Pea-planting time

Eagle columnist Ron Kujawski plants peas in his West Stockbridge garden.

In the words of Dinah Washington’s hit song: “What a difference a day makes, 24 little hours, brought the sun and the flowers.” In the words of Berkshire gardeners: “What a difference a week makes, seven little days, brought the sun and the pea planters.”

Yes, this was — and still is — a great time to be planting peas, as well as various leafy greens and root crops. The combination of sun and wind has quickly dried soil to the point where tilling and planting should pose no problem.

However, I must admit having one little problem, but it has nothing to do with soil moisture. Rather, it has to do with winter rye. In the fall, I routinely plant a cover crop of winter rye in part of the garden as it suppresses weeds and contributes considerable organic matter to soil. The rye grows well into late fall and renews growth again in early spring. Before any spring planting of vegetable crops can take place, the cover crop must be mowed down, e.g. using a string trimmer, and tilled or turned under in order to decay. Winter rye requires about two weeks after tilling for it to decompose before any seed sowing or transplanting of vegetable crops may take place.

The primary reason for this delay in planting is that rye contains natural chemicals, which can inhibit the germination of seeds, as well as the growth of seedlings. I inadvertently learned that lesson many years ago after transplanting two rows of the same variety of broccoli seedlings. One row was in the area where I had just tilled under winter rye. An adjacent row of broccoli seedlings was planted where no winter rye had been growing. After several weeks, the broccoli plants in the non-rye area were clearly larger than those in the rye area.

This information is not meant to discourage anyone from using winter rye as a cover crop or so-called green manure crop. It not only adds much organic matter to soils, but also captures nitrogen, which would otherwise be leached out of bare soil.


Before the recent warm up, I was getting discouraged over not being able to plant peas, perhaps my favorite green vegetable. I always like to get as early a start as possible with peas in order to get an early harvest and satisfy my taste buds. Also, peas thrive in cool weather. Therefore, last week I planted peas in a vacant area of the garden where no cover crop had been growing. The soil there had not been tilled, nor needed any tilling since it was where I had employed trench composting last year. All that was needed was making shallow (one-inch deep) furrows for sowing the pea seed.

Since our soil in this part of West Stockbridge is somewhat acidic, wood ash was spread over the ground prior to making the furrows. Peas, which grow no more than 24 to 30 inches tall, are planted in parallel rows 6 inches apart. A trellis of chicken wire or other fencing is set up between the rows as support for the pea vines. Taller growing varieties are planted next to a taller trellis of about 5 to 6 feet in height.

Five varieties of garden or English peas were sown, each with a different “days to harvest” or maturation date. Planting varieties with different maturation times allows for extending the harvest season. Making successive plantings at 10-day intervals through early May also extends the harvest period. Not all the seeds were sown as some were saved for planting in early to mid-August for fall harvest.

Besides the English peas, there are two other types of peas: snow peas and sugar snap. While I haven’t planted any sugar snap as yet, I did plant snow peas on March 31. The name “snow pea” is fitting as these peas are prophetic in being able to predict the weather, for it was the next day, April Fool’s Day, that it snowed. I am just grateful that there are no blizzard peas.

Nice weather for these chores ...

I am grateful to have nice weather for these tasks:

  • Gardeners! Start your engines … uh, tomatoes. Now is the proper time to start seeds of tomatoes. This may seem late, but research studies repeatedly find that tomato seedlings that are 6 to 8 weeks old make the best transplants and result in best growth and yield than do older seedlings. Transplanting the seedlings to the garden shouldn’t be done until night temperatures are consistently at 50 degrees F or above. Typically, that’s around the first week of June.
  • Be sure vegetable and flower seedlings started indoors receive plenty of light, i.e. at least 12, and preferably 14 hours per day. Fluorescent or LED lights should be set about 2 to 4 inches above seedlings but watch for potential scorching of leaves from lighting fixtures that  generate heat. Otherwise, the seedlings become leggy and weak. One trick to prevent legginess is to lightly brush the seedlings with your hand or a smooth implement such as a metal chopstick or straw.
  • Work organic matter — e.g. compost, manure, peat moss — into soils where herbaceous ornamentals, trees, and shrubs are to be planted. Organic matter should be incorporated into an area wider than just the planting hole.
  • Peak under the mulch covering strawberry plants. At signs of new growth, remove the mulch but leave it between the rows of strawberries.
  • Dig into the deep recesses of your mind and recall any disease, pest, or cultural problems that afflicted plants in gardens and landscape last year. Make a plan for defending the plants from the same problems this growing season. This may mean timing the preemptive application of pest controls or improving cultural practices such as timing of watering, fertilizing, and pruning.
  • Apply dormant oil to trees and shrubs, which were infested by mites or aphids last year. While non-toxic to most woody plants, oils may cause burning to some sensitive junipers and spruces, especially if applied in warm weather. Read the label for other precautions!
  • Keep a log of accumulated hours of use of mowers, tillers and other power equipment. This data is important in knowing when to change the oil, spark plugs, various filters, and perform other maintenance functions. Check the owner’s manual of each piece of equipment for details on timing of specific maintenance requirements.