Planting peas is a St. Patrick’s Day tradition

March 16, 2017 | Doug Oster comments

It was my grandmother who said “always start your peas on St. Patrick’s Day,” and that’s what I’ve done every year I’ve gardened, regardless of the weather. There’s something special about maintaining that gardening tradition. Planting those seeds marks the official start to the garden season, and when those peas sprout, I’m reminded of the days spent watching grandma tend the garden.

Peas are traditionally planted on St. Patrick's Day. This seedling just emerged from compost a few days later.

Peas are traditionally planted on St. Patrick’s Day. This seedling just emerged from compost a few days later. Photo by Doug Oster


These peas were started indoors in peat pots. The pots will go out in the garden when snow has melted off the beds.

These peas were started indoors in peat pots. The pots will go out in the garden when snow has melted off the beds.


Of course, on March 17 it can be anywhere from 70 degrees and sunny to 17 degrees with a thick layer of snow covering the garden beds. Either way, the first trick to getting those peas to sprout quickly is to soak the seeds in water overnight. It’s amazing to see the transformation the next morning as the tiny hard seeds have swollen to three times their original size with a softened outer coating, ready for germination.
The garden usually is too wet to turn over. If the soil sticks to the shovel when digging, leave it be. Working soil that’s too wet will create ugly clumps that dry to nearly the consistency of cement and will be a pain to deal with all season.
When there’s no snow in the garden, a bag of compost from a garden center can be put down over a bed. It’s the perfect place for the seeds as it’s filled with everything they will need when they emerge. Push the seeds about an inch down and cover them by simply dragging your hand across the compost.
The peas can be planted a couple inches apart in straight rows, if you’re so inclined, or tossed willy nilly over the bed. Either way, the plants will need some support in the form of a short fence or even sticks pushed into the bed. Peas need cool weather to thrive, but can be planted well into April if need be. The plants will stop producing and give up when warm weather arrives.
I’ll often cover a bed with some clear plastic skylights that were given to me by a reader or floating row covers. The row covers are made of a lightweight translucent fabric available at garden centers.

The skylight or row cover will help warm the soil and speed sprouting.
My favorite variety is ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’ snow pea. It’s been part of my spring planting ritual for decades. The plants are stocky, but need some support and produces 4- to 5-inch tender, tasty pods.
I’ve been experimenting with some other varieties too. Last year ‘Blue Podded Blauwschokkers’ garden pea was fun to grow. The heirloom variety dates back hundreds of years and has beautiful purplish blue peas that are eaten whole as snow peas when young and can be shelled as they mature. This season, I’m giving ‘Sugar Magnolia Purple Snap’ a try. I’ve always wondered about tall varieties like this one, which can climb to 6 feet. I can’t wait to see the show when the trellis is covered with purple pods.

ÔSugar Magnolia Purple SnapÕ pea is a variety available from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

‘Sugar Magnolia Purple Snap’ pea is a variety available from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds

When snow covers the ground and the forecast predicts frigid temperatures, the seeds can be started indoors. Since they resent transplanting, the peas are sowed in peat pots — fiber containers that rot away in the soil when planted. Fill the pots with a good pre-moistened planting mix. The medium should be moist but not dripping.
I like to push two seeds into each 4-inch pot; one seed can be planted for smaller pots. Cover the pots with plastic to keep the soil moist and keep the flat in a area that’s 60 degrees or warmer. As soon as they sprout, the pots can be sunk into compost out in the garden.
I’ve experimented with starting peas in standard flats and then transplanting them into the garden. It sets them back about two weeks, which can be a good thing as it lengthens the harvest. As the first peas reach maturity for picking, the others are just flowering.
Although peas are the traditional first crop planted, gardeners also can think about lots of other cool weather crops for early sowing. Lettuce, radishes, arugula, other greens, beets, carrots, onion sets and spinach are all good choices for planting outdoors in late March. Use the compost technique or wait until the soil is ready. These seeds will sit in the cool soil and sprout when the time is right.
As soon as nurseries have pansies and violas available, fill up containers around the house where they get a little protection from wild swings in temperatures. Some of the pansies planted in my garden last fall are still there and ready to bloom again. If they can go all winter, the spring planted pansies can take anything that Mother Nature can dish out as winter fades. It’s also fun to combine the flowers with pretty varieties of lettuce. Since pansies and violas are edible, they can be added to the salad when the greens are ready for the kitchen.
It won’t be long until spring is here in full force. Planting peas and other varieties now will provide beauty, tasty treats and best of all would make grandma proud.
Blue Podded Blauwschokkers’ garden pea and ‘Sugar Magnolia Purple Snap’ pea are available from John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds. 860-567-6086 or
Doug Oster is the Tribune-Review home and garden editor. Reach him at 412-965-3278 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at