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I know—you might not like the idea of putting anything in the ground really early in the season. But there are two very good reasons to get peas in the ground on March 17th:
1) They ARE called "SPRING Peas" for a reason: Peas are NOT a summer crop. As soon as it gets hot, the vines wither up and depart this mortal coil. If you wait till it seems a reasonable time to plant, your vines may shrivel and die just as the first peas are ready for picking. It's a lot like going back to dating in High School. And
2) …one of the great superstitions of gardening is that is it LUCKY to plant peas on St. Patrick's Day. And as you probably know all too well, we gardeners NEED that luck much much more than normal people.
So--it's the right time AND it's lucky—you're already two points ahead of your normal score! (No matter WHAT, plant by April 1st or you're wasting your time--and the peas'.)
Your basic choices are:
• Sweet and crispy snow peas; pick 'em while they're still nice and flat and enjoy 'pod and all' in salads and stir-fries (MY personal choice of pea!).
• Southern favorite 'snap' or 'sugar' peas; let the pods get a little fatter on the vine before picking, then zip off and discard the strings and eat these sweet treats 'pod and all' as well.
• And, of course, your basic 'English', 'garden' or 'shelling' peas; where you zip open the pod and just eat the tasty peas inside.
(Note: Most snow pea vines are self-supporting, but even they prefer a little support to do their best—and you'll need to provide a tall trellis for the other types to climb.)
However, even SNOW pea seeds won't germinate outside if the weather turns (or stays) frigid. So, to get those extra March 17th good luck points, plant sprouted seeds outside instead! You'll pick peas for six weeks this Spring instead of just two days! Surround your seeds with wet paper towels, put 'em in a Ziploc bag, BUT DON'T SEAL IT, and leave them sit out in the open at room temperature. The seeds should sprout in 48 hours. If it's nice and warm on St. Pat's, plant 'em all. If it's cold, plant a few seeds (for luck), wait a few days for the weather to change and then plant the rest (for intelligence).
Dig a little trench next to a trellis, fence or tall, thin sticks jammed into the ground, so your vines will have something to climb. Adda tablespoon of wood ash per foot of row to 'sweeten' the soil, drop in your sprouted seeds (don't be afraid to crowd 'em—they love it!), cover with an inch of non-clay soil or (better!) seed starting mix, and water well.
Then be brave—if a cold wave hits, it may be a while before the sprouts shoot through the surface of the soil, but they will. Water weekly if it don't rain. For food, shovel some nice fresh finished compost around the plants when they get to be about six inches tall; water with compost tea every other week; or use a gentle organic packaged fertilizer. Pick promptly when the peas start coming—the more you pick, the more you get!
And for the Advanced Class…
Get some 'pea and bean inoculant' at the garden center or through a catalog and roll your seeds around in the flour-like stuff before you bury 'em. Bacteria in the powder will form a symbiotic relationship with your plants, enabling them to suck plant-feeding nitrogen right out of the air. This also works with 'string' beans; in fact these bacteria work their magic on all peas and beans (and other podding legumes). WAY cool.
Great science experiment: Start some peas 'with' and some 'without' the inoculant in little containers on a window sill. Pull a few up after a month or so. The inoculated plants will have little round growths on their roots, showing that bacteria and plant have become one (better) organism!
Note: If you miss the planting window in Spring, don't plant late; the-cool-weather-loving vines will just burn up. Instead, plan on putting in a Fall crop:
Pick the coolest spot in your garden (i.e. afternoon shade), put the seeds in the ground 90 days before your first expected frost date in the Fall, keep the young plants well watered (and perhaps even cooled with some shade cloth or the shadow of taller plants, like corn or tomatoes) till summer's most torrid days are done, and think good thoughts. Remember—the plants like cool weather, so light frosts won't bother them a bit. Northerners will generally get a nice run of peas—lots if the frigid winter frosts hold off for a while.
The further South you are, the more likely you'll get a nice long crop of June…eh, NOVEMBER peas!