By Steve Aegerter, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Master GardenerSM, and Carl Wilson, Cooperative Extension Agent, horticulture, Denver.
Peas are a snap when you plant early. In fact, research shows you can enjoy a 50 percent higher yield by planting April 1 than if you delay until May 1.
Peas are among the earliest vegetables that can be planted, along with spinach, lettuce and radishes.
Choose a variety from one or more of the three main types of garden peas. Shelling or garden peas contain tender sweet peas nestled in tough, inedible pods ('Novella' and 'Maestro'). Snow peas have small, underdeveloped peas in tender pods and are used extensively in Chinese cooking ('Sugar Snow' and 'Oregon Sugar Pod II').
The last type is the snap pea ('Sugar Daddy Stringless' and 'Sugar Snap'). They produce edible pods with mature, sweet peas. There are many more to choose from but these are a few varieties proven to grow well in the Rocky Mountain Region.
Planting with snow on the ground may seem to be forcing the issue but you are cleared for planting anytime after soil temperatures have warmed to at least 40 degrees at a two-inch depth. Late snows and frosts are not a problem for these tough plants. Tough, that is, until heat takes down the plants of gardeners making late plantings.
Peas growing in snow
Start with a small trench five to six inches wide and about four inches deep. Preparing your trench is easy if you prepared the soil last fall. If not, be careful not to till clay-type soil if it is too wet or youll end up with adobe-hard soil once it dries. If you didnt do the fall prep work, layer two to three inches of soil on top of your existing soil and plant. Well-drained soils are necessary for good pea growth and raised soil can only help. Usually, no fertilization is necessary although you may want to use a balanced 5 10 -10 granular fertilizer or compost worked well into the trench.
Soak seeds in water overnight to speed germination. Sow seed in the trench one to two inches apart. Dust before covering if using an optional nitrogen inoculant. This inoculant, which is available at most garden centers, is the companion bacteria that enable pea roots to absorb nitrogen directly from the air. Cover with one inch of soil and water seeds to firm the soil around them.
Young peas are vigorous growers and will require about a half inch of water a week until bloom time and one inch a week until pods fill out. Water carefully, especially with clay-type soils. The soil should never become waterlogged, a condition that promotes seed rot. Too much water before flowering will usually reduce yields.
If the seedlings take on a yellow tint, apply a balanced fertilizer or use a full strength application of a water-soluble fertilizer or fish emulsion.
Dense plantings both increase your harvest and enable the plants to support themselves. This is especially true of the bush or dwarf types like 'Petite Pois'. Because of our winds, varieties that reach 18 inches or more will require some type of support.
There are many elaborate support and trellising systems, but even simple supports can be effective. Before planting, cut a piece of plastic netting or chicken wire to a height determined by the variety of pea sown. A bamboo frame easily supports this netting.
Other gardeners use the same type of frame and simply tie and stretch twine down from the crosspiece every few inches and secure to the ground with a nail or twig.
Perhaps the original pea supports are shrub cuttings from pruning, called "pea brush." After covering the seeds, simply push the stems of "pea brush" into the soil in the middle of the trench every five to six inches to create a natural trellis of the desired height.
After the seedlings reach three or four inches, add small amounts of additional soil and repeat as the plants grow until the trench is one inch higher than the garden plot. This will help to keep the roots cooler, give added support and create a deeper root zone. There is no need to thin seedlings if you use the trench method.
When harvesting, pick only the peas you can eat that day. They are not good keepers and begin losing their sweetness the moment theyre picked. This is the reason why legume aficionados must plant a pea patch; just-picked freshness can't be bought at any supermarket. Harvest snow peas when the pods are tender and supple and before the peas mature. Snap peas are ready when the pods are still crisp. Garden peas are ready to pick and shell before the pods harden and fade in color.
Peas ready for harvest
When your pea harvest is beginning to wane, interplant radishes, onions or perhaps broccoli seedlings among the pea plants. When the peas are finished, you already have another crop that is several inches high and growing. In fact, the peas have actually enriched the soil, enhancing your succession planting. And dont forget to compost the high-nitrogen pea plants.
Due to the cool growing climate, pest problems are few while the plants are developing. However, aphids may appear. A good dousing of water to knock them off is all that is required. Thrips are the only other pest of note. These very tiny, dark insects hide under the leaves during dry spells and are best controlled with a spray of insecticidal soap.
With planting early you should be enjoying peas at their prime by the first of June.
Photographs courtesy of Carl Wilson.
Note to editor: Attached photos - "Peas growing in snow ", "Peas on a fence" and "." All are photo credit, Carl Wilson.
© CSU/Denver County Extension Master Gardener 2010
888 E. Iliff Avenue, Denver, CO 80210
Date last revised: 01/05/2010