Having sweet peas for a spring or early summer bouquet is the dream of many foothill gardeners.
While our climate often brings summer heat as early as June, there are some gardening practices that will provide weeks of nonedible sweet peas for bouquets and delicious sugar snap or edible pod peas for munching.
I will be starting all my peas, edible and nonedible from seed on Presidents’ Day weekend. Even early March is not too late for seeding. With the advantage of a cold frame to protect the young starts for the first few critical weeks of late winter cold, the seedlings ready for transplanting into the garden in April are strong and vigorous.
A small cold frame can give you a head start on lettuce and other greens too. Row covers may provide all the protection needed for gardeners at lower foothill elevations where the soil warms by late March. In my cold microclimate at 2,650 foot elevation, peas and greens will not grow well in those first few important weeks, so more protection is beneficial.
Peas are a legume. Their root systems will add nitrogen to your garden soil just as beans do later in the summer. Seed may be inoculated to increase the rhizobacteria on the root systems, adding available nitrogen to the soil. Your pea plants and your garden soil will be healthier with this simple step of coating the seed before planting.
Selecting seed is the first important step for sweet peas. While some have longer stems, and some are described as the most fragrant, it is the heat-tolerant cultivars you should be selecting for the foothills. I have picked bouquets, heady with sweet pea fragrance, into late July and early August in most summers.
For eating in the garden and occasionally tossing into stir-fry, I grow the prolific ‘Oregon Giant’ edible pod pea. ‘Dwarf Gray Sugar’ is an heirloom cultivar with smaller peas. Its young side shoots may be harvested for salads. Delicious!
Sugar snap peas are more heat-tolerant than the edible pod peas. If June temperatures rise suddenly, as they often do, this pea may continue production while others wane.
Preparing your garden soil is critically important for all peas, edible and nonedible. Soil needs to be fertile and light. With our native clay soil, this means lots of good compost. If any manure has been incorporated into the mix, it must be aged. Ask your supplier about organic certification and how long the materials have been stockpiled.
The lighter soil will warm sooner, so it’s not too early to prepare the planting area now. As of this week, with little rain for too many days in January and February, even the heaviest clay soil should be low enough in moisture to dig without damage to the soil structure.
Adding soft rock phosphate or colloidal phosphate (20 pounds per hundred square feet) will ensure a strong root system, important for heat tolerance. Phosphorus is also an essential nutrient for any flowering or fruiting plant. The addition of oyster shell (five pounds per hundred square feet) for calcium changes the soil pH. Peas prefer a”sweeter” soil, as it is often referred to when the pH is higher. Oyster shell also makes the phosphorus more available.
Because of my cold microclimate, I do not follow the frequent recommendation of digging a trench for peas. This practice allows the gardener to fill in the trench as the peas grow, strengthening their stems and prolonging harvest. My soil is always too cold in April and May, especially down six inches. I prefer to use mulch to protect the stems and soil surface.
When I transplant young pea seedlings into the garden, usually by early April, I cover the plants with Agribon until they show signs of strong new growth. This protection is insurance against sudden cold spells, although these are not as damaging to five or six-week old seedlings as they might be to very young plants. The row cover also keeps my eager quail from feasting!
Mulching is critical for the weeks ahead and needs to be done in stages. At planting time, a thin application of decomposed straw protects the soil surface from any heavy spring rains or hail. Keep it light to allow the spring sun to continue warming the soil. As the plants grow, add more straw or a mix of straw and compost. By May, this mulch may be ten inches deep.
Finally, if June weather heats up, use shade cloth (30%) to protect all your peas. It may be left on for weeks while you enjoy a harvest of fragrant flowers and a feast of the edible peas.
Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom”, now available locally. For more information about foothill gardening, or to contact Carolyn with gardening questions, visit www.carolynsingergardens.com.