Waiting for pea planting time

Posted March 25, 2011, at 11:22 p.m.
Last modified March 26, 2011, at 6:19 p.m.

Snow and cold continue to bear down, but there is no doubt that spring has come. I can hear it in the hollow mournful “coah, cooo, cooo, coo” of the mourning dove sitting in a nearby pine. I can see it in patches of soil exposed to the sun’s warmth for the first time in months, and in the twitching tail of the chipmunk atop an old log pile. I can feel it in my bones.

New gardeners are eager to get started, if only the ice would leave the soil. It is hard to temper such enthusiasm, and mistakes will be made, turning soil still too cold and too wet, would-be seed beds turning to muddy clods in the wake of the spade. Even experienced gardeners have been known to jump the gun for the sake of planting early peas.

Planting peas is an inaugural event in our gardening year, an early-spring ritual that starts with spreading composted goat manure over the surface of a sunny well-drained bed, forking it in, then raking the bed level.

I sow the seeds an inch apart and an inch deep in double rows down the length of the bed, each row about three inches from its mate and each pair of rows about 18 inches apart. This is intensive planting. Within a month of sowing, the vines will be so thick that a mouse couldn’t crawl through them.  Most of the growth is upward, however, and the bed is narrow enough to allow harvesting from the edges.

Between rows I construct pea fences of birch branches, pruning the lateral shoots from the bottom half of each branch so that it can be pushed deep into the soil but leaving the long thin twigs on the upper half, placing the branches close enough to form a lattice for pea tendrils to grasp as the plants vine upward. I cut branches of yellow birch, shaping young saplings in the process, and the smell of wintergreen at the cut ends is yet another sign of spring.

After covering the seeds with soil and watering well, I scatter a thin mulch of dry straw over the entire bed. The seeds germinate in seven to 10 days and the lush seedling growth quickly shades the ground, preventing weed seeds from germinating and keeping the soil cool.

Peas are essentially pest-free, unless you count Reilly, our Brittany, who several years ago discovered the pea patch to be a source of tasty treats. Lacking the ability to pinch a pod from the vine with one paw while grasping the vine with the other, she will pull an entire plant from the bed for a single plump pod. I’ve learned to do the picking for her.

There are three types of garden peas: English peas, snow peas and snap peas. All three require the same growing conditions, but differ in time of harvest and how they are eaten.

English peas are allowed to ripen fully in the pod before the plump, round peas are shelled and cooked without the pod. Snow peas are harvested while the peas inside the pod are immature and the entire pea pod is steamed or stir-fried.

Snap peas, my favorite type of garden pea, can be harvested when the peas are immature and the intact pods eaten raw or cooked. More mature pods can be harvested and shelled and the peas eaten like English peas. Or the entire mature pod, still tender and tasty, can be eaten raw or cooked with the mature peas inside.

Sugar Snap was the original snap pea variety, winning a Gold Medal in the 1979 All-America Selection trials. It is still a popular variety among gardeners.

In recent years, our favorite snap pea variety has been Sugar Ann, ideal for small gardens. The vines are short and bushy and can be grown without support, although a birch-branch pea fence makes harvesting easier. Sugar Ann produces about 10 days earlier than other snap peas.

Like Reilly, Marjorie and I love the sweetness and crunchy texture of raw snap peas; many pods never make it out of the garden. Those that do are tossed into garden salads or eaten as healthy snacks. High in carbohydrates but low in calories, peas contain nutritious amounts of essential vitamins, fiber, folic acid, amino acids and proteins.

It’s beginning to look like a late start getting the peas in the ground this year. The snow is still a foot deep in this year’s pea bed and, once it does finally melt, we must wait for the soil to dry out enough to work.

This is the hardest part of spring for me, waiting to plant peas.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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