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Patience When Planting Peas: The Payoff

Wait for the right soil temperatures and conditions before starting pea seeds.

Growing PeasThis time of year we’re planting peas. They’re always the first thing to go in our garden and the common wisdom — “plant as soon as the soil can be worked” — is our cue to get into the garden as soon as the soil dries enough that it doesn’t ball up when squeezed in our fists. Peas are also a cool weather crop, doing best in spring and early summer but also planted in late summer-early fall in places where winter doesn’t jump the shark as soon as October comes around.

Not only great eating — we were all about serving curls of fresh pea shoots in salads before it became popular in gourmet, farm-to-table restaurants — peas serve another purpose that promotes well-being in gardeners. They give us something to do in the weeks (and months ) ahead of when the rest of the garden goes in.

If you’re like me, you’re chomping at the bit once March rolls around and garden season is imminent. It’s like waiting for Christmas when you’re a kid. Sometimes you just can’t keep your hands off the presents even before the big day.



Pea Seeds

Garden peas are a favorite cool weather crop and often the first to be sown in spring.

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A favorite cool weather crop! Heirloom peas are a great source of vegetable protein as well as vitamins, minerals and fiber. Vines need to be staked and bush varieties can benefit from trellising to hold the pods off the ground.

Planting peas four to six weeks ahead of the last frost, as frequently recommended, helps satisfy that urge to get into the garden long before anything else, whether beans, corn, lettuce, and tomatoes, will go in. You’re feeling the itch. Planting is a way to scratch.

But there are drawbacks for planting too early and rewards for waiting just a bit. Peas are glad to sit in your soil until ground temperatures are right. This means if you plant your peas when the soil is still cold, say around 40 degrees, it can take as much as five weeks for them to germinate. But if the soil temperature has risen to a modest 60 degrees, your peas will sprout in ten days or less, a week if the temperature has risen to 65 degrees.

At this point, you can see the value of a soil thermometer. Soil temperature, is often as important if not more so, than air temperature when first planting your garden.

Now in Montana where we’re based, as well as the northern tier states and New England, the ground is slow to warm in the spring. And while you’re thinking you’ll be getting a jump on the harvest if you plant your pea seed as soon as the ground can be worked, you could be wrong. Waiting two, even three weeks for soil temperatures to rise might save you days, even weeks to harvest. From experience, we know that peas planted up to a month later than the first sowing quickly catch up with their sisters who’ve spent much more time in the ground.

Want to hurry up the process? Lay clear plastic over the part of the garden you intend to plant peas. It will hasten soil warming as your soil thermometer will tell you. Clear plastic works better than black plastic (though black plastic too will hasten results) because it “solarizes” the soil.

That other rule of thumb when planting peas — “as soon as the soil can be worked”– should also be taken with a grain of salt. Make that grains of sand. Peas planted before the soil warms sufficiently in places where there’s a chance of wet springs — most places we know– risk rotting in the ground. Again, waiting a few weeks to plant gives soils a chance to dry out more completely as well as taking away the rains (and slush and sleet) that will fall. You want your soil to dry so it does not compact tightly in your seed bed (see Planting Time and Soil Readiness). Having plenty of compost in your soil helps prevent this. Adding a little sand to your patch will also help it drain and dry more quickly.

If you’ve waited too long to plant peas and want to speed up germination, soak seed overnight in a jar of water, then plant. But don’t do this unless soil temperatures are at least 60 degrees or, better yet, approaching 70 degrees. A soaked seed in the cold earth is an invitation to rot.

We probably don’t have to tell you how to plant your peas. It was one of the first garden plantings my grandfather turned over to me — see “kid at Christmas” above — and you really can’t go wrong as long as you plant them deeply enough, one inch beneath the soil line. Be sure to provide them support — there’s a million ways to do it — and have the support ready before you plant so that you won’t disturb you sweet little peas once their tucked in your garden bed. More information on peas? Minnesota is here, Idaho is here (PDF), and Illinois is here. Count on us to be talking “sugar” snap peas and heirloom varieties, as well as culinary uses as the season progresses. Until then, patience, patience.

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One Response to “Patience When Planting Peas: The Payoff”

  1. Christine S on March 29th, 2014 at 2:56 pm #

    I’ve heard that you should plant peas when the forsythia is blooming. What do you think about using that as a guide?

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