Welcome to episode #1 of our new weekly podcast, Encyclopedia Botanica! We will be sharing timely gardening tips and topics in a short 10 minute-ish weekly podcast. The content will also be available in a text transcript accompanying the audio.
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Hi, I’m Hilary Dahl and this is Encyclopedia Botannica, a weekly podcast about edible gardening. This week we’ll be discussing peas. In particular, I want to talk about caring for your sugar snap and other climbing peas. But first we should talk a little about the basics of pea culture.
Peas prefer growing in cool weather which is why gardeners typically plant them in early spring and/or early fall. This way, the plants don’t have to grow during the hottest part of the summer. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we have the best luck growing peas in spring and typically start planting them outdoors in early March. You can direct seed peas right into the garden or grow them as transplants. I prefer to propagate them as transplants, which seems to help reduce casualties from slugs, snails, birds and rodents. Peas are especially attractive to animals because, at planting time, you are essentially proffering dozens of huge sugar treats to creatures that have just spent the winter desperately scavenging for food. Huge is a relative term, but don’t be surprised if a small animal looking for a big payoff absconds with your carefully planted seeds or transplants. Always be prepared with backups ready to replant as soon as you notice something is amiss.
Peas are a legume, and benefit from an application of Rhizobia bacteria at planting time. Rhizobia are species specific bacteria that live on the plant root, helping to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the soil, leading to more robust plants and a healthier soil ecosystem. If you’re not familiar with nitrogen fixation, I’d encourage some research on the topic, it’s incredibly fascinating.
Peas, like most vegetable plants, come in all shapes and sizes. The most popular for home gardening are snow peas, snap peas and shelling peas. Snap peas and snow peas are eaten whole (pod and all), while shelling peas (also called English peas) are removed from the shell and only the seeds are eaten. Similar to beans, peas come in dwarfing varieties and climbing varieties. Dwarfing types can be self supporting or tied up with short stakes and twine, but climbing peas need a serious trellising plan in order to remain manageable as they mature.
I like to grow climbing peas on tipi structures and along fence lines. In my home garden, I have attached a nylon net to the fence boards to provide structure for the peas to grow up. Even though this net is in place, it is essential to add extra support to the plants as they grow, so I wrap a piece of twine across the front of the row each week to help train them to the net and prevent them from falling all over the garden. Even though peas have tendrils to grab onto the net or other trellis structure, the vines are so heavy and unwieldy, unless consistently trained, they grow into a chaotic mess and sprawl just about everywhere but on the intended trellis.
Remarkably, even when properly contained, peas can overwhelm a full sized trellis structure. The vines can reach upwards of 10’ tall, which is typically higher than most garden trellises and certainly higher than most gardeners can reach. Professional basketball players excluded. I recommend cutting off the growing tip of your climbing pea vines once they reach the limit of your trellis. The process is easy, simply take a sharp pair of scissors or pruners and clip back the top of each plant to a leaf axis just above the top of the structure. The added bonus is that you can eat these top shoots (raw or cooked) and they taste just like the forthcoming fruit. Don’t be surprised if the plants send out new growth after your clipping, simply cut these new shoots off and eat them as well. You’ll get an extra harvest and ensure that your plants remain healthy and manageable through the end of harvest time.
The end of the pea plant lifecycle comes quickly, so make sure to pick the pods while fresh and keep picking every few days through the short period of peak harvest. Once the plants have exhausted their fruit supply, they will rapidly decline and be ready to remove from the garden. In our region, the end of pea season comes with a heavy dose of powdery mildew on the plants. I try to remove the plants as quickly as possible once mildew begins to set in, knowing that the remaining fruit (if there are any) will be stringy and tough and because I don’t want those fungal spores to start spreading around the garden. If you’re able to, cut the plants off at ground level and leave the roots in the soil to decompose. Keeping them in place will help increase the nitrogen levels from those Rhizobial bacteria and make sure your next planting is healthier and more productive than the last.
That’ll do it for this week’s podcast. Enjoy your peas while they last, and stay tuned for another show next week.