Green Peas are wonderful little things – sweet, crisp, and useful in so many ways. Mid-December through January is the perfect time to plant green peas. So let’s talk about how to get a bountiful crop.
We can plant two major types this time of year – edible pod peas and English peas. Edible pod peas will include Snow Peas and Sugar Snaps, which are eaten pod and all. English peas will be shelled, the round green fruits will be eaten, and the tough, stringy hulls will be discarded in to the compost or chicken pen. Planting both will widen your options, but if you only have room for one type, or don’t have the patience to shell dozens of pods, plant an edible pod variety.
Even though they are both edible pod varieties, there is a different between a true Snow Pea and Sugar Snaps. Snow Peas are flat; Sugar Snaps are round. Peas never develop inside Snow Pea hulls, but they do in Sugar Snaps. They both have a crisp texture and sweet flavor, and can pinch hit for each other in most recipes.
There are many varieties that are flavorful and will do well here. A favorite of mine is Cascadia because it will produce far into spring with no signs of powdery mildew. It is a very prolific bloomer and it does not give up until the temperatures really begin to rise. There are several really good varieties to try out, so experiment until you find your own personal favorite.
Peas enjoy moist, but well-drained soils and full sun during their growing season. They love a compost-rich soil. After your bed is prepared, spread 2″-3″ of compost over the whole bed and work it into the top 6″ of soil. For no-till gardeners, a 3″-4″ trench can be dug and filled with screened leaf mold compost. Cover the compost with the soil you removed forming a rounded mound that has about 1″ to 1 1/2″ of cover soil.
Peas are not heavy feeders. If your soil is reasonably healthy, and you have worked that 2″-3″ of compost into the soil, you will find you need only a “starter” amount. Since I plant on trellises and large 18″ and 24″ tomato cages, I use about 1/3 cup of Arbor Gate Blend or MicroLife per trellis or cage, worked into the top few inches of soil. Water the bed deeply a day or two before planting so it will be evenly moist, but not soggy, when you are ready to plant.
On planting day, soak the seed in warm tap water for no more than 4 hours. Soaking longer than that may trigger fermentation, which can cause germination failure. Pour the seed into a colander and let it drain a few minutes – it should still be moist. Place the moist seed in a bowl and sprinkle a generous amount of legume inoculant over the seed. The inoculant is rhizobia bacteria that form a symbiotic relationship with legumes, aiding the formation of nitrogen fixing nodules. Use of an inoculant before planting any legume will increase your success. Sow the seed 1″- 1 1/2″ deep and 3″ apart, pat the soil down around the seed, and water well. Green peas germinate best when the soil is between 45°F and 70°F. There is no need to thin them.
Peas need support – even the so-called “bush” varieties. They will be more productive, have less disease risk, and be easier to harvest. There are many ways to support the vines, but my preference is a trellis or a large tomato cage. Using these types of permanent, moveable supports allows you to be creative in your garden. They are easily moved around so you can make sure you are rotating your crops. They even let you tuck your peas into the landscape where there might be a bare spot in late winter – a nice option when veggie garden space may be tied up with other winter crops.
If you use a trellis you can plant your edible peas, wait a week or two, and then plant some dwarf sweet peas six inches in front of their feet. Other cool weather annuals that suit your fancy could serve this purpose, too. This will give you something pretty as well as productive, and using the trench method described above would let you site it anywhere. Of course, you can use any of the tried and true pea supports you may have seen – stakes and strings, chicken wire stretched between posts. I don’t recommend the use of pruned branches stuck in the ground as you might have read about them – they are often too flimsy for the vines once they grow large and get some weight to them.
Checking for ripeness is pretty easy. The pods will be bright green, smooth and plump. The peas should have filled out inside the pods, but not so much that you can see individual peas on the outside of the hull. Pick one that looks like this. Make sure you pinch the stem from the vine, don’t pull it or you will damage or break the vine. Snap the pod in half. You should see the small peas and thick hull walls inside the pod. Since we have grown these peas without the use of sprays, you can taste test right in the garden. When you find the ripeness that suits you, harvest all of the peas at that stage. You can harvest them a little immature if you wish for serving raw in salads. Walk all around the vine to make sure you harvest everything that is ready. You will find that you need harvest at least every two days. Harvest any damaged or overripe peas immediately. Don’t allow them to remain on the vine or they will slow down production. The vine will start to concentrate on ripening the seed instead of producing new flowers and pods. Peas can be stored for several days in the refrigerator for fresh eating and freeze well for later use.
Your shopping list to get started: Pea seeds, leaf mold compost, Arbor Gate Blend or MicroLife, legume inoculant, support (trellis, large tomato cage, tower, or tuteur). Enjoy!