Snap pea success in 6 easy steps
Question: We tried to grow sugar snap peas in our garden this year and had very little success. We've never had a problem with them before and we're stymied by what could have gone wrong. We planted the last week of March (same as we always do), and used new seed from the hardware store. Some of the seeds never sprouted and the ones that did, seemed stunted. They never got taller than a few feet and put on very few flowers. These were supposed to be 6-foot-tall ones. What do you think happened? We want to make sure it doesn't happen again.
Answer: I think we can chalk your experience up to a crummy year for peas, rather than something you did wrong. Our cold, wet spring with late snowfall meant that most pea seeds that were planted early likely rotted in the ground before they could even germinate.
Our cold, wet spring then quickly progressed to extremely hot weather, which peas definitely do not like. Hot weather halts their growth and stunts flower production, leading to puny plants. My best guess is that the weather was the most limiting factor for this year's pea crop. You aren't the only gardener I've heard from about this problem.
For the future, and for other readers who are interested in growing peas, here are some tips to help ensure a healthy pea crop in subsequent years.
Always buy new seeds. While pea seeds do last for several years under proper storage conditions, the germination rate is best with new seeds. Only buy as many seeds as you can plant in a given season. Give any extras to friends.
Don't plant too early. I know many gardeners traditionally plant their peas on St. Patrick's Day, but for very wet, cold springs like this one, that's way too early. As you discovered, if the soil is too wet, the seed will rot in the ground. Wait until it dries out a bit before planting. If you have to plant peas on St. Patrick's Day and the extended weather forecast looks rainy and dreary, plant them indoors, in plantable peat pots, instead of out in the garden. This will give you a jump on the growing season and allow you to exercise your green thumb! Plant the seedlings out into the garden when the weather dries out a bit (or by mid-April).
Don't plant too late. Peas are a cool-season crop that dislikes hot weather, so timing is critical. Just as you don't want to plant them too early, you also don't want to wait too long to sow the seeds. Mine are always in the ground by mid-April.
Watch for critters. Unfortunately, there's lots of wildlife that enjoy peas just as much as humans do. Crows, blue jays, voles and chipmunks are quite fond of eating the seeds soon after they're planted. And slugs love munching on the newly emerged seedlings in the spring. Protect your pea crop accordingly.
Use pea inoculant. This powdered product is made of a beneficial bacteria that colonizes the roots of legumes like peas and beans. Sprinkling the powder in the planting rows when sowing seeds, or coating the seeds with the powder prior to planting, both improves germination and increases plant vigor and yields. You can purchase a packet of pea inoculant wherever you purchase your seeds or from almost any seed catalog.
Keep the area well-watered. Peas have a fairly hard seed coat, so keeping the planting bed well irrigated is a must for improved germination. Typically we get more than enough rain in the spring, so irrigation isn't necessary, but during dry years, be prepared to water your peas both before and after germination (but not so much that it increases the chances of seed rot).
Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.