How to Grow Snow Peas in your Garden
Not long after the snow melts from your garden, you can plant snow pea seeds directly in the soil. Then just 60 or so days later, you’ll be stir-frying them for one of the season’s first tastes of homegrown vegetables. Snowpeas are such a treat you’ll want to grow as many as you can. Here’s how.
Most Productive Varieties
Researchers in Alabama, Oregon, and Florida grew a bunch of different snowpea varieties side-by-side, harvested the pods, weighed them, and came up with some nicely consistent results: In all three locations, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ (or its more disease-resistant variation, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’) yielded the most pounds of pods.
In the state for which it is named, ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ produced 8.1 pounds of peas per 12-foot row vs. the 5.1 pounds produced by its closest competitor. In the other two trials, OSP or OSP II outyielded the other varieties by at least 20 percent.
The reason for this extraordinary output, explains James Baggett, Ph.D., of Oregon State University, breeder of the productive peas, is that most snowpea plants produce one pod at each “growth node,” but the two ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’ varieties produce two pods per node.
OSP and OSPII start bearing about 65 to 70 days after you sow the seeds. That’s fine if you garden in an area with a long, cool spring. But all snowpeas stop producing once daytime temperatures begin to exceed 75 degrees F, so if you don’t have 80 or so reliable days of below 75 degrees F temps, go with a faster-maturing variety like ‘Dwarf White Sugar’ or ‘Short N’ Sweet’. Both begin bearing just 50 days after you sow the seed.
The latter pair may also be the best yielders for Midwestern gardeners. In Infield trials conducted in Ohio, short-vined ‘Dwarf White Sugar’ yielded more pounds of pods than any other variety—including ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’—even though the individual pods of ‘Dwarf White Sugar’ are smaller. OSP bears 3 to 4-inch long pods; the pods from ‘Dwarf White Sugar’ are 2 to 2.5 inches.
If you prefer bigger pods, grow ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar’, a high-yield runner-up in the Alabama and Florida trials, or ‘Oregon Giant—both bear 4 to 5-inch long pods. Be aware, however, that ‘Mammoth Melting Sugar needs 75 days to start producing those whoppers; ‘Oregon Giant needs only 65.
In areas where spring is relentlessly damp and cool, choosing disease-resistant varieties is the key to higher yields. So if your past pea plantings have been plagued by pea enation virus (vines curl, then produce no pods or small, yellowish ones) or powdery mildew (white powdery mold on the leaves, stems, and pods), plant ‘Oregon Sugar Pod II’, which resists both diseases.
Easy-to-Grow Peas, Snow Peas, and Snap Peas
Green peas in a nutshell—or pea pod:
One of the tastiest vegetables you can grow, as succulent as sweet corn, picked from vining plants as ornamental as many annual flowers. The first spring in our garden many years ago, eager to get started, we raked aside remnants of snow in order to plant peas.
Word soon spread:
“They’re hoping the snow up there.” Two months later, the first mouthful of just-picked peas came as a complete surprise; I’d never tasted that melt-in-the-mouth sweetness before. Since then, dropping hard, wrinkled pea seeds into the damp, chilly ground has become a hopeful rite of spring.
Compared with mountains of corn and tomatoes, peas appear only by the odd basketful at summer markets and are never cheap. Bring home a quart of pods, shell them and you end up with a smallish side dish for two. Since the sugars in peas start turning to starch soon after picking, the finest flavor is reserved for those who grow a row or two; and it’s the only way to have peas in abundance.
Peas are among the easiest vegetables to cultivate. They’re a true cool-weather crop: seeds go in early, vines do most of their growing in May and June, and the harvest comes in before summer turns hot. Most years, in our Zone 4 garden, we sow a batch during the first half of April (occasionally during a mild snap in March), with a second planting three or four weeks later.
The first step is choosing seeds—seedlings are rarely available because, like their ornamental cousins, sweet peas, they don’t take well to transplanting. ‘Knight’ (60 centimeters tall) is an early, large-podded cultivar; ‘Lincoln’ (one meter) is an old standby of exceptional sweetness; while the newer ‘Bolero’ (120 centimeters), which grew beautifully for us last season, is said to have the best disease tolerance.
If space allows, plant early-maturing varieties such as disease-tolerant ‘Olympia’ (40 centimeters) or ‘Knight’ first, followed by later cultivars such as All-America Selection ‘Mr. Big (75 centimeters), ‘Eclipse’ (50 centimeters), or ‘Bolero’ to extend the fresh-picked season.
Peas thrive in a range of soils, from sandy loam to clay, as long as drainage is good and pH hovers around 6. Work in a layer of compost and/or fertilizer higher in phosphorus and potash than in nitrogen. Even in our alkaline soil, a dusting of ground limestone seems to counteract the natural acidity of the organic matter routinely applied to vegetable beds.
If your soil is heavy clay, consider preparing the bed the fall before, digging or tilling in amendments, and shaping a raised garden bed, which will drain and warm quickly in spring.
