by Julia Frisbie
posted March 27, 2022 (two days early)
Several friends have texted me this month: “Is it time to plant vegetable seeds yet?” I respond, “Not unless they’re peas!” It’s not a totally comprehensive answer, because it’s also a perfectly reasonable time to sow fava beans… the thing is, most people don’t grow favas. Almost everyone grows peas. And why not?! Is there any green face more welcome in the spring than a row of peas, with their charismatic tendrils reaching out as if to hug your little finger?
March is the month when I start looking for signs that the soil would like some peas tucked into it. The weather’s different every year, and as the climate crisis intensifies our calendars will become less useful, so rather than doing it by a certain date I am looking for phenological clues among our wild neighbors. Last week the big leaf maples bloomed, and so I knew it was time to plant peas.
Peas can germinate at a variety of soil temperatures, from about 40 degrees on up, so I don’t bother starting them indoors or on my propagation table in trays. And there’s usually plenty of rain around pea planting time, so I don’t worry much about water, either. The big risk factor in successfully starting peas is that wild birds will pluck them right out of the soil and eat them as soon as they sprout. They’re big, starchy, delicious seeds, and the birds are extra hungry right now because they’re busy laying eggs. Linda Gilkeson, in her book Backyard Bounty, recommends pre-sprouting peas indoors in shallow trays of vermiculite for that reason. I’ve had great success with this method in the past, and if you only plan to grow a few dozen pea plants, it’s well worth the effort.
At this point in my life, I have a kid who thinks fresh peas are as good as candy, so if I want to eat any myself I have to plant them by the hundred, not the dozen. The vermiculite method is less practical at that scale. I use other strategies to try and protect my peas from birds.
First, I soak them overnight so that they’re rehydrated and ready to wake up. This helps them germinate all at the same time, which is more likely to overwhelm the birds so that they leave some peas for me rather than systematically eating every seedling as soon as it sprouts. I don’t mind sharing some peas with the birds, but I don’t want to share them all! When the seeds get plump rather than wrinkly, and when their little “tails” (that’s the place where the rootlet will emerge) are barely starting to untuck and become visible, I know they’ve soaked long enough. I don’t soak them longer than 12 hours, because I don’t want to drown them.
Then I dig a little trench, no more than an inch deep, and drop them in. Two- to four-inch spacing is fine. If I’m ambitious, I cover them with vermiculite to hold moisture next to them while they germinate even if we get a dry day. If not, I just pinch the soil closed over them. Then I water them in.
Three days after pre-soaking and planting into a shallow trench of vermiculite down the middle of my garden beds, all of my 2022 peas look like this, with a little rootlet reaching down for the soil:
Some pea varieties need support, and some don’t. Read your seed packet to know how tall your peas will want to climb, and then install an appropriate trellis at planting time so there’s no risk of disturbing the little roots once they’re established. If you don’t want to trellis them, choose a dwarf variety. Two thirds of my peas– Sugar Snap for early snacking, and Waverex for making peas-and-new-potatoes– grow only knee-high and need no support, which makes them easier for my kiddo to harvest. One third of my peas– Schweizer Reisen, which I grow for fresh eating and stir-fries over a longer harvest window– like to grow 6+ feet, which is a lot more work to get ready for, but I wouldn’t skip it for anything. The peas are just that good!
This year I’m experimenting with laying remay fabric over the tops of the pea rows. This should give them even more protection from birds… I just have to make sure I remove it soon enough so that the little pea shoots don’t get squished underneath it once they emerge!
Another strategy I’ve tried is to allow my mostly-indoor cat periodic access to the fenced backyard when the peas are about to germinate. She’s good at chasing off the birds, but she’s also likely to dig up the freshly-prepared soil and poop in it, so it’s not a perfect solution. Plus, I don’t really want to harm the birds, and I would be upset if she caught one. And, unlike birds, she doesn’t operate in the rain.