Planting Peas On (or Around) Saint Patrick’s Day

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Plant Those Peas Any Time Now

by Robin Bachtler-Cushman

Generations of gardeners have sown their peas on Saint Patrick’s Day. The timing is more or less accurate, but there’s a better way to be sure that garden conditions are truly right. Professional growers sow peas not by date but by average daily temperature. You are probably not tracking this interesting statistic, but quite a few plants can achieve this feat.

Among them is the common lilac, which leafs out when average day and night temperatures hit a certain point. Though the Saint Patrick’s Day planting timing often works, a more accurate rule of thumb is to plant your peas when lilac leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear.  That’s about the size of your pinky fingernail, a factoid I happen to know because our cats often leave mouse heads (and feet) by the back door for our delectation and admiration.

Perfect Soil For Peas, Please

Before planting, pick a well drained spot in full sun (or the sunniest place you can find). If the soil doesn’t drain well, build up the bed into mounds, using top soil mixed with compost. Hopefully, you can find lovely soil that drains well yet contains enough organic matter that it also retains plenty of moisture. This ideal combination is exactly what peas (and many vegetables) prefer.

Great soil reduces the chances of developing fusarium wilt, or pea root rot, which is one of the worst pea growing problems in heavy Northwestern clay soils. To avoid it, what we want is quick sprouting followed by rapid rooting. rather than sluggish sprouting and slow rotting, as may happen in cold, soggy soils.

Raised Beds and Containers

If you use raised or mounded beds, your peas will get off to a good start. Thanks to rapacious deer, I now grow my peas on a sunny deck in huge tree pots, where the roots have plenty of soil depth to spread into but the soil drains quickly. The soil in my big black containers warms up sooner than the ground does, so the peas sprout fast and produce deep, sturdy roots that give the plants extra vigor.

When In Doubt, Inoculate

If you’ve had trouble growing peas, you can improve your crops by using bacterial inoculants.  Before planting, soak the dried peas for an hour in cool water, then roll them in a legume inoculant. This powdery stuff contains stabilized bacteria (rhizobia) that help legumes (members of the pea and bean family) produce large quantities of nitrogen-fixing nodules on their roots even in cool weather.

All legumes fix nitrogen in this way eventually, as you can see when you look at pea or bean roots. (You’ll also see these nodules on clover roots and even alder roots.) The little whitish lumps you’ll notice clustered along the rootlets are storage containers that hold captured atmospheric nitrogen that gets absorbed from the air through the plant’s leaves.

If you cut the plant tops off members of the legume family instead of pulling the plants up when a crop is harvested, those nodule-studded legume roots will slowly release the stored nitrogen back into the soil to nourish your next crop.

Read The Small Print

Check the packet before buying an inoculant; you want one that  works for all peas, including sweet peas, and for string beans, snap beans, and lima beans.  Though pea plants will make the nodules sooner or later anyway, you’ll get larger crops sooner with an inoculant, because many soils lack adequate colonies of the bacteria legumes need, so it takes plants longer to get in gear. Given the right inoculant, the young roots will function fully right away.

Slow Food For Fast Crops

To keep peas growing well, work in a complete organic fertilizer that offers balanced nutrition. Interestingly, young plants can’t handle high nitrogen feeds, so stick with a moderate 5-5-5 or even a 2-4-3 at first. Compost, kelp meal, and/or liquid kelp (such as Maxi-Crop) offer excellent early encouragement without excess nitrogen.

Sowing And Growing Peas

To sow peas, make a shallow furrow with your trowel and plant them about an inch deep and about four inches apart. If your soil is well enriched with compost, you can simply push the peas into the soft soil to a depth of an inch or a little more.

Some gardeners like to pre-sprout their peas to make sure they get off to a good start. To do this, inoculate your peas, then roll them up in a damp paper towel and tuck it into a plastic bag. Leave the top open so you don’t get mold or mildew problems. Indoors, you may see pea germination in as few as five days, while outside in chilly soil it may take as long as two weeks.

Protecting Peas

Plant sprouted peas about four inches apart, placing the pea-seed an inch below the soil surface. Tamp the soil gently but firmly and water in well to avoid air pockets that can damage rootlets. If crows, squirrels, or deer are a problem, protect young plants with floating row cover cloth, pinned down every few inches with wire earth staples or stout sticks (about 6 inches long).

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