Sometimes my great gardening ideas aren’t so great. Take my pea trellis, for example.
I love growing sugar snap peas. Nothing beats the taste of green peas fresh from the garden. I eat them raw, I eat them cooked, but I love them all. So I lovingly constructed what I thought was the Palace of Peas, a PVC pipe trellis that looked like a sci-fi movie and was sure to produce an abundant harvest.
The peas hate it.
It was a fantastic idea (or so I thought). I’d build a pea trellis out of PVC pipes. Then, when the peas were done using the pipes to climb on, and I’d harvested the last of the succulent sweet peas, I’d simply transform the pipes into an open tunnel, a support for a floating row cover.
Last year, my pea trellis consisted of jute twine tied to a few metal stakes pounded into the ground. It worked well and the peas liked it, but it was a pain in the neck to clean up once the peas were done.
This year, I thought, “Aahh…I’ll give them a trellis to end all trellises! It’s going to be grand! A veritable Pea Palace!”
I even got the bright idea to create my project and enter it into a contest a major home and garden magazine sponsored. Luckily for me, we didn’t get to the hardware store in time to buy the materials to build the pea trellis or I might be apologizing to a lot of gardeners now for my so-called bright idea.
I constructed the trellis out of thin PVC pipes. Connecting pipes pushed into the soft soil and held in place with rocks and boards kept them upright. I planted the peas carefully under the pipes, watered the bed diligently, and…
The peas grew. They sent for tiny tendrils looking for wires, branches, and vertical surface upon which to cling. They felt the smooth plastic surface of the pipe and simply shrugged. They didn’t like it. I tried tying them to the pipe. They struggled, rebelled, and climbed AWAY from the PVC pipe. Now they were clinging to one another like survivors on a life raft.
Well, darned if the peas didn’t just tell me what they did indeed like. It wasn’t plastic, that’s for sure.
Out came the ball of jute twine. I made a complicate series of loops around the PVC. The peas happily clamored over the twine. They were happiest when I just left tails of twine dangling in the breeze for them to find and cling to.
So what happened? Why did the peas hate my PVC contraption, so lovingly and yes, expensively constructed?
How Peas Find Supports to Cling To
Peas and other vines, like the morning glory in the video below, are magical. Shortly after germination, they send out special runners that swing about in a circle in what is called nutational movement. When the vines encounter something appropriate to cling to, it induces a thigmotropic responses, basically a response in which touch triggers signals that tell the vine to curl up. Essentially, it feels with its vines, and when it likes what it feels, it climbs.
My pea plants did not like the smooth, slippery feel of the PVC pipe. As they swung about, in such slow motion that it was undetectable to the naked eye (but could be caught by a time release camera such as the one used to make the above video), they must have felt the plastic and kept right on going. By adding the jute twine back into the mixture, I’ve given them a material that feels “right” to the touch for them.
It just goes to show you that plants contain an innate wisdom which mankind knows little about. We think we understand plants, and we think we can improve upon horticultural methods passed down from generations before us. Sometimes, this works to our advantage. We discover something new and create new hybrids that produce more fruit, or better tasting vegetables, or prettier flowers. But at other times, the plants get the last laugh…and our “improvements” aren’t improvements at all.
I finally caved in and rigged up the jute twine through the pea bed. Some of the tendrils like it, some don’t. Now my peas have me hunting through the garage for different string textures to see which ones appeal to it the most. They call things without a brain “vegetables” but I have to say, in this case? The vegetables have more brains than I do. After all, they’re happily growing up, up and away, while I’m kneeling in muddy wet grass pleading with them to kindly grow up this piece of string or that one.
I think I hear them laughing. They know I’ll do anything for freshly picked green peas.
Well, my friends, the peas won this round.
Happy gardening. Keep growing!
Jeanne Grunert is a certified Virginia Master Gardener and the author of several gardening books. Her garden articles, photographs, and interviews have been featured in The Herb Companion, Virginia Gardener, and Cultivate, the magazine of the National Farm Bureau. She is the founder of The Christian Herbalists group and a popular local lecturer on culinary herbs and herbs for health, raised bed gardening, and horticulture therapy.