The Race Is on for the First Pea

Reader Contribution by Lee Reich
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In some gardening circles, a gardener’s skill is measured by how soon he or she gets the first mess of peas on the table. Snap peas and snow peas, both eaten pods and all, have their places in the garden, but the peas I’m talking about are shelling peas – sometimes called English peas.

I’ll admit to being drawn into this spirit of pea competition, but just as important to me is the quality and quantity of my peas. I don’t grow smooth-seeded shelling peas, such as Alaska, which are earliest but don’t taste as good as wrinkle-seeded types, whose seeds wrinkle up because they are so high in sugars. I also won’t cheat and sow peas indoors in peat pots or flats for transplanting outdoors. Transplanting might give the earliest peas, but you can’t manage enough transplants to get a decent meal because individual plants bear very little and such plants rarely sustain good production. I won’t cheat by growing fungicide-treated seeds, which can be planted earlier without danger of their rotting. Handling poison coated seeds takes the fun out of pea planting and upsets the balance of soil organisms.

Why the big deal about shelling peas? Why not measure our green thumbs with beans? Or lettuces? Or turnips? One reason is that peas are such a quintessential garden delicacy. Sugars in fresh-picked peas start changing to starches just as soon as the pods are picked. Other, less well defined components also contribute to flavor difference that make market and homegrown peas taste like two completely different vegetables.

And there really is a skill in growing a good crop of peas: They respond favorably to good soil – one of the earmarks of good gardeners everywhere – as well as to timely sowing and harvest. Peas are a cool weather crop so must be planted early. Not too early, though, or the seeds might rot. Not too late either, because the plants languish in hot weather, which makes what little flavor the peas can muster pass too quickly.

Too many people have already asked me if I’ve “got my peas in yet,” repeating the traditional advice to get pea seeds into the ground on St. Patrick’s Day. St. Patrick’s Day may be the ideal date in Ireland, but sometime in January is more on the mark in Florida, sometime in May in Minnesota. Here in New York, I plant peas on April 1, which is 7 weeks before the average date of our last killing frost. Some years I’ll push a soil thermometer into the ground to find out if the temperature has yet reached 40 degrees F., the minimum for good pea germination.

Some years I get a jump on the season by presprouting the seeds indoors or by shallow planting. I presprout seeds by soaking them in water for a few hours, draining off the water, then rinsing them a few times a day until sprouts appear. I restrain myself with these shenanigans, though, because slow growth in the early, cool part of the growing season, means that dramatic efforts at getting peas going will not translate into equally dramatic early harvests. (Still, it could help win the race for the first taste of fresh peas.)

Timely planting and humus-rich, well-drained soil are the basics to make anyone a contender in the competition for the best and earliest crops of peas, but some other practices may or may not have merit. Some gardeners, especially British gardeners, plant their peas in the bottoms of trenches about 6 inches deep, then fill the trenches in with soil as the pea plants grow. This practice allegedly keeps the roots deep, where the soil stays cool even in summer. Whether the roots really remain deep in the soil is open to question, and, anyway, I’d rather keep my peas’ roots near the soil surface – the soil is warmer there, but it’s also better aerated. Water from drip irrigation lines running along my pea rows helps cool the soil, and a thick, organic mulch can do the same.

Correct plant spacing and propping the vines up off the ground are definite yield enhancers. Rather than single rows, I sow double rows about 6 inches apart, with 2 inches between peas in a row. I run a double row up the middle of my pea beds and provide support with a temporary fence of chicken wire between the double rows..

I’ve grown many different varieties of shelling peas and found that their flavor and productivity don’t differ greatly if they are well-grown and harvested in a timely manner.  But I do consider how long the peas take to mature. Summer usually sweeps in fast and furiously around here, so early and midseason varieties usually do better than late varieties.

As long as I am going to have to reach to pick a pod, it might as well be stuffed with as many peas as possible. Among the varieties that I’ve grown, the best in terms of pod size and fill were Green Arrow, Lincoln, Patriot and Maestro.

If shelling peas have a fault, it is their need to be shelled. In the interests of science, I decided one day in early summer a few years back to quantify the time involved in shelling peas. To my surprise, I was able to pop open the pods of about six quarts of peas to make two quarts of shelled peas in 30 minutes – not really a bad rate, and not really an awful a job in under the shade of a tree with the caress of a warm breeze on my back.

Lee Reich describes the weekly goings-on at his farmden (more than a garden, less than a farm) at