An early start for shell peas

Judith Adam

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A bacterial inoculant helps boost nitrogen fixing in peas. (Photo by Brendan Zwelling)
Chicken wire makes a sturdy support for pea vines. Photo by Brendan Zwelling
Chicken wire makes a sturdy support for pea vines. Photo by Brendan Zwelling

The two indicator plants that signal imminent spring in my garden are snowdrops and Viburnum farreri x bodnantense ‘Dawn’. The earliest date snowdrops have broken ground (with foliage, but not in bloom) in previous years is March 5. But in the first week of February, 2012, there’s a clump of snowdrops in bloom in the front garden, on the north side of the house! As well, flower buds on the ‘Dawn’ viburnum have swollen and turned pink. Clearly something is brewing. It might be an early spring, or we could still get an avalanche of snow. Seems like I better keep the snow shovel handy and get cracking on plans for early shell peas.

I grow shell peas in containers on the front walk, because that’s the only place the resident rabbit hasn’t discovered. (My family really loves that bunny, so don’t suggest ways to eliminate him or her.) Growing in containers allows me to get the peas off to an early start (no waiting for the ground to thaw), and peas don’t mind the nippy early spring temperature. So it’s all good!

These circumstances limit me to dwarf pea vines that grow to about two feet (60 cm) or less. The short vines could be allowed to half support themselves and half sprawl, but they produce better when properly staked. I’ve had several frustrating engagements with pea netting, the floppy thin filament kind with a life of its own. That material tangles itself quicker than I can get out of the way, and I much prefer chicken wire for supporting peas. Chicken wire stays still and gives you a pretty good chance of getting it right. I corral the peas in a wire enclosure, and they come up straight and full of pods.

Fresh peas are so delicious that I want to maximize the harvest by planting three varieties (from My earliest selection is ‘Dakota’ (53 to 55 days), with a short pod containing up to six peas. Next is something new—‘Sugar Sprint’ (62 days), an edible pod snap pea with a bush habit, carrying three-inch (8-cm) pods that can be eaten raw or cooked. My latest pea is ‘Sabre’ (68 days) with longer pods containing up to 10 peas.  I’ve ordered untreated seeds without fungicide coating, another advantage of growing in containers with a custom soil. I make a mix of purchased potting soil, with a bit of aged manure or worm castings and sand for good drainage to avoid the ground soil conditions that rot early seeds.

Having gone to these elaborate preparations, I might as well purchase some additional insurance and use a garden inoculant containing Rhizobium bacteria. It improves soil fertility, enhances root development and increases yields of legume plants. Have I thought of everything? All that’s needed is an inflatable coyote anchored on the front walk, just to keep “you know who” away.


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5 thoughts on “An early start for shell peas”

  1. Hello Marie (Feb. 9),

    Peas certainly are forgiving about early starts in frosty weather. But I’ll wait just a bit longer before getting them going.

    Thanks for an interesting read on your web site ( I loved the Wascally Wabbits!

    — Judith

  2. Hmm. My snowdrops are up early, too. Why didn’t I think to start some peas? I like the idea of circling some chicken wire around the cage. Yes, I think I know what I’m doing tomorrow. I can always move them in, if the weather changes. Thanks, Judith.


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