Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Hand Up for the Pea-Teens

If there’s one lesson I should have learned after a lifetime of planting peas, it’s this: Set up the trellis when you set in the seed.

Sugar snaps — among the sweetest and most prolific of peas — must climb. Along with pole beans they are the adventurous, acrobatic aerialists of the vegetable kingdom, heading skyward to enjoy the view and escape their pest and plant enemies.

Although I would never say this out loud in the garden, peas are my favorite — the teacher’s pet among my unruly and unpredictable pupils. Adorable from the start, they grow into 7-foot hedges of white blossoms and yield (for weeks on end) a bonanza of sweet and succulent pods that really need no cooking.

Although I always plant them early, they don’t necessarily bear early: It’s just my rite of spring. I aim for April 1, even when I am the Fool as I scrape away snow to inter the seeds in frozen soil. Sometimes it’s even earlier — once I bragged about sowing on St. Patrick’s Day.

This year it was an unheard-of March 11, during the tropical heat wave that settled over New England 2 weeks before the spring solstice. Every 10 days I planted more peas in designated beds. The first sprouts popped up in April and by midmonth were 6 inches high.

And that was where I (literally) let them down. I’d set up an A-frame skeleton but never strung twine for the tendrils to wind around. While I was elsewhere digging beds and planting lettuce, the first pea-kids were reaching for a hand up and finding — nothing. Thin air.

On May Day I finally remembered the March 11 brigade and found 2-foot pea plants sprawled dejectedly in a spaghetti-like tangle. Some had hitchhiked on upward-bound weeds, in this case the bad company of teenage stinging nettles. Others clung to each other: pea-pairs were propping each other up like elderly couples or drowning swimmers.

In the nick of time, I wove a trellis from soft string and carefully leaned the lolling pea plants against it. Within an hour the tendrils had twisted around the twine. Now in early June I add a horizontal string every day so I can track their ascent — some of the March 11 troopers climb 4 inches a day.

So the upshot is: Create a support system for those peas when you plant them, and in 6 weeks they’ll become a blossoming green bower, a vegetable cathedral scraping the sky. Two weeks later you’ll be feasting on your first juicy pods.

But have I truly learned my lesson and staked the 24 tomatoes I set out last week? Ahem. Top on my to-do list for this weekend!


Note: I’m trying the green A-frame trellis from Gardener’s Supply this year. If you’re tall, try the one Ed Smith describes in The Vegetable Gardener's Bible — 8-foot 2x2s driven into the garden soil 8 feet (or whatever you wish) apart, with a 2x2 beam across the top, nails driven at 4-inch intervals into the uprights and the beam to hold the netting you drape over it. This is a beautiful, functional trellis, but if you like to move your peas every year as I do, the structure is cumbersome to take down and put up again.

A-frame project instructions (excerpted from The Vegetable Gardener’s Book of Building Projects) can be found in Storey’s June Newsletter.

Bamboo stakes work okay, or even brush you bring from the woods, as Robert Frost described in his poem “Pea Brush”:
They might be good for garden things
To curl a little finger round,
The same as you seize cat’s-cradle strings,
And lift themselves up off the ground.
— Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor, Storey Publishing

No comments: