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Peas, greens thrive in winter gardens
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Most gardens look dead in the winter as gardeners wait for spring to put in their crops, but these plots can come alive in January with fresh vegetables for the table.
David Nagel, horticulture specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said mid- to late-January is the time to plant peas and greens.
"Mississippi gardeners don't plant peas nearly as much as they used to, but these vegetables thrive in our climate," Nagel said.
To prepare a garden for peas, make sure the soil is well drained and has a pH of at least 6.2. The general recommendation for vegetable gardens is a pH of 6.5 to 7, and while most vegetables can tolerate lower values, peas cannot.
Do not work soil that is wet. If water comes out of a squeezed handful of soil, the ground is too wet to work.
"The main limiting factor in planting winter gardens is getting enough dry days," Nagel said. "When you work wet soil, you crush the macro-pores, which are where most of the air and water movement in soil takes place. When this soil dries, it forms clods which don't accept water, and it takes years to recover from this damage."
Damaged soil benefits from mulch being placed on top to retain moisture. Till in organic material to further improve the soil.
Choices for peas include the English pea, which is the traditional garden pea; the flat snow peas, which are common in Chinese cooking; and the sugar snap pea, which resembles the green bean with a thick, fleshy pod and no seeds. When selecting a garden pea variety, gardeners must decide whether they like starchy or sweet, crunchy peas.
"The easiest way to determine which kind you want to plant is to decide whether you prefer buying canned or frozen peas," Nagel said. "Canned peas are smooth-seeded varieties and are starchy, while frozen peas are wrinkle-seeded and are sweeter and crunchier. The seed package will indicate this designation."
Peas must be harvested on time to ensure best flavor and quality. Harvest peas in March before temperatures reach 80 degrees. Peas can tolerate temperatures to the low 20s, but when the weather is colder than that, cover with a blanket.
The longer a pea is allowed to stay on the vine, the bigger and starchier it gets. English peas are grown for the seed and should be harvested when the seed size suits the gardener. Harvest those peas where the pod is eaten before significant seed growth has occurred.
Nagel said that except for leafless varieties, peas need a trellis and usually grow 2 to 3 feet tall. Older varieties can reach 5 to 6 feet tall. Disease is not a problem in Mississippi, but aphids can be an issue. Treat these by spraying the plants with soapy water.
January is also the time to plant greens. Nagel encouraged gardeners to look to their flower beds for a tasty vegetable. Red mustards are popular as ornamentals for their attractive red, almost purple, color, and are good to eat.
"If you're careful when you harvest the leaves and don't harm the bud on top of the short stem, it will keep growing and you can enjoy the red mustard for its ornamental value and its flavor on the table," Nagel said.
Kale and collards are the most cold tolerant of the greens, while mustards are damaged when not protected at temperatures below 28 degrees. Greens can be planted from September through March in beds prepared as for peas. Keep insects away using B.t.s., a bacterial insecticide that paralyzes the pests digestive system while being totally harmless to mammals.
More information on growing these crops is available from the MSU Extension Service.