March 21, 2010

Planting Peas

English Peas
Any gardening blog worth its words this week will either be posting about four leafed clovers, or planting peas, for in many areas, particularly Zone 4-6, mid-March, on or near Saint Paticks Day, is the traditional time to plant peas, but why? Well, gardening is a practice with lots of heritage, after all, there was time not long ago, when all of our food actually came from our gardens. Our lives depended on what we could grow successfully, so that we could eat. In northern areas where there is snow on the ground until Mid March, especially in USDA Zone 5, it was common to hear old timers refer to certain events as guidance in planting or harvesting certain crops. Full moons, spring peepers, maple blossoms, forsythia flowers, all have corresponding agricultural events in the great datebook of old-timer farmers, and as many of these things work, we continue the tradition.

Peas can’t be grown by anyone, they prefer a cool, long, spring and ideally, one which is extended well into early June. Since we can’t guarantee air temperatures in the highly variable transitional months of March, April and May, we all take our chances with Peas, and our odds are better if we plant early, or, as the seed packets often advise, “as soon as the ground can be worked”. If you are a new gardener, it’s easy to believe that all seeds from packets, can just be sprinkled in rows in the ground, and they will grow, but there is far more to know. Even today, I have to remind myself to read-up a bit more on everything that I sow, for if success has avoided you with a certain flower or veggie, simply learning what they require culturally, is step number one. Basil need temperatures above 75 degrees to sprout, and if you’ve struggled in growing Bells of Ireland ( Moluccela laevis), they require near freezing outdoor temperatures and outdoor sowing, in order to sprout and grow.

My Parents always planted their shell peas in March, as soon as the snow melted, and a pitchfork could turn the soil over without it being soggy. Muddy soil is not preferable, for seed will rot. I have learned that with my modern lifestyle ( work, long hours at the office, and little time to weed) that small, raised beds now make much more sense than the long, 60 foot rows that my parents would plant in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Now that I think about it, I have about 35 years of experience with growing peas of all sorts, so, though not an expert, I can say that I have experience with multiple healthy crops of Snap Peas, Snow Peas, Shell Peas, English Peas and cut flower Sweet Peas, so I will share the methods I have tried, and what has worked best.

The late Jim Crockett was fond of saying, "If you are stingy with your peas, they'll be stingy with you." Indeed, I remember when he hosted what was then my favorite TV show next to Batman in the early 1970’s, Crocket’s Victory Garden, where he demonstrated how to plant your peas thickly in wide rows, so that they can climb up both sides of a fence. .

Here is what you will need.

A. Pea Seeds ( any type, but consider the height, you may want dwarfer varieties to avoid elaborate staking).

B. Some sort of staking material, which is critical, even for dwarfer varieties. You may simply cut brush and branches now and let them dry, such as birch, but they will need about 3 weeks to dry dead to avoid sprouts on the branches one stuck in the ground, or, you an buy netting, chicken wire or mesh. Bamboo poles, or traditional staking will not work, and tying string to sticks will only result in broken pea stems after a heavy rain. Just think like a pea – it’s all about the tendrils, and what tendrils will like-mainly, netting tightly stapled to strong 2x4’s. Since most peas will grow 6 feet tall, this is a major element to factor in.

I use either branches from tree trimmings, mostly birch since you want ‘twiggyness’, and I shove the branches in just after sowing . Since I plant the seeds in trenches that are deep, and wide ( see below), the branches already mark where the peas are planted, and once they germinate, I the branches are already there, so I don’t ruin any roots or tender shoots. Plus, by adding the staking material in now, you are less likely to forget once the peas require it, which happens to be at the busiest time of the gardening year, around June 1st.

B. Legume Inoculant – Sounds scary, but it’s safe and organic. Inoculant is a powder, a living bacteria, like (Yogurt for Peas – good bacteria to help them grow) . Inoculant is alive like yeast, so handle it carefully, keep it in a cool, dry place, and don’t over heat it. Use it all once opened, or toss the extra for it will die if kept over a season.

It is used to dust dampened seed of agricultural legume crops like beans peas and soybeans, so that they can form root nodules that will allow them to attract more naturally occurring nitrogen-fixing bacteria (called rhyzobium). You can see these nitrogen fixing nodules if you pull your plants up out of the ground in mid-summer, they are little pink bumps. Inoculant comes crop-specific, so read the label carefully, for there is one specific for beans or for peas. There is also as a combo form, which is most common for home gardeners.

There are lots of discussions on-line about whether there are any studies or not showing crops with or without, but I trust the agricultural experts on this one, and since it is not a chemical, I use it. Your soil may not require it, and others can grow good crops without, so I leave it up to you. You would need to buy it so that you have it when you plant your peas over the next few weeks, I always forget and need to order it separately. I get mine from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, but a combo Bean, Pea and Soybean Inoculant is available from Seeds of Change. Your local Agway or farm supply store may carry it also.

Step By Step Guide to Growing Garden Peas

1. Buy Pea seeds, any kind, but buy a lot. The small packets will not do. Plan on a 1 Lb. bag per row 8 -10 feet long. Yes, a Lb per row. Read on.

2. Dump the dry pea seeds into a large salad bowl, and dampen them with water. Then carefully pour out the water, the goal here is to just dampen the seed so that the inoculant powder will stick. Pour in your inoculant, stir it around with your hand to dust all of the seed with the back powder, and you are ready to sow.

3. I dig a trench about 1 foot wide, and as long as a raised bed ( mine are 8 feet). The trench is about a foot deep, and I slightly flatten out the bottom.

4. Sow the seed by broadcasting it by handfuls into the bottom of the trench. Don’t be stingy, the seeds can touch, and the dense planting will help hold itself up.

5. Cover the seed with 1 inch of soil, peas will swell with the soil moisture and will sprout as the weather naturally warms. The 70 degree warm spring days and cool nights will help. Peas like to grow in cool weather ( 40 -55 degrees F.) but germinate best with some warmth, although, I have had little luck germinating seeds indoors or in the greenhouse, only because I get single plants, and a row of single pea plants will yield hardly enough peas to satisfy a snack in the garden. On must plant many peas, especially English peas, if you plan to shell them. I plant mostly Sugar Snap types and edible pod varieties, since the yield is better for a small space. If you have a small garden, remember that a 10 foot row of shelled peas will only yield barely a cereal bowl full of shelled peas, whereas a 10 foot row of Sugar Snap may reward you with a bushel and a half if planted thickly.

As any gardener will tell you, eating a fresh pea from the garden is amazing, and this is the primary reason why informed gardeners bother to grow peas. I think, tomatoes and peas are the two vegetables that taste nothing like a store bought vegetable, and rarely do fresh peas even make it into the house. Oh yeah, sweet corn, too. If this is the experience you are looking for, go get plantin’ them peas!


  1. Anonymous2:22 PM

    Thank you, excellent post!

  2. Anonymous2:22 PM

    Thank you, excellent post!

  3. Anonymous7:05 PM

    when is too late to plant peas?

  4. Anonymous11:17 PM

    in south central wisconsin, we usually plant peas from early april through early may. it is rare that our fields are dry enough to plant before april, but raised beds in home gardens are probably able to be planted in sometimes in march around here. thanks for the blog

  5. thanks for the tip on using the legume inoculant!

  6. Why do you make the trenches so deep?


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