Planting Peas By Lilac Leaves

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Snow peas and greens are rarin’ to go

Saint Patrick’s Day, Maybe

Years ago, when I was just getting started with edible gardening, more experienced gardeners assured me that the proper time to plant peas was on Saint Patrick’s Day. However, that very year, there was a significant snow storm on March 17, which did not tempt me to heed the advice. Since then, we’ve had quite a few snowy or freezing Saint Patrick’s Days, but fortunately, I learned from PNW gardening guru Steve Solomon that no matter where we live, we should plant our peas according to the size of local lilac leaves. That probably sounds like just another piece of dubious folk wisdom, but like everything Steve suggests, it has a sound scientific basis. It turns out that lilac buds begin to swell when the average daily (and nightly) temperature reaches a certain point. I can’t remember just what that is, but it’s when night temperatures creep out of the 30s. By the time the leaves are emerging, the soil is warm enough to keep peas (and many greens) growing well.

While some plants sprout or bloom in rhythm with day length (notably pussywillows, alders and hazels, all blooming right now), others are spurred into action by changes in temperature. Same goes for tree frogs, which will strike up a collective croaking chorus in breeding season when the air temperature is just right, and cease abruptly in perfect unison as soon as the air gets too warm or cold. Prominent among temperature-sensitive indicator plants is the common lilac, which is such a popular garden shrub that most of us either grow one or at least know where one is growing nearby. Would-be pea planters are tipped off that the time is right when emerging lilac leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear. If you aren’t familiar with mouse ears, you probably don’t have cats to keep you up to speed. However, mouse ears are roughly the size of your pinky finger fingernail, which nearly everyone has at least one of. Of course, that varies with hand size, but when about half an inch of lilac leaves are showing, it’s pea planting time.

Soil Prep For Peas

Peas are a cool season crop and they aren’t fussy about chilly soil, but like most edibles, they prefer a well drained spot in full sun (or the sunniest place you can offer). Where rainwater tends to puddle, plant them in a raised trough or a mounded bed made with at least a foot of decent top soil blended with mature compost. Peas are healthiest and most productive when grown in soil that drains promptly yet contains enough organic matter that it also retains adequate moisture. This ideal combination is rare here in the Maritime Northwest (among other non-idyllic places), but we can create a beneficial growing environment by making mounds of sandy loam, then topping them off with compost and top dressing with aged, washed, or digested dairy manure. Mounded beds don’t need to be boxed in (bed siding materials all have issues, whether sheltering slugs and other pests or leaching chemicals into the soil). Instead, the sloped sides may be stabilized with carpeting thymes and oreganos, plants that will thrill your local pollinator population.

In heavy clay-based soils, peas tend to develop fusarium wilt or pea root rot, the biggest obstacles to bountiful pea crops. Peas flourish when they get a speedy start and are able to sprout and produce roots fast. If the weather remains cold and soil stays soggy, slow sprouting can lead to root rotting in just a few days. If your garden lacks space for mounded beds, consider planting in stock tanks or large water troughs instead. Drilled for drainage and raised up on bricks or blocks, troughs eliminate bending and stooping, a boon for less spry gardeners. You can also plant in huge plastic tree pots, which hold about a cubic yard of soil and warm up well before the ground will in a chilly year.

Edible Pea Greens

A reader asked about Petite Snap Green peas, which can be grown indoors or outside and harvested when just a few inches tall. Many early pea types offer tasty leaves and juicy tendrils that are delicious in salads and make a colorful, crunchy garnish. Petite Snap Green Peas have frothy, frilly tendrils that are especially flavorful, though they’re not great pod producers. Some snap peas, such as Feisty and Masterpiece, are also grown for their abundant, lacy tendrils but are also fairly decent pod-formers. For my money, snow pea pods and tendrils are best eaten raw or very lightly cooked. Among them, Speckled Snow Peas are especially pretty, with variegated burgundy and chartreuse pods that are delicious as babies or when plump with peas. Royal Snow Peas boast deeper purple pods that make a gorgeous garnish for soup or poultry as well.

Peas are nitrogen fixers and don’t really need much in the way of fertilizers, which can promote more leaves than pods and peas. To keep pea starts productive, work in some compost and a little kelp meal, or water in some liquid kelp (such as Maxi-Crop) to offer encouragement without excess nitrogen or phosphorus (which can build up to excess soil levels over time). Plant your pea starts 3-4 inches apart, marking the rows or patches with twiggy branches to support the young stems. Give them a blanket of mature compost and keep the soil moist if rains are irregular this year and you can start harvesting tendrils in just a few weeks. Now that’s something to look forward to!

This entry was posted in Care & Feeding, Drainage, Early Crops, Garden Prep, Pollinators, Sustainable Gardening, Sustainable Living and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Planting Peas By Lilac Leaves

  1. Tonya says:

    Funny I always remember an article I read years ago that illustrated- Forsythia Blooms=Time to prune roses. Young pinkish oak leaves are the size of a squirrel’s ear= Plant corn. Lilac’s Bloom=plant Squash and Beans. Visual cues sometimes are easier to remember!

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Tonya, yes! Observant gardeners follow a number of such plant cues, which of course change from region to region. Paying attention to our plants is the best way to learn from them!

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