Progress No. 9' 58 to 65 days to maturity. High-yielding for an early pea. Produces 15- to 20-inch vines with 5-inch pods. Resistant to fusarium wilt and root rot. Recommended for all climates.
'Tom Thumb'

50 to 55 days to maturity. Heirloom variety. Vines grow only 8 to 12 inches tall, with full-size pods. Very frost-hardy. Also good for a container or coldframe.
Main Season
'Green Arrow'

68 days to maturity. Wilt- and mildew-resistant. Peas tend to stay small and sweet. Plants are 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall with 4 1/2- to 5-inch pods. Recommended for a fall crop in warm climates.
'Lincoln'

aka 'Homesteader' 67 days to maturity. Good choice for northern gardeners. Withstands heat well. Plants are 2 to 3 feet tall with 4 1/2-to 5-inch pods.
'Little Marvel'

64 days to maturity. Stays sweet, for prolonged harvest: 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall with 3-inch pods.
'Wando'

70 days to maturity. Heat-resistant and recommended for all climates. Good disease resistance. Freezes well. Vines grow 2 to 2 1/2 feet tall with 3 1/2-inch pods.

Sources: Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, rareseeds.com; High Mowing Seeds, highmowingseeds.com; Seed Savers Exchange, seedsavers.org

PHOTO (COLOR): Opposite: English peas must be removed from their pods to be enjoyed. Top: Pods mature from the bottom of the plant up. Above: Lady beetles are a beneficial insect, feeding on many pea pests.

PHOTO (COLOR): Above: Pea tendrils are a sweet addition to fresh spring salads. Right: Peas are ripe when the pods are plump and feel full to the touch.

PHOTO (COLOR): Left to their own devices, pea vines--even those touted as self-supporting--will flop on the ground.

PHOTO (COLOR)

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By Marie Iannotti

Photographs by Robyn Lehr

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