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Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 2

Pea Plant Babies

Pea sprouts in my small kitchen garden have made an excellent start.

You’ve decided how many peas you’re going to plant in your small kitchen garden, you’ve reserved appropriate space, you’ve prepared the soil, and you have some kind of trellis installed or ready to install. I hope you haven’t worked too far ahead. We’re about to plant peas, but there’s a final consideration especially for people planting where there hasn’t yet been a garden. Before we plant, let’s talk about nitrogen.

Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria

Dig back to high school biology class. You might recall that some plants—clover and beans are popular examples—are nitrogen-fixers. This means that they capture nitrogen in their roots… and that’s important for your garden. Other plants suck nitrogen out of the soil, so growing nitrogen-fixers (whose roots remain in the soil after harvest) helps prepare the soil for later crops.

I turned a garden-fork’s-width of soil, raked out the clumps, stretched a guideline, and hoed in a 3-inch deep furrow. This will become the first row of peas I plant this season.

But nitrogen-fixing plants don’t work alone. They enter into symbiotic relationships with bacteria that live in soil. When the bacteria and plant roots get together, nitrogen-fixing happens. Peas and other nitrogen-fixing plants grow best when these bacteria are abundant.

Chances are, wherever you plant peas, there are enough bacteria to make the plants happy—especially if you plant in a bed that has previously grown vegetables.

To be certain, you can inoculate the soil—or the peas—with store-bought bacteria. Depending on the brand you purchase, you soak the pea seeds in it, or you add it to the soil when you plant them.

I’ve never used an inoculant and have always been satisfied with my pea harvests, though I’ve read that using an inoculant can increase productivity by 50% or more… but compared to what? The bottom line: using an inoculant can’t hurt, and it might give you better results than you’d get without it.

Despite the planting instructions on pea packages, I set pea seeds about one-and-a-half inches apart along each side of an 8-inch furrow.

Plant Peas in Your Small Kitchen Garden

Every pea seed packet I’ve seen tells you how to plant peas. You’ll do fine to follow those instructions. I have an unorthodox approach that has always worked well for me. Here’s how it goes:

Squint, and you can see pea seeds on each side of this furrow. The parallel rows of seeds are about six inches apart.

1. I prepare soil according to the low-till method I described in an earlier post. Actually, I follow the entire regimen as shown through step 10 in that post. At step 7, I create a hoe’s-width furrow. Then I add compost and stir, and I’m ready to set pea seeds.

2. I lay pea seeds in two rows along the bottom of the furrow. I make these rows as far apart from each other as they can be and still be at the bottom. This means the rows of peas within a single furrow end up about six inches apart. I place a pea every one-and-a-half-to-two inches within a row.

Within a few days of planting, I stand a trellis that runs down the middle of a double-row of peas. You can see that the row is slightly depressed below the rest of the garden. My garden bed drains quickly when it rains, so I depress the rows to help collect rain water and spray from my garden hose.

3. I crumble the larger chunks of soil from the mounded sides of the furrow onto the peas, and gently pull the soil from the edges into the trench. I try not to move the peas as I cover them over. I’ve always planted peas about ½ to ¾ of an inch deep, and decided this season that that’s too shallow. Especially if you plant early, cover seeds with at least an inch of soil. When I plant, inevitably several peas wash to the surface after I water a few times. In warm weather, this hasn’t been a problem. However, this year an early spring freeze damaged peas I hadn’t buried well.

4. I walk on the newly-covered row of peas with my feet side-by-side. I take baby steps to ensure that I step on every inch of soil, compressing the soil and the peas so that the trench finishes about an inch below the surrounding soil.

5. I erect a pea trellis that runs down the center of the row and will provide support for pea plants up to about four-and-a-half feet. My plants usually grow a foot or more above the tops of my trellises.

6. I water the peas heavily, and I water them each day that it doesn’t rain until young plants have two or three sets of leaves. After that, I water if the soil becomes dry.

Ongoing Care of Pea Plants

Plant deep—I have a lot of experience planting peas too shallowly. This evolved starting when I switched from buying packets of pea seeds to buying pea seeds in bulk. The bulk seed comes without instructions, so I guessed how deeply to plant.

I tend to plant peas too shallow and some wash to the surface after I water a few times. I usually shove them under with my finger, or sprinkle soil on them if they’ve softened up much. Next season, my pea seeds are going at least an inch underground.

Generally, my seeds ended up deep enough, but especially shallow ones gave rise to a post-planting ritual: after watering two or three times, I walk along my rows looking for peas that I’ve washed out of the soil. When I find them, I press them into the ground with a fingertip.

Don’t fall into this pattern. Make sure you get your pea seeds at least an inch under ground. It will reduce the chance that they’ll wash to the surface, and it will protect them from adverse weather that’s common in early spring.

Train the vines—There’s no guarantee that pea vines will grow toward the trellis you provide for them. Help them by gently moving the vines as needed… but don’t rush them; pea vines are quite weak and if you bend them too much they’ll crimp. Ideally, rest tendrils against part of the trellis they can encircle and they’ll curl around it in less than a day. I often push the end of a pea branch through the trellis and hook a pea flower or a pea pod on the metal wire. Whether this works for you will depend on the design of your trellis; wire fences work really well.

Small Kitchen Garden Pea Tendril

I love the shapes of pea tendrils as they wrap around wires in the trellis.

Pick peas often—Pea plants make more flowers and pods when you harvest the ones they’ve already produced. So, pick peas when they become ready. Don’t let pods expand into thick cylinders with peas crammed together inside. Rather, pick pods that have just filled out… it’s OK if the peas aren’t quite touching each other in the pod, or if they just touch. But when they flatten out against each other, they become woody, dry, and starchy; they aren’t nearly as fun to eat.

Pick gently—Pea vines are weak, so don’t just yank pods off the vines. Rather, hold the vine still, and gently pull the pea pod from it. With practice, you can pick one-handed without damaging the plants: Grip a pod in the palm of your hand. Use the thumb and forefinger of that hand to push the stem away from the pod until the stem breaks free. I’ll try to post photos or a video demonstrating this when I start harvesting peas in May.


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2 Responses to “Small Kitchen Garden Pea Notebook – 2”

  • gps:

    Just wanted to let you know that your website rocks! I’m interested in starting a small garden and you have so much useful info and the instructions with pictures are super helpful. Thanks so much!


  • admin:

    Thank you for your kind comments. Please chime in with suggestions or questions… I sometimes get good ideas for posts from other folks’ questions.

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