In some gardening circles, a gardener’s skill is measured by how soon he or she gets the first bowl of shelling peas on the table.
Raising a good crop demands the best soil you can muster, as well as timely sowing and harvest. Peas are a cool-weather crop (50 to 70 degrees F is best), so must be planted early. Not too early, though, or the seeds are apt to rot. Not too late either, for the plants languish in hot weather.
The earliest possible crop of shelling peas is a worthy goal because peas are such a garden delicacy. The sugars in fresh-picked peas start changing to starches as soon as the pods are picked, so it’s impossible to buy fresh, frozen or canned peas that match the flavor of homegrown ones.
AND THE RACE IS ON
I’ll admit to being drawn into the spirit of pea competition – with some reservations. I won’t grow smooth-seeded shelling peas, such as Alaska. They don’t taste as good as wrinkle-seeded types, whose seeds wrinkle up because they’re so high in sugars.
I won’t use fungicide-treated seeds, which can be planted earlier with less danger of rotting. Handling poison-coated seeds takes the fun out of pea planting.
Quantity is also important to me, so I won’t start peas indoors in pots because it would be impossible to manage enough transplants to get a decent meal.
As far as when to drop those first seeds into furrows, too many gardeners bow to tradition and sow them on St. Patrick’s Day. That may be ideal for Ireland, but January is more on the mark in Florida.
Pea seeds sprout when the soil temperature hits about 40 degrees F. So stick a thermometer 3 or 4 inches into the ground to know when to sow pea seeds.
TRICKS FOR EARLINESS
Pre-sprouting the seeds indoors gives them a slight jump on the season once they’re in the ground. Soak seeds in water for a few hours, then rinse them at least once daily, draining them after each rinsing. Rootlets should be evident after a couple days or so.
Planting slightly less deeply than recommended or in raised beds gives them warmer soil, which also speeds sprouting and growth.
If peas have never grown before in your garden, sprinkle the seeds with a bacterial inoculant, so plants can make use of atmospheric nitrogen as fertilizer.
Correct plant spacing and propping the vines up off the ground are yield enhancers. Rather than single rows, sow double rows about 6 inches apart, with 2 inches between peas in a row. If you plant in beds, run a double row up the middle of the bed.
Peas reign in British gardens. For traditional staking, there is pea twigs – tree and shrub prunings trimmed so their branches lie in one plane, then pushed into the soil between each double row with their butt ends down and branches fanned out down the row.
VARIETIES TO GROW
Among wrinkle-seeded shelling peas, you’ll find some – but not a lot – of differences in flavor. Do consider vine size in your variety choice. Vine size determines how big a trellis you need, and how quickly peas are ready for harvest. Two excellent varieties for yield, flavor and earliness are Green Arrow and Lincoln.