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Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 1

In a few days, this pod will plump up and provide, apparently, five peas for the pot. It’ll take several dozen similar pods to produce enough peas for a meal.

Do you want to grow peas in your small kitchen garden? It’s a tough question. Peas require a lot of space for a modest harvest. On the other hand, garden fresh peas taste astonishingly better than any other peas you’ll ever eat. If your kitchen garden is space-challenged, there are so many other vegetables that will produce more in the same space as peas.

That said, I plant peas every year. In fact, I dedicate a significant chunk of garden space to peas—about a third of my planting space. But that’s not as big a liability as it seems because pea plants don’t live long. They prefer cool weather and tend to die off as days get hot. I usually remove my pea plants in June, and plant the same area with other vegetables—most often, squash.

Don’t Rush to Plant Peas

If you buy pea seed in one of those envelopes from a seed display in a store, read the package! They can’t print much on those envelopes, so what they do print is probably useful.

One thing you’ll learn is that you can plant peas as soon as the soil thaws in your garden bed. You can, but there’s no need to rush. Peas will sprout when the soil temperature is around 40F degrees, but they won’t grow much until the temperature increases. Give your soil a chance to dry out a bit and warm up. Except in very warm years, peas that I plant in mid-March in hardiness zone 5/6 might mature a week earlier than peas I plant in mid-April… so I try to find other gardening tasks for March such as pruning and grafting in my fruit trees.

Prepare to Plant Peas

When it’s time to plant peas, you must first prepare the soil. Depending on your planting bed, this may be a monumental task, or it may be a non-issue. In my slightly raised-bed layout, I need to walk in the garden bed to be able to till, plant, weed, and harvest. This means that each spring I’m dealing with compacted soil; my vegetables, I know, will be happier growing in loose soil. I feel compelled to loosen the soil before I plant.

The pea plants in this row have just produced their first flowers. I set peas so close together that they grow into a hedge. Notice that the pea trellis runs down the middle of the row – which is actually two rows of plants spaced about six inches apart.

When your planting beds are narrow enough that you can work them without walking in them, the soil remains loose from year-to-year; you can be a “no-till” gardener.

My last three posts discussed soil preparation for various types of planting beds. Whichever style and approach you use, this discussion about planting peas starts where those posts end: I’m assuming you’ve prepared your soil for planting, and you’re ready to put seeds in the ground.

Space Considerations

Peas grow on vines. Pea stems are slender and can support very little weight. So, as the plant gets taller, it extends tendrils that curl around whatever they touch and support the plant. In my experience even “bush” varieties of peas are vines… they just happen to be shorter than typical pea vines.

When you plant peas, it’s important to provide a trellis. This can be a garden fence, a roll of chicken wire stretched above the planting area, strands of twine hanging from above… whatever suits your fancy.

Pea plants I’ve grown reach about six feet before they wilt in the heat of late spring. I built pea trellises that provide support for about 4 and a half feet, so the tops of the plants sometimes topple under their own weight when they grow above the trellises. Before I’d made trellises, I tried bush peas. The package promised 18-inch plants, and I got 24-in plants. Thinking bush I hadn’t provided a trellis, so the plants lay on top of each other. I plant peas densely, so there was a heavy load of plants that trapped a lot of moisture; the plants on the bottom rotted.

The point of the story is that even if you find a short variety of peas, you should provide something for the vines to climb.

Pick Your Pea Variety

I’ve noticed only three significant differences between pea varieties: size of plants, palatability of the pods, and wilt-resistance. We talked about the sizes of plants.

Palatability of pods—if you’re growing peas, the pods don’t matter. You’ll find varieties that claim more peas per pod than others, and you’ll find varieties that claim you can eat the pods, or let the pods mature and then eat the peas. And, of course, you can find snow peas—varieties intended to grow pods but don’t even think of letting them fill with peas.

Wilt-resistance—Pea plants don’t like heat. When they experience several sequential days of temperatures in the 80s and above, their leaves curl and their tendrils shrivel. If the temperatures hold, the plants die. Wilted plants will recover if the temperatures falls, but a mid-spring heat wave can seriously decrease your pea yields.

