Now that May is here, many new gardeners might be asking “What can I safely plant now?” It’s a good question, as this time of year is notorious for erratic weather. A bright sunny morning can quickly give way to dark clouds that bring thunder, heavy rain, and even hailstones. The rain can persist all afternoon, sometimes accompanied by an icy wind. By early evening the sun is shining again, the thermometer reading 23 degrees Celsius. Overnight, temperatures can still be close to freezing. What’s a confused little seedling to do?
Keeping a garden journal or calendar from year to year makes a helpful guide, but in the end every year is different, sometimes radically so, and it is flexibility that will be the gardener’s best tool, flexibility to adjust planting schedules to the current year’s conditions.
I have never been a fan of planting anything “as early as the soil can be worked,” as some gardening books advise. While some seeds, such as peas, may indeed be able to germinate in soil temperatures as low as five degrees Celsius, it can take a month for them to do so. In that time, if your soil is heavy to clay or there is a lot of rain, seeds will simply rot and you have to replant. Eschewing unnecessary work, I prefer to wait for warmer soil temperatures when seedlings will emerge in seven to fourteen days.
While it’s too early to plant many of our favourite heat-loving vegetables like corn, beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes, this is a great time to plant salad greens, spinach, radishes, and peas. These crops do well in cool conditions and can even tolerate some frost.
How many times have you heard that peas are a cool weather vegetable and can only be planted in early spring? Miss the opportunity and you’re out of luck. While this may be true for areas with extremely hot summers, it has not been my experience here. I plant peas from late April to late July for a continuous harvest. If summer days do get unusually hot for an extended period, I put a thick mulch of straw around the plants. Straw is a cooling mulch material which reduces soil temperature by several degrees.
If you’ve never eaten home grown peas, you’ve missed a wonderful taste experience. Packed with nutrition and easy to grow, peas fall into three categories: shelling, snow, and snap. We’re all familiar with shelling peas, but snow and snap peas have been rapidly gaining popularity in home gardens. Snow peas are recognizable by their flat edible pods which are delicious eaten fresh or in a stir-fry. I’ve found that snow peas consistently germinate just a little bit faster and are less likely to rot in cold wet soils than snap or shelling peas. Oregon Giant and Mammoth Melting Sugar are two of the tastiest and most prolific of snow pea varieties. Both are tall growing and require a sturdy trellis, but their abundance of crisp, juicy pods is well worth the effort.
While there are dwarf varieties of snow, snap, and shelling peas that grow to heights of only twenty to thirty inches, all peas should ideally have some type of support. In addition to supporting the plants, trellises and netting provide air circulation which is essential to avoid rot and disease. They also allow leaves greater exposure to sunlight for optimum photosynthesis. Shorter varieties don’t need purpose-built trellises, however; they can be easily supported using twigs and branches.
Snap peas, a relative newcomer on the pea scene, are a cross between a shelling pea and a snow pea. Combining the best of both, they have fat, slightly rounder and tighter pods than a shelling pea, and like a snow pea, pods are edible and delicious. Snap and snow peas are becoming so popular that many gardeners now say that they no longer grow shelling peas. But for those who have the space, shelling peas are indispensable as these delicacies freeze well for a tasty winter treat. Two very reliable, large-podded varieties of shelling peas are Lincoln Homesteader and Green Arrow.
Peas aren’t terribly fussy about soil, as long as it’s well-drained and compost enriched. Adding bonemeal will aid pod development. For better yields, and especially in new gardens, treat pea seeds with soil inoculant, available at most garden centres. Inoculant is a safe organic black powder that contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria. As these are living organisms, store the package in a cool place and use it before the expiry date.