A test for gardeners: When do you get your first peas?

This undated photo shows peas harvested in New Paltz, N.Y. Shelling peas don’t travel well because their sugars begin to turn to starch as soon as they are picked, making this vegetable a must-have home garden delicacy. (AP photo)

In some gardening circles, a gardener’s skill is measured by how soon he or she gets the first bowl of shelling peas on the table.

Peas are a good choice for such competition, because raising a good crop demands the best soil you can muster as well as timely sowing and harvest. Peas are a cool-weather crop (50 to 70 degrees F is best) so must be planted early. Not too early, though, or the seeds are apt to rot. Not too late either, for the plants languish in hot weather.

The earliest possible crop of shelling peas is also a worthy goal because peas are such a quintessential garden delicacy. The sugars in fresh-picked peas start changing to starches as soon as the pods are picked, so it’s impossible to buy fresh, frozen or canned peas that match the flavor of homegrown ones.

AND THE RACE IS ON

I’ll admit to being drawn into the spirit of pea competition — with some reservations. I won’t grow smooth-seeded shelling peas, such as Alaska, which are the earliest. They don’t taste as good as wrinkle-seeded types, whose seeds wrinkle up because they are so high in sugars.

I won’t use fungicide-treated seeds, which can be planted earlier with less danger of rotting. Handling poison-coated seeds takes the fun out of pea planting.

And quantity is also important to me, so I won’t start peas indoors in pots because it would be impossible to manage enough transplants to get a decent meal.

As far as when to drop those first seeds into furrows, too many gardeners bow to tradition and sow them — or try to — on St. Patrick’s Day. That may be the ideal date for planting peas in Ireland, but sometime in January is more on the mark in Florida, and April 1 is the more correct date in my garden in New York’s Hudson Valley.

Pea seeds sprout when the soil temperature hits about 40 degrees F. So stick a thermometer 3 or 4 inches into the ground to know when to sow pea seeds in your garden.

TRICKS FOR EARLINESS

No matter when peas are planted, there are tricks to getting the sprouts up more quickly and successfully. Pre-sprouting the seeds indoors gives them a slight jump on the season once they’re in the ground. Soak the seeds in water for a few hours, and then rinse them at least once daily, draining them after each rinsing. Rootlets should be evident after a couple days or so.

Planting slightly less deeply than recommended or in raised beds gives them warmer soil, which also speeds sprouting and growth.

If peas have never grown before in your garden, sprinkle the seeds with a bacterial inoculant, available in stores, so plants can make use of atmospheric nitrogen as fertilizer.

MAXIMIZING YIELD

Correct plant spacing, and propping the vines up off the ground are yield enhancers. Rather than single rows, sow double rows about 6 inches apart, with 2 inches between peas in a row. If you plant in beds, run a double row up the middle of the bed.

Peas reign as king in British gardens, and traditional staking for peas there is pea twigs — tree and shrub prunings trimmed so their branches lie in one plane, then pushed into the soil between each double row with their butt ends down and branches fanned out down the row. Even before the vines start their ascent, the row of pea twigs can be attractive — and oh so British.

I forgo the twigs and the accent with a temporary fence of chicken wire, which is quicker to erect.

VARIETIES TO GROW

Among wrinkle-seeded shelling peas, you’ll find some — but not a lot — of differences in flavor from one variety to the next. Do consider vine size in your variety choice. Vine size determines how big a trellis you need, and how quickly ripe peas are ready for harvest. Two all-around excellent varieties for yield, flavor and earliness are Green Arrow and Lincoln.

If shelling peas have one fault compared with snap peas or snow peas, it is the time needed to shell them. In the interests of science, I once decided to measure the time involved. To my surprise, I was able to pop open about 6 quarts of pods to make 2 quarts of shelled peas in only 30 minutes — not really a bad rate, and not really an awful job when you’re sitting outside in the shade with a warm breeze.