There are wilt-resistant peas that handle hot days far better than other varieties. Which brings us back to when to plant.

This pea pod sat for a month too long in the produce drawer of my refrigerator. All the peas in it sprouted, despite the refrigerator’s temperature being close to 40F degrees.

When to Plant Peas

You can plant peas as soon as the soil thaws. Peas will start growing in soil that’s above 40F degrees. I’ve had peas sprout in the produce drawer of my refrigerator which runs right around 40 degrees.

If you choose to plant that early, plant the peas deep. I learned this season that I tend not to plant peas deep enough. I planted in late March, and peas I’d left shallow softened up and then froze during a sequence of crazy cold nights. 10-15% of my seeds failed. (That same freeze would probably not have harmed pea plants had any already emerged above the soil… pea plants don’t mind nippy, frosty nights.) In most years, I’ve planted in mid May, and even peas that ended up on the surface because of my carelessness rooted and grew.

So, as I said: if you plant early, plant deep. I suspect my peas would have been fine had I set the seeds ¾ inch underground.

How do I get away with planting peas in mid-May? I buy a variety called Wando. These are amazingly wilt-resistant, and I’ve seen them suffer only in one very hot spring out of about a dozen.

Here’s my recommendation for when to plant peas in your small kitchen garden: Sow directly in the ground from two to four weeks before the last frost date.

How Many Peas to Plant?

A single pea vine may produce a modest single serving of peas. But you won’t get those peas all at once. Rather, as the vine reaches about 12 inches, flowers emerge. The vine continues to grow, and those flowers produce pea pods. As the first pods develop, more flowers emerge higher up on the now taller vine. This sequence continues… but you must pick the fully-developed pods as they become ready or the plant will stop making new ones. Once the vine starts producing peas, it may develop two-to-five pods every three-to-five days. So, you might harvest twenty, thirty, or forty pods from a single plant… but when you harvest the last pod, peas from the first one will be thirty days old.

A pea flower in the dew has inspired many a poet and playwright. OK, I made that up. But pea flowers are delicate and exotic: beautiful harbingers of the coming harvest.

All that to say: you need several pea plants to grow enough peas for a particular meal. My experiences may help you decide how many.

I plant 4 ounces of seed in three doubled rows totaling 42 feet. (I crowd my peas, as you’ll see in my next installment on this topic.) My family of five eats peas at two or three meals a week, and I still freeze around two gallons of peas to eat during the off season. I did some noodling about this some weeks ago and concluded that I harvest about one gallon of peas from every seven feet of doubled rows. Or, for every ounce of seeds I plant, I harvest between five and six quarts of peas.

I’ve never formally kept track, and different varieties of peas, different soil conditions, weather, and garden pests will all affect yield. So, the best honest advice I can provide: plant at least enough peas to assure you’ll have a meal’s worth when you do harvest.

How to Plant Peas

My next post will explain how I plant peas. My approach is a bit unorthodox, squeezing way more plants into my small kitchen garden than the package suggests. You’ll do fine to follow instructions on the pea seed package, or read my next post and get a look at extreme pea culture.

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3 Responses to “Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 1”

  • I just love peas! When my early spring crops bite the dust, I plan of planting some more in a shaded area and eating the shoots, which taste just like peas!

  • Gloria:

    OK!! Now that I’ve got a TON of ready-to-g0 peas, can someone PLEASE let me know of a site that offers GOOD recipes
    Thanks so much!! Luv this site!!!

  • admin:

    Congratulations on the pea harvest! I use peas in only four ways:

    1. Boil and serve (I like to melt butter on hot peas and sprinkle with salt)
    2. Cooked into pork-fried rice. I love Chinese food; diced carrots and fresh peas add great color to fried rice.
    3. New potatoes and peas which I wrote about here: Home Kitchen Garden
    4. Pea soup.

    Fried rice and pea soup I make up as I go along… but there must be many great recipes for them on sites such as Recipe Land. If I have more peas than we’ll eat in-season, I blanch and freeze the extras and cook them during the off season. Home frozen peas still taste dramatically better than store-bought frozen peas.

    That said, I’d also be interested to hear of recipes that use peas in ways to which I’m not accustomed. There must be many…

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