Of Lilac Leaves And Planting Peas
When I was a young gardener, I recall being told that the proper time to plant peas was on Saint Patrick’s Day. It stuck in my mind because I learned this bit of folk wisdom while a spring blizzard was raging. It was Saint Patrick’s Day alright, but I sure wasn’t about to head out to the frosty garden and chip away at the snow covered ground just so I could get my peas in “on time”. As I moved around the country, I figured out that while mid March is often more or less the right time in many places, it’s certainly not something we can count on anywhere I’ve ever lived. Instead, I’ve learned to plant my peas according to the lilac leaves.
That probably sounds odd, but it’s a far more accurate method than tying planting day to a holiday. It works because the budding of lilac leaves is triggered when the average daily (and nightly) temperature reaches a certain point. I can’t remember just what that is, but suspect it’s when night temperatures creep out of the 30s. While many plants sprout or bloom according to day length, others are spurred into action by temperature (much like tree frogs’ singing). Fortunately, these temperature sensitive plants include the common lilac, which is indeed common enough that most of us either grow one or at least know where one is. Pea planters are tipped off that the time is right when the newly opening lilac leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. If you don’t have outdoor cats to keep you supplied with mouse body parts, it’s helpful to know that their ears are about the same size as the fingernail on your pinky finger.
Pea Perfect Soil Prep
Peas don’t mind a little chill in the soil, but they do prefer a well drained spot in full sun (or the sunniest place you can offer). Where rainwater tends to puddle, mound the pea bed at least a few inches with a mixture of decent top soil and mature compost. Peas, and most other edibles, are healthiest and most productive in soil that drains well yet contains enough organic matter that it also retains plenty of moisture. This ideal combination is exactly what peas want, and here in heavy clay country, I’ve found it easiest to accomplish by mounding beds with sandy loam topped off with compost and top dressed with washed or digested dairy manure.
In heavy soils, peas are prone to develop fusarium wilt or pea root rot, which is one of our biggest obstacles to bountiful pea crops. Peas flourish when they can both sprout and produce roots quickly. Where cold, soggy soils make that challenging, the result is too often slow sprouting and speedy rotting instead. That’s why mounding those pea beds makes good sense, but if you can’t manage that, or where space is at a premium, it’s quite possible to grow great peas in generous containers. I’ve used tree pots ever since I’ve been deck gardening, and since the soil in those big black tubs warms up even sooner than the ground does, my peas sprout fast and produce deep, sturdy roots and strong top growth.
Another way to give peas a chance in cool springs is use bacterial inoculants. Soak the dried peas in cold water for an hour or so, 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. And it’s not just the peas and beans; all legumes fix nitrogen in this way, as you can see when you look at the roots of Scotch broom, or clover, or alders. Take a closer look at your weeds and you’ll notice small, whitish lumps clustered along the rootlets like dirty pop beads. These storage nodules are holding tank-ettes for the atmospheric nitrogen that gets absorbed from the air through the plant’s leaves. If you cut the tops off members of the legume family instead of pulling the plants up, those nodule-studded legume roots will release the stored nitrogen back into the soil to nourish the next crop.
If you decide to try an inoculant, read the package first and choose one that will be helpful for edible and sweet peas as well as for string beans, snap beans, and lima beans. All leguminous plants will make those storage nodules sooner or later anyway, but you’ll usually get larger crops with an inoculant because depleted or less-than-lovely garden soils often lack adequate colonies of the bacteria legumes need. Given the right inoculant, the young roots will function fully right away.
Slow Food For Speedy 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. 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 5 days, while outside it may take as long a 2 weeks. Plant starts or 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). Now start planning your menu; Risi Bisi for me!