Wednesday, April 11, 2012

When is the Best Time to Plant Peas in the Pacfic Northwest?

Every year, that first bite of fresh peas from the garden makes me do the “happy food dance” right out in the open.  We’re partial to shelling peas in my house, so the anticipation of splitting open the pod to see if the seeds are full and plump, or if I’ve jumped the gun (I always do, at least a few times) is part of the fun. 

This year, I’m expecting that first mouthful to happen by the end of May, assuming we don’t have any major blizzards between now and then.  I planted peas into the garden March 2nd.  Even though I pre-sprouted them, the soil was still only about 48 F, so they just sat there, sulking for several days.  I’d about given up and went out with more seeds to try again on March 12th.   Sure enough,  there were their little green noses, sticking up out of the ground!  Like most plants, they grow more quickly in warmer weather, but now that they’re out there, they can take advantage of every sunny hour. 

Can you see the tiny babies peeking out?  (Ignore that dandelion, please!)

Peas are definitely cool weather crops and can withstand light frosts without a problem.  They will germinate in moist soil as chilly as 45 F, but it’s a slow process and risks rot and predation.  Although they appreciate consistent moisture, water-logged soil encourages fungi that attack and can kill.  Raised beds can help, as can making sure you have plenty of organic matter in the soil.  The trick is to get them up and going as early as you can to ensure the longest harvest time before the weather gets warm and dry.  Before the weather gets warm and dry…yeah…  ok, so last year the peas continued to produce into August!  Most years, they start to decline and succumb to enation virus or powdery mildew well before that. 

Here they are yesterday.  There's chicken wire about
2" above them.  I like to leave a little room to get in there.

By soaking and pre-sprouting the seeds, you can get a head start on germination, especially if the soil is still below 50F at the surface.  Place the seeds in resealable plastic bags or something similar with a little water or a very damp paper towel and keep them somewhere warm for a couple of days, checking often.  As soon as they start to germinate, open the bag and get them into the ground.  Be very careful of that brittle little sprout! 

Peas are in the Fabaceae family and most of that group are referred to as “Nitrogen Fixers.”  They form a symbiotic relationship with specific rhizobium bacteria.  The bacteria colonize the roots of bean and pea plants, absorbing some nutrients and in return, capturing and “fixing” gaseous nitrogen from the air in the soil.  The plant uses some of this nitrogen to create chlorophyll, which it needs for photosynthesis.  It’s a good idea to inoculate your pea seeds with this bacteria before planting, since it’s not generally present in great enough quantities in most garden soils.  It’s usually available from nurseries and seed catalogs in small packets.  I've seen greater vigor and higher yields when I've inoculated the seed.

Plant peas 1” to 2” deep, depending on your soil type.  Heavier soils make it more difficult for the seedling to emerge, so lean towards the 1” depth in soils with more clay.  Peas rather like company, so plant them about 1” apart. 


You can barely see the chicken wire supported by PVC
over rebar here.  This variety is called 'Alderman Tall Telephone.'
It takes longer to mature, but is one of my favorites.  Those are
potatoes below.
Pole, or climbing varieties need some sort of trellis for support, since some of them get upwards of 6’ tall.  Peas use tendrils rather than twining, to climb, so chicken wire or similar mesh materials work better than the bamboo poles often used for beans.  Do remember to put up the trellises BEFORE you plant your peas so you don’t have to work around them later.  Bush varieties will just clamber up each other and form a dense clump.   Planting them in rows a little farther apart with just a little support may make it easier to get in there and harvest the pods. 

Last year, I tried using twine and bamboo poles as a trellis.
It worked pretty well, but I made it too short--the plants
flopped over the top after awhile.


So, once your soil is workable and above 45F, pre-sprouted or not, inoculate your pea seeds and get that first crop into the ground! 

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