I well remember the April day back in Missouri when I was proudly showing my Ozark garden to a local vegetable grower of many years' experience. As we came to the peas, my friend took one look at the strong, green vines and shook his head. "Peas need cool, moist weather to survive," he told me. "Come June, these fine vines will be withered and brown ... mark my words."
The man was absolutely right. Those plants fared well only until late May. After that, the scorching sun of summer proceeded — day after day — to parch and singe the peas unmercifully. Come harvest time, each scrawny vine seemed absolutely eager to give up its skimpy handful of pods so it could go ahead and die in peace before the weather got even hotter.
Soon thereafter, I moved to even drier and hotter New Mexico and — naturally — in the process gave up all hope of ever growing peas again. After all, if the delicate plants didn't do well in Missouri, how could they possibly thrive in New Mexico, where springtime temperatures often top 100 degrees Fahrenheit?
It was my father's gardening success in the Southwest, however, that changed my thinking completely. Despite the Sahara-like weather, Dad seemed to grow magnificent crops of peas, on vines that stood up and bore heavily even when afternoon temperatures hovered around the century mark! His secret: Give the plants water ... lots of water. With this in mind, I decided I'd try to grow peas after all.
First, however, I had to work on our soil. My garden is located on the Rio Grande flood plain, about 50 feet from the river itself. The water table — consequently — is only 24 inches below the surface, and the soil is so alkaline that I still don't know its pH. (The soil test kit I use only goes to pH 8.0.) When I first moved here, the only plant life in my proposed vegetable patch was some salt grass interspersed with a few mesquite bushes ... hardly what you'd call a garden of Eden.
Fortunately, I had plenty of goat manure on hand and — by digging the wastes into the ground — I was able to both reduce the soil pH and loosen up the hard adobe clay. In addition, I gathered willow leaves from along the river and tilled them under with some spoiled hay. The garden — thus enriched — produced a fair crop of corn the first year. I figured by then that it was probably ready for peas, too.
Since I wanted to give my peas the best possible chance, though, I went a step further and re-applied goat manure to the soon-to-be-planted area. And I really spread it on and rototilled it in: four wheelbarrow-loads into a 10-by-12 foot patch ... the equivalent of 20 tons per acre, which is plenty.
A month later — February 12, on a glorious, short-sleeve, late winter, desert afternoon — I planted my peas (Little Marvel, Blue Bantam, Progress No. 9, and Wando varieties, all from Burpee). It seemed a bit early to sow seed — temperatures were still dipping into the teens at night — but I'd always heard you should "get your peas started early" ... so I took the plunge.
I sowed the seeds three inches apart and allowed a two-foot spacing between rows. In addition, I placed a three-foot-high wall of twigs along each row so the vines would have support later on. (I'll never space my rows that closely again. Trying to squeeze between them to pick peas did terrible things to my aching back ... not to mention my claustrophobia. From now on, it's three-foot spacing for me!)
Next, I irrigated ... and waited a week ... irrigated again ... and waited again ... and — after a couple of weeks — I started to get antsy. Why weren't those peas up yet? What could possibly be wrong? After the third week, I was about ready to replant the patch ... when the first seedlings (the Blue Bantam's) appeared. There'd been nothing wrong after all: The cold soil had merely slowed the plants' germination.
At this point, everything was fine ... except that those little sprigs proceeded to just sit there — unchanged — week after week until I began to get impatient again. "Well," I sighed, "at least they're up now. They're probably just putting all their energies into root production now so they can really crank out the top growth when the weather turns warm." (Little did I realize how right I was!)
The vines grew slowly as spring advanced. They probably would've grown faster, except that the mercury often dipped below freezing at night. (Those April afternoons might be a balmy 70 degrees, but as long as it freezes at night the vines can't grow very rapidly.) I was amazed, however, at how frost-resistant the young plants were. I can say with certainty that they withstood temperatures as low as 20 degrees ... perhaps even lower early in the season.
Then, when May came (and with it, 40 degree nights) that whole section of the garden suddenly skyrocketed like Jack's beanstalk! All I did during that period was water the pea patch religiously every week, flooding the plot with a good two inches of water each time. Soon, the area was dense with brawny vines that looked like they could take anything man or nature could give them: heat, drought, insects, you name it. (Of course, I watched carefully for insects — especially the dreaded pea aphid — but the vines were growing so rapidly, bugs didn't have a chance!)
We harvested our first peas May 17 ... ninety-five days after we'd put the seeds in the ground. The cropping season lasted almost a month sand during that period we harvested 60 pounds of pods, which shelled out to 31 pounds of peas ... a quarter )pound per square foot! (Not bad for a 10-by-12 foot patch of what most folks would call desert!) During the height of the season, we were picking and canning every third day. We were overwhelmed.
In self-defense, we finally learned the easy way to shell peas. All you do is hold the pod upside down (curved side up), blossom end away from your body ... then squeeze the blossom end between thumb and first finger until the pod pops open and — in one quick motion — strip the peas out with your thumb. (Note: This method works well only if the pods have pointed ends, with a small air pocket at the tip. Blue Bantam and Progress No. 9 both have pods that meet this description. We timed ourselves and found that Wando and Little Marvel — which have blunt-ended pods — take almost twice as long to shell.)
After a seemingly endless month of picking, shelling, and canning, our once-healthy vines finally started to turn yellow at the bottom, while the topmost leaves succumbed to a powdery mildew. I picked the plants over one more time ... then, with a sigh of relief, ripped them out of the ground and fed the foliage to the goats.
Peas have found a permanent place in our garden now. We've learned that if you give them well-fertilized soil and plenty of water — huge quantities of water — they'll out-yield just about any crop you care to mention ... even in hot weather!