planting peas, with mendel in mind

Flower of 'Schweizer Riesen' peas. PLANTING PEAS—that first traditional first task of each new food-growing year—took on new significance one recent spring. I’d just finished watching a lecture on Gregor Mendel and his pea-breeding experiments in an online biology class I was taking, when the snow finally melted and the soil warmed enough—well, almost enough— to have at it. The peas I like best, and how I plant them, all with a new reverence for the genetics  built into a single Pisum sativum seed:

Turns out Mendel started his scrupulous research by simply going down to the market in Brno (in the Moravian region of what is now the Czech Republic) and buying 34 varieties of peas from several seedsmen.  (Makes me a bit less self-conscious that I ordered eight kinds to grow in my garden.)

It was no accident that Mendel chose peas as his subject, I also learned recently: They didn’t take up much space in the confines of the monastery garden, and most important: The structure of a pea flower, with its enclosed fertilizing organs, means that random cross-pollination isn’t likely.

Like a good gardener (and “an amazing scientist,” said Professor Eric S. Lander of MIT, who taught the EdX online class I audited and himself one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project) Mendel didn’t rush into things. He was patient enough to first set up his controls.

He bred the 34 peas “to see if they transmitted their traits faithfully,” said Dr. Lander, which took two years, and resulted in 22 of the 34 making the cut for the actual experiments that followed—the ones about wrinkled and smooth seeds, and short and tall plants and so on that we all learned about in school.

In the EdX “class” of Introduction to Biology: The Secret of Life, we even read Mendel’s 1865 paper on his pea experiments (translated to English, of course, but nevertheless rather hard going). The intro course (its promotional video is at the bottom of this page) has been taught by the dynamic Dr. Lander for 20 years, but 2013 was its–and his–first time online. The 2013 “classroom” was a room full of MIT undergrads and some 40,000 of us unseen virtual types around the world.

Making a pea furrow witha hoe.

from classroom to garden: time to plant my peas

AND THEN, thanks to a few sunny days, it was time to plant some peas in my non-virtual life. I cultivated the soil along the edge of two of the raised beds—choosing the side that won’t cast shade on the rest of that bed when the peas are up on trellises, so I can use the other space, too. I made a wide furrow a couple of inches deep with a hoe in the loosened soil, then sprinkled legume inoculant (below) into the furrow very lightly. (You can also moisten the seeds slightly in a bowl and sprinkle the powder or granules onto them, mixing with a spoon, before planting.)

legume inoculant for peas and beansI read the details on the packets while sitting on the edge of one bed in the strengthening March sunshine, making my labels. Some promised tall vines; some short ones that would require no staking. Some of my plants will have purple flowers, others white. Among the seeds were those whose coatings are yellowish, some green, and one favorite variety—‘Schweizer Riesen’—are a distinct rosy-green (that’s its colorful flower in the top photo; it’s one of two peas I always grow that are are profiled here). Mendel would have noted every detail (the way modern-day breeder Alan Kapuler did in creating all these beauties I’ve also enjoyed, sold by Peace Seedlings in Oregon).

A few varieties I grow are for shelling, another one or two snowpea types. In Mendel’s garden–even among his 34 peas–he would not have had peas that become plump, edible-podded “snap” types, a discovery that wasn’t to make it to the seedsmen’s shelves until about 100 years after his time. It was made by a sharp-eyed plant breeder not in Moravia, this time, but in Idaho, when Dr. Calvin Lamborn of Gallatin Valley Seed Company crossed a tight-podded rogue pea with a snow pea…which eventually led to the famous ‘Sugar Snap’ (Lamborn’s 1979 All-America Selection medal winner). Others had tried before, but failed, to perfect and popularize that tasty blend of genetic traits. (Lamborn made “People” magazine that year for his delicious achievement.)

Peas ready to harvest.

THINKING WITH GRATITUDE about plant breeders–those working in the name of science, and of commerce, and of just plain good eating–I planted my peas in thick rows, a few inches across and an inch or so between seeds in all directions. I don’t get all precision-gridded about it; I just sprinkle. Years ago, I used to make a perfect grid in the cultivated soil with my dibber, poking inch-and-a-half-deep holes every inch or 2 apart, dropping one seed into each hole. Once more measured and controlled, I’ve lately become a scatterer (scattered?); you can be tidier if you like. The peas seem cooperative either way.

Tamping down pea row after planting, with an iron rake.Once the seeds are in, I rake the soil that was dislodged by making the furrow back into place over them, tamp it down with the head of an iron rake (above) so they’re covered about an inch and a half below the surface, and pray the chipmunks don’t notice what treasure I have just buried in their neighborhood. I usually pin down netting over the bed, right on the soil surface, until the peas are well up, when keeping woodchucks or rabbits at bay instead will become my primary task.

