Young pea plants have a very distinctive appearance. If this is your first season growing peas, watch for emerging seedlings that look like these. Presumably, anything else growing within a few inches is a weed you should remove.
I once had a minor epiphany in my home kitchen garden, and it has come to mind repeatedly as I’ve started working the soil this year. This post shares that epiphany, but with a disclaimer: I called it a minor epiphany because, really, it was more of a reminder of something we all know—or should know—as gardeners.
OK, we all know it, but I suspect that most of us think little about it. The spring pea crop of 2004 (I think it was 2004) brought it home in a most profound way. That’s right; my minor epiphany came to me through my pea plants.
As in most years, I planted three 14-foot long double rows of peas in April of 2004. The garden was probably very muddy when I planted because it was probably raining.
The peas sprouted and grew vigorously, apparently drinking happily of the copious water that fell on them nearly every day. On days it didn’t rain, skies remained overcast, so the soil didn’t dry out; there was more moisture in the soil than any sane vegetable gardener would want.
On those rainless days, I’d mow the lawn, dumping six or more inches of grass clippings between the planting rows of my garden. The grass-clipping mulch grew high, but the peas grew higher. In no time they reached the tops of my pea trellises. Along the way, the pea plants started flowering and, thankfully, pea pods formed.
I’d check the pods each day, in hopes of finding harvestable peas. But lo, each day the pods were flat.
A wall of peas grows up the trellis in my garden. The trellis runs between two rows of pea plants spaced about six inches apart. It tops out at about four-and-a-half feet, and in several weeks, the pea plants will extend above it.
The clouds and rain continued, I kept mowing more than I wanted, the pea vines grew ever upward, and more pea pods emerged on the plants. By late May or early June, there were three thick walls of pea vines clinging to trellises in my garden. The plants were covered with pods, but I had not yet harvested any of them; I wanted peas, not snow peas.
I was both puzzled and miffed by the behavior of my pea plants. I’d grown this variety for years because they’d been reliable. Now, apparently, they’d turned on me.
Typically, pods form a few inches behind the leading ends of the pea vines. As the vines grow upward, lower pods plump up and you harvest them. A few days later, you harvest peas a little higher up the plant, and so on.
After more than a month of continuous overcast skies, the clouds cleared. We had a most gorgeous sunny day. That gave way to another sunny day, and then a third. By now you know where this is headed, right?
Round about sunny day three, every single pea pod on my trellises was plump and ready to harvest. Harvesting peas eight or nine times a season for fifteen minutes at a time is relaxing and enjoyable. Harvesting all those peas in one day is not.
As I cursed the massive load of peas, I also marveled: Peas hadn’t developed in the past month because there had been so little sunlight; the plants put what energy they could into growing. But until the sun shown through, there had been no extra energy to stockpile.
Sure, we all know that plants need sunlight to grow. But it was a real rush to see such a dramatic expression of the phenomenon: Plants capture the energy of sunlight through chemical reactions that release oxygen into the air and assemble molecules into food. All that good stuff I harvest from my garden would not exist but for extraterrestrial-light-powered plant factories that build fundamental links of our food chain.
Bring on the sun!
Each time I mow the lawn, I dump the clippings in the garden. The accumulated depth of the fresh clippings might total four feet, but the clippings decay into the soil. By next spring, the soil is bare… though weeds abound.
This past week finally produced the kind of weather that gets me started in my home kitchen garden. While conventional wisdom says to get out there as soon as you can work the soil, I tend to delay a few weeks. There are a few advantages to this strategy:
1. When the soil first thaws, it tends to contain a lot of moisture; working in the mud is unpleasant, and waiting a week or two lets the soil dry out a bit.
2. I’m usually pruning and grafting fruit trees until their buds start to open; I do this in late winter because those days aren’t miserably cold, but it means I’m busy in the trees when my soil thaws.
3. After the soil thaws, it takes a few weeks for the weeds to start growing. Were I to start in my planting bed at this time, I might not spot the dandelions, thistle, and elephant grass that rooted last summer. These grow rapidly, and in a few weeks their new growth will make them easy to spot; I begin spring planting with a ceremonial removal of last year’s weeds.
4. Sure, cold-weather crops such as peas, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, and onions will withstand cold days likely to hit after the soil thaws, but they won’t do a whole lot of growing. I’ve seen peas sprout in the produce drawer of my refrigerator where it’s always about 42F degrees. But after a month at 42 degrees, the peas were still just sprouts. Why not let the soil warm just a bit so the seeds feel cozier when they go in the ground?
Last week, I finally assessed my garden bed. To put things in context, here’s how I left things in the fall:
I mulch between planting rows with grass clippings from my lawn. I pile these on all growing season. They keep the weeds down except along the plantings—wherever I maintain a gap for vegetables to grow, there is a green oasis of competing weeds.
If you find a square-stemmed plant with purple blossoms in your home kitchen garden, it may not be a weed. These are members of the mint family, and you may be growing them as herbs. The square-stemmed plants in my kitchen garden are probably catnip. I don’t want them there, so they’re weeds.
I pulled the tomato stakes and threw most of the dead tomato plants in the compost heap, and I swiped a few panels of the garden fence to put around fruit trees I planted in November. Finally, my kids raked the lawn and tossed all the leaves onto the planting bed.
There was little snow over the winter, so there was nothing to compress the leaves and encourage them to decompose.
Here’s what I found in the garden:
The grass-clipping mulch is gone! It has completely rotted away to bare soil. I’m used to finding a thin cap of dry, decomposing grass on the soil at the beginning of a growing season, but there is none.
There are leaves all over the planting bed, though most had gathered at the east end, blown there by the prevailing wind and trapped by the garden fence. The prevalent weed is dandelion, but there’s also a patch of something out of the mint family—I guess catnip because it has no minty scent.
Rhubarb on the left, and oregano on the right are making excellent starts in my home kitchen garden. I reserved about four feet at one end of the raised bed for perennials, and these are the ones that thank me.
Already, rhubarb is pushing up through the leaves, and there’s a lot of green deep under the dried stalks of last year’s oregano. I planted a single pot of oregano four years ago, and it’s now a four-foot diameter circle that laughs at winter chill.
Finally, I found clusters of delphinium leaves in a corner where I planted them when I planted the oregano. I don’t know what came over me that day; it seems a travesty to have given up garden space for something I’m never going to eat.
As I scanned the garden bed, imagining where I’d plant each type of vegetable, I noticed a small patch of grass clippings where a tomato plant had stood last summer. I suspiciously (and gently) moved some of the grass aside and made an aggravating discovery: a rabbit had beaten me to my garden. The nest held at least four nearly-naked babies.
This is the third season I’ve found such an obstacle in my planting bed, and I’ve managed to work around rabbit babies in the past. Thankfully, mother rabbit didn’t approve of my meddling, and she carried her babies off to a new nest later that day.