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Planting time for peas is upon us

Jessica Walliser
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Jessica Walliser
Shell peas

At long last, it’s time to plant one of my favorite garden crops: peas.

Garden peas, Pisum sativum, are divided into three common types: shell (or English) peas, sugar snaps and snow peas. While shell peas have inedible pods, both sugar snaps and snow peas have edible pods and do not have to be shelled.

Shell peas are best harvested when the pods are plump. Letting them on the vine too long means the peas turn starchy and dense. Like all peas, shelling types are best harvested in the early morning when their moisture content is highest. They should be shelled as soon as possible then refrigerated or blanched and frozen.

The edible pods of sugar snaps grow plump and sweet as the seeds swell inside. They are harvested when the seeds are fully developed and the pod is good and fat. Many sugar snap types develop a string that runs on the straight side of the pod from the stem end down to the base of the pod. This string is easily removed during harvest by snapping the pod off the vine just below the flowering stem and peeling the string down the length of the pod. The string stays on the plant while the pod goes into the basket.

Flat-podded snow peas are best harvested before the seeds begin to expand; later harvests could mean more fibrous pods. Ready-to-pick snow peas measure from 1 to 5 inches, depending on the variety. The pods should be crisp at harvest and, much like sugar snaps, some varieties will need to have their strings removed.

All peas relish cool weather and planting them early in the season is a must. They are best planted as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring — that is, as long the soil isn’t too wet. When you turn the soil, it shouldn’t stick to your shovel. If it does, wait another week or so before planting.

Peas will germinate in soil temperatures as low as 40 degrees. The ideal pH range for optimum pea growth and production is between 6.0 and 7.0, and vines should be situated in full sun conditions. Peas are sown 1 inch apart and 1 inch deep, ideally in well-drained soil with ample organic matter. Spacing the rows between 12 and 18 inches apart gives ample room for proper air circulation (which can cut down on common pea diseases like powdery mildew) and allows enough room for harvesting.

Before planting the seeds, consider coating them with a bacterial inoculant. Pea inoculant introduces and encourages the root colonizing bacteria that form nitrogen fixing nodules on the pea roots. These nodules are unique to plants in the pea and bean family and allow them to convert nitrogen from the air into a form that is usable by plants. Though the bacteria that form the nodules are present in most healthy garden soil, coating the peas with inoculant before planting means faster colonization, larger plants and greater yield.

As all pea varieties are either bush or vining varieties, it may be necessary to provide them with a trellis or netting for support. Check each variety carefully for growing height information. Any selection growing to 30 inches or more should be trellised. This is easily done with chicken wire or garden netting by positioning it along the row between two hardwood stakes.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden: A Natural Approach to Pest Control” and “Good Bug, Bad Bug.” Her website is www.jessicawalliser.com.

Send your gardening or landscaping questions to [email protected] or The Good Earth, 503 Martindale St., 3rd Floor, D.L. Clark Building, Pittsburgh, PA 15212.

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