A cooler than normal spring is predicted, so let’s talk about one of the most cold tolerant crops we plant. Peas can be planted early; the lore is to plant on Washington’s birthday. They germinate in soil that is only 45 degrees, and really thrive in our 50 to 60 degree days with our dramatic increase of day length in March and April.
Select a moderately sunny spot, but not one that has a baking hot sun exposure in June. Peas grow best on trellises, especially ones that use string. The little tendrils can easily wrap around string and support the vine. Do not confuse peas with beans, which need to twine around their support structures (e.g. poles, fences). I recommend a nice long row this year so that you can share your delicious harvest with the non-gardeners in your neighborhood.
What types of peas do you want to eat this year? Snow peas are the really flat pods that you typically see in Asian stir fry recipes. Snap peas are the ones with fat pods that are edible, juicy and sweet. The shelling peas are the more old fashion varieties that have to be removed from the tough pod. Though shelling peas are becoming more popular with chefs, it takes a lot of food prep time to get a quantity. Don’t forget about eating the pea vines too. Snip off the top 8 inches of a snow pea vine and use in salads or stir fries.
Consider successive plantings for bush varieties which tend to bare fruit all at once, while the taller types can usually produce for several weeks or months if you keep picking them. Check the description of the pea vines because some produce 4 foot vines and some more than six feet. That is a big trellis to build in a windy site.
Peas tolerate rather poor soils. Do not add fresh manure to the soil where you plant the peas. Perhaps add some bone meal, but don’t worry about adding a nitrogen source. Peas are a legume and can fix their own nitrogen with the help of bacteria nodules on their roots. Pea inoculant packets, which you can find in garden stores, are the freeze-dried bacteria that colonize the roots. If you haven’t planted peas before, try using the inoculant to improve germination and early growth. Either sprinkle the inoculant on the row of planted seeds before you cover them with soil, or add a teaspoon of water to the seed packet and shake the inoculant into the packet. That will coat each seed with the black powdery inoculant.
Protect the emerging pea sprouts from bird pests with a light weight cover like a net or floating row cover. When the green shoots appear, wise birds know there is a seed swelling with sugar energy just below the surface. Those crows can wipe out a whole row in a short time.
The other pea pest to plan for is the pea weevil and its larva in the soil. The adult weevil feeds at night, so you generally won’t see it, though I have used a flashlight to inspect at times. The best prevention is to rotate where you plant peas each year. This is very important. The weevil larva are tiny and will eat the seeds, and the adults will climb up and eat the leaves and stems. Adult weevil damage on leaves looks like a scalloped edge. Expect some weevil damage even with rotating your planting, but the vines have usually grown past the damage when they reach about 10 inches.
Warm weather may bring aphids which are the other important pea pest. Aphids carry some viruses that will infect the pea vines, particularly an enation virus. Freely water your pea vines with overhead watering to wash off any little aphids that may try to set up house there. If you see a discoloring or distorted growth, remove the infected vines as the aphids will spread the virus quickly.
For harvest information, just pick and enjoy, right there in the garden. Yumm. If you have any left, then bring into the kitchen and try in a stir fry or a salad. If some pods get left on the vine and are too big and tough to eat, let the vine dry out and save the seed for next year. Peas are self pollinating and so the seeds stay true to the variety. Don’t take down the trellis when the pea vines die in July. Plant a cucumber or vining squash ( esp. tromboncino or zucchetta rampacante) start at the base of the trellis and let that grow up and produce for the rest of the summer. The legume has actually added nitrogen and improved your soil for the next crop.
Have a great February; buy your seeds, build some cloches like we discussed last month and get ready for the 2007 food growing season.