BOULDER COUNTY – Despite the calendar and my family’s full-throated observance of St. Patrick’s Day, I hesitate to plant peas on March 17. The reason is simple: I’ve become suspicious that the cold shoulder the soil gives those seeds slows their germination. This delays the peas’ entrance into the world, dashing my hopes to get the season rolling.
Though they’re a cool season crop, perfect for spring and fall gardens, peas are a bit of an anomaly. The plant likes it chilly, but the seed prefers it warm, with best germination at 50 to 75 degree soil temperatures. True, they’ll sprout if the soil is as cool as 40 degrees, but at those temperatures, peas take their time.
Several types of peas are perfect for growing at home. Garden, or English, peas are best for gardeners who have a lot of time on their hands and want to spend an afternoon shelling the seeds from the pods for their meal. Several years ago I shelled what I thought was a huge bowl of the pods; at the end of an hour I had roughly three tablespoons of peas.
Cooks wanting more performance from their plants should consider planting snap or snow peas, which can be eaten pod and all. Snow peas are harvested young, before the seeds swell, while snap peas are delicious once the peas fill the pod. Superb in stir fry and salads, these peas are kitchen-ready for quick meals. An outstanding variety is Amish snap pea, with sweet, smaller pods that make excellent snacks as you harvest.
Last year I tried growing Alaska peas, which are unremarkable in fresh eating, but dried make a delicious pea soup. We enjoyed that so much this past winter that I’m doubling the size of the planting this spring; last year’s four-by-eight-foot planting box yielded exactly one pound of peas. I’d like a little more than one soup pot’s worth. Grow dry peas as you would dry beans: leave the pods on the vine until both pod and pea are completely dry, then shell and store the peas in a clean, tightly covered container.
Peas are a cool-season crop, so if your soil is 40 degrees or warmer you can sow them directly into your garden. Since they prefer to germinate at warm temperatures, then grow cool, savvy gardeners sprout their peas indoors then pop them into the ground. To give yours a head start, place them between damp paper towels in a warm place, checking them several times per day to make sure the towels are damp and to look for germination. Peas can be fussy about transplanting, so once they’ve sprouted, plant them one-inch deep and two-inches apart as soon as possible.
Although many varieties are short enough to need no staking, others need a bit of trellising to keep those gloriously sweet pods aloft. Chicken wire supports run up taller stakes work, as do soft pea fences made from nylon string or twine. Other gardeners employ tomato trellises to hold up the vines, or you can get creative with a chicken wire coated PVC tunnel that opens to one side.
Planting sun-sensitive spinach and lettuce under the pea tunnel extends their season, protecting them from heat as the pea vines grow. Because peas climb readily, they need little encouragement from the gardener to find the trellis.
By Carol O’Meara, Colorado State University Extension, Boulder County
Colorado State University Extension, together with Boulder County Parks and Open Space, provides unbiased, research-based information about consumer and family issues, horticulture, natural resources, agriculture and 4-H youth development. For more information contact Extension at the Boulder County Fairgrounds, 9595 Nelson Rd., Box B, Longmont, 303.678.6238, e-mail [email protected] or visit ext.colostate.edu/boulder.