Perfecting Your Soil for Peas
Soil preparation is one of the most important steps in growing a good crop of peas or peanuts (or any vegetable, for that matter). Your vegetables will be only as good as the earth in which they grow.
Your Kind of Soil
If this is your first gardening venture, you may be curious about what kind of soil you have in your garden: sand, clay, loam or a combination of these soils.
Your local Cooperative Extension Service agent will tell you where to send a soil sample for various tests, including type of soil and its organic content. The service also provides you with suggestions for improving your soil.
Working the Soil
As soon as the ground can be worked in the spring, till or spade your garden (with a shovel, heavy spading fork or rotary tiller) to a depth of eight to 10 inches. If the soil is soggy from melting snow or spring rains, wait until it's dry enough to work. To test your soil, squeeze a handful of it into a ball. If you can break the ball easily by poking it with your index finger, your soil is dry enough to be worked. When you've thoroughly worked the soil, it should be loose, friable and free of clumps.
If you're breaking lawn or areas that have been in sod, make sure that the clumps of grass are turned over so that the roots are facing the sun. This will help prevent the unwanted grass from making a reappearance in the garden.
Seeds need oxygen and loose soil to germinate properly, so thoroughly loosen your garden soil before planting. The looser the soil, the easier it is for plant roots to stretch out to take in the necessary food, water and oxygen.
In addition to creating a well-prepared seedbed, working the soil cuts down on the weeding you'll have to do later on. Each time you cultivate, tiny weed seeds are brought to the surface where they die. Others are buried too deeply to germinate. Either way it's less weeding later on.
Once your seeds are planted there's little you can do about improving the soil's texture and organic content, so it's essential that you spend time on it before sowing seeds.
Improving the Soil
If your soil is less than perfect - and most are - you'll want to start improving it. The healthier the soil, the healthier your vegetables. The best method for enhancing any type of garden soil is to incorporate organic matter - old leaves, hay, grass clippings, compost, biodegradable kitchen scraps or even harvested pea and peanut vines - into it. Organic matter serves as a glue, holding sandy soil particles together. However, in clay soils it wedges in between soil particles, loosening or lightening the soil, allowing water and air to reach plant roots. There's no special season for working organic matter into your garden; do it anytime except when crops are growing. However, adding organic matter in fall allows it plenty of time to break down before spring planting.
To test your garden's pH, which is simply the degree of acidity or alkalinity of your soil, buy a test kit at a local garden store or contact your local Extension Service. The test will indicate the present pH and give recommendations for the addition of lime or sulfur to bring the soil into the proper growing range. Lime "sweetens" or neutralizes the soil's pH, and sulfur makes it more acid.
Peas prefer a soil with a pH range of 5.8 to 7.0. On a pH scale of 0 to 14, 7.0 is neutral, with 5.8 tending to the acid side. It's a good idea to have your soil tested every few years to keep the pH level balanced. This ensures that fertilizers will be more efficient and symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria will thrive. Highly acid soil inhibits the bacteria found on pea roots.
The easiest way to sweeten the soil is to spread one 12-quart bucket of lime over every 1,000 square feet of garden space (four to five pounds per 100 square feet). Apply lime to your soil once every three to four years if it needs sweetening.
If you've been searching for a place to use wood ashes accumulated from your stove or fireplace, here's your answer. Wood ashes are a good substitute for lime. Work about the same quantity of ashes as you would lime (40 to 50 pounds per 1,000 square feet) into the top three to four inches of soil to sweeten it.
Adding Green Manures
You may have heard gardeners discussing "green manures." They're talking about certain crops that are grown and then plowed under or spaded back into the soil to increase the organic content and improve the texture of the soil.
Peas, peanuts and other legumes are especially beneficial when used as green manures. After you've harvested your pea and peanut crops, till the plants back into the soil. In addition to the organic matter legume vines add to your soil, symbiotic bacteria living on the roots capture nitrogen and fix it to the root nodules. This nitrogen returns to the soil when the green manure is tilled in, making it available for future crops.
One way to start a soil improvement program is to plant an early variety of English peas ('Alaska', 'Thomas Laxton', 'Maestro') as soon as you can work the ground in spring. Once you've harvested the peas, till the vines into the soil. A few days later, plant another vegetable crop. It will still be early in the season so you can expect a full harvest if you plant a summer crop, such as tomatoes, peppers, or corn, in the same place.
This article is a part of our Vegetable Gardening Guide for Peas and Peanuts / Getting Started.