Learn the peas to success for St. Patrick’s Day

Farmer Matt Herbruck, owner of the organic Birdsong Farm, in Hiram, Ohio, inspects the growth of his crop of young snap peas on Friday, May 6, 2011. While the snap peas, lettuce, garlic and mizuna are planted and growing, Herbreck has had to juggle his crops and plantings to accommodate the cold and rainy Spring. Says Herbruck, "Basically, the combination of cold and wet weather has kept me from getting plants in the ground." (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)(ASSOCIATED PRESS/Amy Sancetta)
Meet Mike!

WTOP Garden Editor Mike McGrath will be at the Fredericksburg Spring Home Show on March 18 and 19. See his full schedule. 

Peas for St. Pat’s

The fact that March 17 comes on a Friday this year is a boon for bars — or maybe it’s a bigger boon for employers who won’t have to watch half of their Monday-Friday workers cling to the edge of their desks the next day.

For the real Irish, it’s often a time to stay home and let the amateurs have the pubs for a night. And for gardeners, it’s the supposed “lucky day” to plant their peas. But pea planting on St. Pat’s often means a different kind of luck, as the odds are close to 100 percent that it will be much too cold to sprout any seeds.

Peas have the “shortest window” of any plant

How did St. Patrick’s Day become the “lucky day” for gardeners to pant their peas? Simple math. Peas are the ultimate “short-window,” cold-weather-loving spring crop, flourishing in the weather of an average June but withering to a crisp by the Fourth of July.

That means timing is everything.

Let’s use the popular and quick-to-produce, “edible podded” variety Super Snap as an example: It has a “days to maturity” rating of a little over two months, which means that you need all of April and May for growing time before you get your first peas to pick in early June. And those plants are only going to produce reliably in June, so getting the sprouts up in March could give you an extra 10 days or so of picking time.

But again, the odds are strong that the seeds won’t sprout in the cold soil of March.

That’s why savvy gardeners cheat. And remembers kids: Cheaters always win.

The ultimate pea cheat

Growing your own fresh peas is a difficult task to master. Whether you grow the kinds of peas that you eat, pod and all (such as snow peas and snap peas), or the “English” types you “shell” out of their pods to get to the individual little sweeties inside, they’re going to take 60 to 75 days to produce their first tasty treats — and that’s from germination of the plants, not from the day you plant the seeds, especially if the soil is cold.

But again, heat-sensitive pea vines burn up quickly after June is over, making this timing intensely tricky. That’s why I always “cheat” by pre-sprouting my pea seeds indoors and then planting the sprouts (or young plants) outside. (And yes, often on St. Pat’s.)

The seeds won’t sprout in cold soil, but the plants don’t mind low temps one bit. They’ll even survive a little dusting of white precipitation. (Why do you think they call those tastiest little ones “snow peas”?)

Pre-sprouting 101

Want to make sure you get some tasty eating from your snow, snap or English shelling peas before summer heat burns up the vines? Pre-sprout the seeds indoors. There are two easy ways:

  • Roll the seeds out onto several layers of moist paper towels (not “just a little damp” and not sopping wet. Shoot for that Goldilocks moment in the middle). Then put the towels into a zip-lock or similar plastic bag, but don’t close the top tightly, just fold it over. Let the bag sit out at room temperature and check the seeds daily. As soon as the seeds sprout — which should take about four to five days — plant them outside in your warmest, loosest soil.
  • Or fill biodegradable little peat pots with seed starting mix. saturate the mix by sitting the pots in an inch or two of water for an hour or so. Plant two seeds in each pot (in case one is a dud) and place the pots on a baking pan. Stretch clear plastic over the top and add water to the bottom of the pan when needed (which might be daily) to keep the pots from drying out. (They don’t need any kind of light yet, just room temperature warmth.) Plant them outdoors — “pots and all” — when the sprouts are a few days old. (Make sure the lip of each pot is under the soil line.)
  • Pea sprouting Ph.D.

    Pick the area you intend to “pea plant” and cover it with clear plastic (1-2mm thick is ideal) about a week in advance to warm the soil. Hold the edges down with some bricks or pavers. Remove the plastic right before planting and don’t put it back.

    Oh, and be sure to provide sturdy support for full-size vines: Some of the best English shelling peas reach 8-feet-tall. (But they’re self-supporting if you provide the right kind of trellis for them to cling to.)

    If you’re tight on space or container gardening, grow compact “bush-style” varieties instead — they tend to top out at around two or three feet tall and still need some support, but just a little bit of support. (Despite the “bush” designation, they’re still vines.)

    It’s opening day in Philly

    The loud noise you heard this morning was not most of Foggy Bottom waking up with a Sainted hangover. It was the thunderous hoards descending on the City of Brotherly Love for the first day of this year’s Philadelphia Flower Show.

    The oldest and largest indoor flower show in the world runs March 11-19 and this season celebrates Holland, both for its horticulture and emphasis on sustainability. This will be the first appearance of Holland’s famed “bio-dome” outside of the Netherlands. (And weren’t windmills the original renewable energy source?)

    I have lectured at the Philly Show since 1990 and will also be there this year doing a lively Q&A in the Gardener’s Studio showcase at 4 p.m., Wednesday. That’s 30,000 tulips, a bio-dome and me.

    Insider tip: The show is most crowded in the morning, when hundreds of busloads of flower-lovers arrive from all over the Northeast. It begins to thin out around 3 p.m. and by 5 p.m., you can walk right up to even the most popular exhibits. So show up in the early afternoon, look around a bit, get your hand stamped for free re-entry, go out and get a bite to eat in the famous Reading Terminal Market across the street (or the nearby Panera, Hard Rock Café or Magianno’s. Or at any one of the dozens of great restaurants in Chinatown — which is just a block or so to the east and north) then come back and really see everything up close. The show is open until 9 p.m.

    Online tickets are much less expensive than at the door and you won’t have to wait in line.

    Mike McGrath was Editor-in-Chief of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine from 1990 through 1997. He has been the host of the nationally syndicated Public Radio show “You Bet Your Garden” since 1998 and Garden Editor for WTOP since 1999. Send him your garden or pest control questions at MikeMcG@PTD.net.

    Farmer Matt Herbruck, owner of the organic Birdsong Farm, in Hiram, Ohio, inspects the growth of his crop of young snap peas on Friday, May 6, 2011. While the snap peas, lettuce, garlic and mizuna are planted and growing, Herbreck has had to juggle his crops and plantings to accommodate the cold and rainy Spring. Says Herbruck, "Basically, the combination of cold and wet weather has kept me from getting plants in the ground." (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta)(ASSOCIATED PRESS/Amy Sancetta)

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