In 60-something days the first of my eight varieties of peas will flower, and start to produce, and I will soon after–forces willing–have a few weeks of precious harvest. In the fall I’m registered to audit a class not on genetics nor even horticulture, but on the chemistry of food, called Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science, given at Harvard and offered as the biology one is via the EdX system. Maybe I’ll learn what’s really happening when those peas take the next step out of the earth, toward the stove and table?

the promo video from mit’s intro to biology, via edx

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Johanna. In long rows of peas, I use labels in the ground to mark the start of each variety. I plant ones that are quite different next to each other in the row so it won’t be too hard to tell.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, The Salem Garden. Thanks for saying hello. I am out to plant another row in the bed that hadn’t defrosted two days ago. Hope it has by now…

  1. leslie land says:

    Ah Margaret,
    Super-timely as always. I just planted the first of our peas (Alderman and Mr. Big) yesterday. Also prepared the rest of the row but that’s for the snap peas, which germinate and grow better in somewhat warmer soil.

    Thanks everso for the shout out about the classes. Sounds like fun! But first I need a transplant of Margaret-energy; the amount of good stuff you’re doing these days is ultra impressive.

    One little quibble: It’s always nice to see Calvin Lamborn get the credit he deserves, and the pea he bred IS genuinely new. But it isn’t the first successful snap pea – something I know only because I did a bunch of pea research for a book I will someday finish if I ever learn to get off the internet. Meanwhile, some of that info. is on my blog, but the short version is: Most of the earlier varieties are history, but you can still get Amish Snap (through Seed Savers Exchange, among others). It’s shorter and a bit less robust than Sugar Snap but considerably earlier, a definite plus in my book, and the peas themselves are delicious.

  2. Carolyn says:

    I’m currently taking a MOOC from the University of Florida called Sustainable Agricultural Land Management. I am so grateful for the free access to such important material. In learning about the big picture of issues, it motivates me govern my personal behavior in ways that won’t lead to eutrophication of our waterways, and it’s exciting to interact with like minded people from all over the world.

  3. Our peas planted several weeks ago are poking out. I love this quote by Hawthorne:

    “I used to visit and revisit it a dozen times a day, and stand in deep contemplation over my vegetable progeny with a love that nobody could share or conceive of who had never taken part in the process of creation. It was one of the most bewitching sights in the world to observe a hill of beans thrusting aside the soil, or a rose of early peas just peeping forth sufficiently to trace a line of delicate green.”

  4. Becky says:

    They look so lovely! It makes me a little sad that I am heading out of pea/bean season here in Florida, but I do have my Christmas Limas to look forward to!

  5. Caley says:

    Maybe I’ll try hanging baskets next time. The deer love the peas as much, or more than we do. For sure, they get more! What wonderful, patient and determined people you pea gardeners are. I just give up and let the chickens finish them off. What a great article!

  6. Nancy says:

    HI Margaret, I do all of my planting, gardening etc on a terrace in NYC. In years past I only plant flowers, small herb gardens but really want to try vegetables this season. Can I plant peas in a container? Small tomatoes? Is it time to begin? Thanks – Nancy

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Nancy, and yes you can if the pot is big enough…but remember that peas like cool weather and time is running out to get them in in time there. Tomatoes will love pots (big pots) and think about “determinate” or “patio” types — ones that dont’ grow endlessly into giant vines, but reach a certain size, more bushy than vine-like.

  7. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    I noticed your bamboo trellis for peas. I have also tried bamboo, but I wove the thin poles instead of linking them with zip ties. The did not stay up reliably for me, though – silly expectation. It’s just that they were free, taken out of my stand of Black Bamboo in the front yard (a scary story). Right now I like a plastic expanding trellis better. I anchor it with two 4-foot rebar poles. I put the trellis into position before I make the trenches. The white plastic trellis is 8 x 4 feet when full expanded but can go upright or sideways and can be half extended or fully opened. I wish I could locate more of these online. Thanks for all your timely Pea advice. It’s the next chore on my schedule.

  8. Sandie Anne says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I planted my sugar snap peas in early March on a beautiful day of 60 degrees. And then we proceeded to have cold weather and even 6 inches of snow since then. I haven’t seen one pea emerge yet and I am getting a little worried. Do you think they will still come up? I didn’t realize that they needed warmer weather than other peas. Thanks for the heads up about the Amish Snap pea. Maybe I will try that next year.

  9. Cortney D says:

    Margaret, I’ve got a logistical garden question for you. We were slated to put peas in the ground here in South Dakota last week (Tomb Thumb Dwarf and Dwarf Grey Sugar Snap). We ended up with 12″ inches of snow which obviously delayed planting. Looking at the forecast, we are in for more snow this week (where was this stuff in December and January!). I’m only concerned because once it gets warm here, it progresses to hot and dry pretty fast. Should I try to start the peas indoors in soil cubes (or possibly a larger container) or take my chances with the weather? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Brett. They are a favorite garden treat of mine, but bad hail hammered the plants this year so the yield will be reduced. Sad.

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