Have you ever opened a seed packet only to discover that the seeds inside are an unnaturally brilliant color? Fluorescent pink, perhaps? Organic gardeners, beware: The dye is your warning that the seeds have been treated with synthetic fungicides. Most of us wouldn’t want to handle seeds laced with toxic chemicals, much less eat the crops grown from them.
Peas are frequent victims of this kind of seed treatment. Young pea plants thrive in cool weather and tolerate light frosts, and that puts them high on the list of vegetables to sow in early spring. But if the soil is too cold, the seeds may rot before they germinate—the reason some seed companies give their pea seeds a chemical bath.
Fortunately, plenty of seed companies sell only untreated seeds. And there’s an easy way to get peas up and growing in cold soil that doesn’t involve chemicals or pink dye. The trick, many gardeners have discovered, is to presprout the seeds before sowing.
Measure out the quantity of seeds you intend to plant. Put them in an airtight container or plastic bag between two layers of wet paper towels. Close the container and leave it at room temperature. Check the seeds after 24 hours; if the seeds have plumped up and the embryonic roots have begun to extend away from the seeds, it’s time to plant. If not, close the container and wait another day. Fresh seeds usually spring to life in 1 to 3 days.
The tiny roots are fragile and easily snapped off at this stage, so handle the presprouted seeds gingerly and plant them quickly. Dust the damp seeds with an inoculant powder, if you wish. (Inoculants for legumes contain symbiotic bacteria that form nitrogen-containing nodules on the plant roots, nourishing the pea plants and whatever crops follow.) Sow the presprouted peas immediately in compost-enriched soil.
Keep Reading: Organic Gardening's Guide to Growing Peas.