Of all the vegetables that can be sown in earliest spring, the pea is most magical. Peas are easy to grow. They offer pretty flowers that transform into pods of the sweetest-tasting peas. And at the tail end of winter, nothing cheers a gardener quite like sowing a packet of roly-poly pea seeds and watching stout seedlings unfurl in the still chilly air.
Peas like cool weather, and seedlings can take light frosts. In temperate climates, March 17—St. Patrick’s Day—is the traditional date by which peas should be sown. Another folksy guideline dictates that one should sow peas as soon as it’s comfortable to stand on the bare ground in your stocking feet. For those who prefer a number, direct sow peas about 30 days before your area’s typical last frost date. They like fertile soil that drains well; if your soil tends to retain water, try growing them in large pots or raised beds.
There are different types of peas—shelling peas, snap peas and snow peas—and many different varieties of each type. Some are categorized as early season; others, mid-season; the rest, late season. This refers not to when they should be sown but to when they will be ready to harvest.
You can sow varieties of each category all at the same time to create a long season of harvest—much easier than the succession planting that has to be done to extend the season of other crops. All peas need some sort of support to grow on, whether it’s a fence, trellis, teepee or other structure. This is best put in place at sowing time. The vine climbs by grasping hold with thin, twirling tendrils. Peas are a great option for small gardens, because they allow you to use your vertical space.
Pea seeds should be sown into the garden rather than started indoors in pots, because the plants do not like their roots disturbed. If you feel you must start them indoors, use biodegradable pots that can be planted into the garden along with the seedling.
When sowing seeds in the garden, scatter them close together and cover them to one inch deep. Do not thin the seedlings once they sprout. Peas are light feeders, so it won’t hurt them to grow in close competition with one another, and by growing closely they can shade the soil, helping to keep it cool and moist. You can help, too, by applying mulch to the seedlings. This will also deter weeds. Water deeply and keep the soil evenly moist, especially when the plants are flowering and forming pods.
Once your peas are ready to harvest, pick them frequently. This will prompt them to keep flowering and forming more pods. Be sure to pick even those pods that seem overripe and inedible—except at the very end of pea season, when you can allow these pods to dry on the vine and then harvest them for next year’s sowing.