Though winter still wages cold war against Charlotte-area gardeners, February is time for us to give peas a chance.
Snap peas are the perfect natural snack food, sweet tender pods filled with plump peas. They are well worth the extra effort needed to grow them, even though we have to plant in chilly February.
The reason for planting in the cold, surprisingly, has everything to do with heat. When summer hits, peas are done for. The challenge is to get peas up and growing now so we can harvest before June.
Complicating matters, because peas grow best from seed, not transplants, we can’t get a head start in the greenhouse.
Peas can germinate in soil at 40 degrees, but soil may be even colder in February, so pea seeds may stay dormant and rot after planting. If you don’t have a soil thermometer, try planting after five consecutive days of weather in the mid-60s, suggests Doug Jones of Piedmont Biofarm in Pittsboro.
You can cover your pea bed with clear plastic to help heat the soil, removing it as soon as seedlings appear. I also soak my pea seeds overnight before planting.
Once peas emerge and start to grow, leaves and vines are very cold hearty. An inch of mulch – chopped fall leaves are fine – spread after seedlings have reached several inches in height helps keep soil temperatures even, holds moisture and suppresses weeds.
In average garden soil, peas require no fertilizer, though they benefit from an inch or so of good compost worked into the top 8 inches to 10 inches of soil before sowing.
If you add fertilizer, Espoma Garden-Tone (3-4-4) is a reasonable choice. Work half the amount recommended on the bag into the bed, at the same time as the compost. Do not overdo nitrogen.
Excess nitrogen can actually lower pod yield, according to Clemson University. Peas are legumes, so once they begin growing, they can obtain their own nitrogen with help from natural symbiotic bacteria (an inoculant powder is available for treating seed.)
Choosing the right variety of pea is a little tricky. Like tomatoes, peas come in viney and bushy versions, plus there are different peas for different purposes.
In addition to snap peas (also called mangetout, meaning “eat it all”), there are also snow peas, an Asian favorite with sweet, flat pods; English peas and French petit pois, with tasty peas in tough, inedible pods; soup peas grown for drying; and, lately, tendril (afila) peas, grown for the tendrils peas use for climbing, now a gourmet foodie craze.
This list leaves out black-eyed peas, an entirely different heat-loving plant grown in mid-summer; and sweet peas, yet another distinct species grown for its beautiful fragrant blooms, with poisonous pods and peas.
Snap peas are my top choice for Charlotte. If you are new to pea growing, have limited space, or are in a hurry, try the bushy variety Sugar Ann that requires no trellis, though it still does better with something to clamber over.
For a bigger harvest, try classic sugar snap, a vigorous climbing variety that needs a sturdy trellis or farm-style string and stakes. It takes longer than Sugar Ann but yields more peas for a longer period, with unbeatable taste and quality.
Super sugar snap, a variation that is supposed to be more mildew resistant, has not grown or produced as well as the original for me.
I space seeds an inch apart and cover with about an inch of soil. I usually plant tall-growing sugar snaps in double rows a few inches apart, with the trellis down the middle, and bush types in single rows about 2 feet apart (two rows per bed).
Grow a tall, trellised variety beside a bush type to get the best of both worlds. One pound of seed sows about a 100-foot row; a typical seed packet of snap peas from Park Seed weighs about 2 ounces, enough for a 10- to 12-foot row.
Peas are shallow-rooted and not much bothered by weed competition, so avoid aggressive weeding and cultivating in the pea patch. Water regularly to a depth of 6 inches, especially when pods are beginning to form. Water in the morning so leaves dry by sundown to discourage mildew.
Once your peas start producing, pick relentlessly, and don’t let peas get too large inside the pods. Use both hands when you pick to avoid harming vines. Take the harvest straight to the fridge to keep the peas sweeter longer.
Peas hold a special place in biology, thanks to Gregor Mendel, the monk who first teased out the laws of genetics by experimenting on peas in his garden.
Thomas Jefferson was also a pea fancier who grew 19 varieties at Monticello and competed in annual “pea contests,” where the farmer who harvested the first pod of the season was honored with a banquet.
Don Boekelheide is a freelance writer and Community Garden mentor at UNC Charlotte. Have a story idea for Don? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.