Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Winter Peas in Fresno

Last year on October 24th I planted a handful of peas in my small backyard garden plot in Fresno. I also planted a few cabbage and spinach seeds. I wanted to see if these vegetables, that are known to be frost-tolerant to a degree, would make it through a Fresno winter and provide me with an off-season crop to rotate with my summer tomatoes. You can see for yourself how well they managed.

This picture was taken about a week ago and we are now enjoying fresh peas. The first few I harvested a couple of weeks ago were a bit weather-worn. The more abundant crop this week is soft and very tasty - a real treat. What is remarkable is that I have done next to nothing to care for these plants. The cool winter weather of the Central Valley seems to be just what these peas need to grow. The 12 inches of precipitation this winter has been plenty. I only watered the seeds right after planting and then have let the rains take of the rest.

I did help out with nutrition; not artificial fertilizers mind you, but a healthy layer of homemade compost covered with flat stones around the young seedlings. I added the compost to improve the soil and the stones to keep back the weeds and to foster a nicer environment for the earthworms and helpful arthropods. A couple of months ago (in January) I turned over one of the stones and was happy to see a couple of fat worms and a few baby earwigs - along with several isopods (a.k.a. potato bugs). Another benefit of the peas is that (being legumes) they are busy making nitrogen available for my next crop.

I did notice early-on a couple of nibbled leaves near the ground where some unwanted creature was eating my plants. After my initial concern, I decided to leave them alone. With the few predatory ground beetles that I had seen running around the stones I hoped that whatever guilty creature was feeding on the plants would not get out of hand. So far I have been right.
You can also see the cabbages I planted at the same time as the peas. They are doing fine but have not grown as much. This surprised me a little. I was actually expecting them to do better with the cold than the peas but I was wrong. I'm going to have to wait several more weeks before they're ready to eat.

The spinach really hasn't been a good test. I planted the seeds in the lowest part of the garden and they got flooded on several occasions when it rained hard. I may experiment with them next winter.

For the small garden that I have, being able to multiply crops is one way to maximize the use of limited resources. But there are also real benefits from small gardens. I have an abundance of compost and my yields are much higher than commercial growers. My plants are also completely in their element. Since taking the picture, they have added several more inches to each tip and have become top-heavy, falling over into the adjacent rows - the pea equivalent to inebriation, I'm sure. Worm castings are piling up around the stones and spring is well under-way.

This is a bit unusual for most gardeners, I know. The common wisdom is to plant peas sometime in March, recognizing that they can take a little frost. I've heard that even on very cold nights, they can survive if covered in snow - or under a light compost no doubt. Planting in March might be a good idea for northerners. But for the citizens of Fresno planting so late would be a shame. Why plant in March when you can be eating peas in March. My advice to anybody with mild winters is to plant peas in October.

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