The REAL dirt on sprouting peas! Secrets to growing early peas, late peas, and every sweet crunch in between.
Pictured above are 'Swenson Swedish' snow peas up and going in the cold, water-logged soil of early spring at Giving Ground Farm. These peas germinated quickly and at the same time, something difficult to achieve in late winter soils without the help of a few pea germinating tips, my favorite of which are found below. Impress your neighbors with the earliest peas, and get a warm and fuzzy feeling by sharing your secret/this blog post with them!
Pushing the Pea-season Boundaries
Yeah, yeah, we know, peas love it cool, moist, and as the back of every vague seed packet says should be planted "As soon as soil can be worked in spring." Whatever that means. Someone wrote that on the back of a seed packet a hundred years ago and its been the standard pea planting time ever since. It may be true elsewhere, but here anyone who has actually followed that advice knows that if you happily plant peas "As soon as soil can be worked in spring" on that random, sunny 70 degree day in February, they will simply sit there, a couple sending out a hopeful radicle after 3 weeks and then promptly rotting, and the rest rotting way before that. That is because the soil, while theoretically warm enough to sustain a growing pea plant, is way too cold and wet to germinate one.
Quick germination and growth is key to getting untreated, organic seeds off to a good start and out of the damping-off danger-zone of that vulnerable sprouting phase. ~70 degrees is the optimum germination temperature for peas, and germinating seeds need oxygen- a scant commodity in wet winter soils. It could easily be April before that happens around here. But the benefits to having the earliest peas are myriad, from having a longer harvesting window to having an entire crop you don't have to irrigate. Here are a couple of ways to get earlier peas:
1. Clear plastic (My favorite): When planting peas in cold February and March I sow my seeds as usual and then cover the area with clear plastic, holding the corners and edges down with sandbags or shovel-fulls of soil. The plastic doesn't need to be anything fancy, for a long time I just saved large bits of packaging and other waste for this purpose. On sunny late winter days, light enters the plastic and heat is trapped, classic greenhouse effect. This warms the soil and even dries it a little but never fear, most of the water is still trapped under the plastic. In my experience it dries the soil just enough to make for the perfect germination environment. You do need to watch it on very sunny days. In late March the sun is high enough that I will peel the plastic back during a sunny day to prevent the soil getting too warm, and I usually water again at this time. But so many days in the spring are cloudy that it doesn't work out to be much of this on and off. I'll leave the plastic on until I see germinating plants about 2 inches tall, then I'll take it off and use it for my next round of succession planting. I don't use the plastic in this way after mid-April because the soil is warm enough and the plastic heats it up too much.
I use this for lots of seeds in the early spring with great success! Cilantro is another favorite because like peas it likes to germinate in warmer soil but once growing, prefers cool weather.
Plastic used for germinating peas being held down by sandbags at GGF.
2. Starting in a greenhouse: You can also start your peas in the greenhouse. They transplant pretty well when grown in small cells, 1 square inch is what I use. This seems to hold their delicate roots systems together. I transplant them out at about 3 inches tall. When grown this way they do need to be hardened-off very gradually as they don't seem to have that innate pea hardiness as when started outdoors, and transplanting takes time because the roots are pretty delicate, but if you're up for it this can be a good way to get them germinated early.
Figaro guarding his greenhouse-started peas from greenhouse miceys.
3. Don't presoak the peas: Pre-soak seeds that go in later in the season if you like, but not these early plantings. The soil is already quite wet and they just seem to be more prone to rotting in place.
With late peas, its all about choosing the right heat and drought tolerant variety. Here in the Intermountain West, we have short springs that heat and dry up quickly, so even peas planted at the end of April can see harvest potential limited by the onset of summer. But I want peas gradually, and for as long as possible!
'Lincoln' pea is a pea variety that I first tried because it was advertised as a great late pea. I have planted 'Lincoln' as late as June and have gotten great harvests through late summer. That's why I decided to grow it and offer seeds. Plentiful watering helps for sure, but the peas really remained tender even in late August! Well worth the try for extending your pea season!