Monday, May 16, 2011

Early Snow Peas

Just a quick report on a successful experiment started early this year with snow peas (mangetout), one of my favorite vegetables.  Peas in general are quite hardy plants.  They even tolerate freezing temperatures, so they can be sown before the last frost of spring.  However, there's one little catch to this.  The pea seeds must have favorable conditions (meaning above freezing) to germinate.  If seeds are placed in the ground and never have suitable moisture and temperature for germination, they'll simply rot.  Once they've germinated, the seeds are as resilient to harsh conditions as the plants they will eventually grow into.

The neat trick is that germination can take place indoors.  All one needs to do is soak the pea seeds for about six hours in water to cover, and then drain them and wrap them loosely in a damp paper towel.  Keep the moist towel with the seeds in a plastic bag with plenty of air in it for 2 to 5 days, checking the seeds daily and rinsing them gently with fresh water.  You will see a pale little spur begin to swell under the seed coat.  Eventually this spur will break through the surface of the seed as a root, but you don't need or want to wait that long.  If the root emerges by more than a millimeter or so, you must handle the germinated seeds very carefully so as not to damage that root.  Far better to get them in the ground as soon as you can clearly discern the root forming up under the seed coat.

I planted pre-germinated snow pea seeds in my cold frame on the last day of January this year.  This was an audaciously early date.  But it worked.  The timing was chosen based on when we get ten hours of daylight back at our latitude.  (Ten hours of daylight being a critical minimum requirement for plant growth.)  I knew that all the growth from seed to emergent seedling would be fueled by the energy stored in the seed itself, not by photosynthesis.  Available sunlight during that time wouldn't matter, but our winter temperatures would slow down that phase of growth.  By the time the seedlings poked their heads up above the soil sometime in mid-February they'd have sufficient daylight to continue their growth so much as temperatures would allow.  Though the cold frame only has about 8 inches of headroom, I figured by the time the snow peas were of a height to make that an issue, it wouldn't be necessary to keep the cover on the cold frame any more.  That's exactly how it worked out.  The variety I grow, Snow Sweet, doesn't even require trellising, so it's perfectly suited to being started in such a small space.

The picture above is what our snow peas look like today.  I got our first small harvest off of them last night, half way through May, roughly 3-4 weeks early for this area.  Typically snow peas peter out once the temperatures get too warm.  I suspect these plants will continue to produce through June and possibly even into early July, depending on the weather.  We're planning to build a small hoop house this year, which will provide more sheltered growing space than our cold frames, and greater temperature gain as well.  These advantages should afford us snow peas even earlier in the season.  My plan is to sow germinated snow pea seeds progressively through late winter wherever carrots or other crops are removed from the hoop house beds.  I think I could eat snow peas every day of the year and not get sick of them.  Maybe by this time next year we'll be testing that theory.

If you want to nudge the boundaries of the possible with plants on your own property, you can figure out the daylight calculations for your own latitude here. You'll need a fair degree of precision in your latitude values.  You can get that by looking up your address on either google maps, or google earth, by the way.


Tegan said...

OH I'm jealous -- my peas are HUGE but not bearing yet. I'll have to try that trick next year maybe. Although, I'm doing container gardening, do you feel that they'd be equally as sheltered? Or should I keep to the traditional methods?

Lynda said...

Your peas look fantastic! Mine are a bit scraggley...too hot, then too cold.

Anonymous said...

You are very right about the hardiness. These were the first seeds I planted and they are doing the best of all our vegetables despite snow and continuing frost.

becky3086 said...

I happen to love snow peas and this is a very good idea because here if we wait too late, we get too hot before we get enough of these.

Michelle said...

The snow peas look great! This is my first year to try growing them. They are coming along nicely despite all the rain & drastic temp changes. I think I was lucky on when I got them in.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this! I tried early pea germination this year but some seed still rotted. I think I didn't get them far enough along in their germination, and I should have put a cold frame or tunnel on them, too. The earlier we can get peas in here the better because our cool springs turn to very hot summers almost overnight, so if we don't get our pea crop in early, we actually lose the blossoms to heat no matter how much we water.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for that trick for peas. I always save a lot of seed and plant them pretty thickly, but have trouble with only about 1/4 of them germinating. Some of the ungerminated seed actually "climbs back out of the ground" and lays there all pale and dead looking. This should solve my problem for next year.

Sandy said...

Hey Kate,
I refferred to your jam over in my post today. YUM! Thank you!


Hazel said...

I've had early peas this year (about the only thing that has been early- usual last minute dash with everything else!), but hadn't been so scientific about it. I might get better results next year if I put a bit of thought into it!

Interestingly, we don't get 10 hours of daylight until a fortnight after you. I had noticed that although we get generally milder weather than the US east coast, you all seem to get growing much more quickly. The extra daylight must make the difference.

Kate said...

Tegan, whether or not containers afford shelter depends very much on the containers and what you do with them. Left out in the open, I don't think they help at all in harsh weather; quite the opposite. But if you place them in a sheltered position or bring them inside, that's a different story. It all depends on what you do with what you've got.

Lynda, thanks. Hope this trick might help you with your next round of peas.

Alexis, our peas are roaring ahead of most other things too. I wish I'd had room to plant more of them. I can never get enough of them.

Becky, the same happens to us here. Summer rolls in and burns out the peas, spinach, and lettuce. Season extension is where it's at with those crops!

Michelle, thanks. It's always nice when we're lucky with a crop that is new to us. Good for you!

Anon, you're welcome. As I mentioned to Becky, we have similar conditions in summer. I hope this info will help you to a longer harvest period with your peas in future.

Ilene, yeah, I've seen those peas. Sometimes I can push them back in the earth if I notice them soon after planting. But it's always depressing when I get poor germination rates.

Sandy, so glad you enjoyed the jam. I've been remiss in thanking you for the kraut and ketchup. They've been much savored and appreciated!

Hazel, I know that last minute spring dash routine very well. I'm suddenly way behind on planting everything, when just last week I was feeling like everything was under control. We've got a week of rain here, so it's hard to get out there and do much. You're right about the differences in our climates and latitudes. I think it would be very confusing for Brit and American gardeners to change places. The differences are easy enough to grasp intellectually, but I suspect in practice it would be hard to make sense of.

Paula Adams Perez said...

Sorry to comment off-topic, but I've been reading about your chicken coop and pen setup and I wondered how many hens do you have? All layers or meat too? Thanks!

Kate said...

Paula, sorry to be so late in responding. You can get a better sense of our current chicken set-up from my recent News of the Flock post, if you haven't seen that already. Currently we have six laying hens in our mobile coop and pen system. Thinking about some meat birds this year though.