We have always been organic gardeners, but I confess that most of the pea seeds we plant are coated with a mild fungicide that sterilizes a tiny area of soil and keeps seeds from rotting in the cold ground. Don’t water seedlings unless spring turns hot and dry, and don’t thin them out.
They’ll emerge tightly clasped, then open into decorative vines of rounded, light green leaves and lacy tendrils that wind tightly around anything slender—twigs, string, wire, or netting—within reach. Pods dangle at the tops of pretty plants that climb from knee-high to waist-high; they are much easier to find and pick if vines have support. Give them something to grasp and up they go.
Traditional pea fencing was fashioned from shrub or tree prunings, slender twiggy sticks called pea brush. You’ll need 120-centimeter-long cuttings. Trim the ends on a sharp angle and push the branches firmly into the ground between rows of peas, close enough to form a continuous twiggy hedge. Before long, you’ll have little trees full of peas.
Growing Peas on the Vine
The best time to set up a pea fence is just before seeding or, failing that, just as seedlings are emerging. Pea vines will also run up a trellis draped with nylon netting (sold for that purpose).
Rainfall may see peas through from germination to flowering, but a couple of soakings as the green seeds are plumping in their pods makes a noticeable difference in size and yield. Mulch with compost, straw, leaves, or grass clippings after a rain or a deep watering to keep the earth cool and moist as summer starts to swelter. Mildew can be problematic in humid weather, but in our experience, peas are mercifully free from insect damage and disease—as long as they get an early start.
Pick your peas when they’re full, round, and sweet but not overgrown; unzip a few pods to check for size and taste. Sling a basket over your arm, pick up and down the row, then again to find pods hidden in the greenery. Next, settle into a comfortable place and get into the shelling rhythm—open pods, run a thumb down to dislodge peas into a bowl and toss the empties into a bucket for composting.
Simmer fresh peas in just a little water for two to three minutes until they’re bright green and tender; when the peas are done, the water should be all but gone. If there’s a more delicious homegrown vegetable, I can’t think what it might be.
Sugar Snaps and Snow Peas
About a decade ago, snap peas—the now well-known ‘Sugar Snap’ was the first—made big news. A brand new vegetable, snap peas combined the fibreless pods of snow peas with plump, sweet peas inside. A great treat right off the vine, snap peas are as close to candy as you can grow. Cultivars such as ‘Sugar Ann’, ‘Sugar Sprint’, and ‘Sugar Daddy’ reach one meter and are grown like shelling peas; ‘Sugar Snap’, still one of the tastiest, climbs up and up to two meters.
A ‘Sugar Snap’ teepee will delight children: a leafy hideaway dangling with sweet pods. Push five or more long, stout bamboo poles (or the equivalent) as deeply as possible into the prepared ground in a circle, leaving a gap for a doorway. Fasten the poles tightly with string where they intersect near the top.
Drape the frame with nylon netting, or encircle and crisscross it with strong string or raffia, looped and knotted in place. A couple of weeks before your last frost date, plant a circle of ‘Sugar Snap’ pea seeds around the outer edge. Mulch inside the teepee with grass clippings, straw, or, for a drier surface, wood or bark chips.
Steer young vines toward the support. Kids will enjoy watching this plant scramble up the teepee, but may need a hand—or a lift—to pick the peas.
Snow pea pod plants produce large quantities of flat pods, excellent for stir-fries, salads, or raw vegetable platters. They are so easily cultivated that even a first-time food grower is bound to have encouraging results. Look for cultivars such as ‘Oregon Sugar Pod’, ‘Little Sweetie’, or ‘Oregon Giant’ with broad, tender pods.
You might get away with not supporting snow peas; yes, they’ll tangle, but pods are plentiful and easy to find. A nice crop of snow peas—or shorter varieties of snap peas—can be grown in a half barrel set in a sunny place and filled with a light soil mix. Poke pea seeds in up to your first knuckle at five-centimeter intervals.
Push in enough sticks of pea brush to form a weave of twiggy branches. All that’s left to do is watering—and, of course, picking peas when they’re ready.
Plant for Productivity
No matter which variety you grow, you must start the seeds early. As their name suggests, snow peas are cool-loving crops—they can germinate when the air temperature is as low as 40 degrees F, though they sprout most reliably between 50 and 60 degrees F. The young plants endure light frosts just fine without protection.
Eliot Coleman, a renowned expert on gardening in cool conditions, used to start snowpeas indoors and later transplanted the seedlings into his garden. But he has developed a different system that has him plucking pods in his Harborside, Maine garden earlier than ever before: He shows two rows of ‘Short N’ Sweet’ snow peas along the back wall of his cold frame (behind some salad greens) around March 15. By the time the vines grow tall enough to touch the lid, the season has advanced enough that Coleman can safely remove the cover and let his snow peas grow unprotected.
Coleman says that some of his friends who live in climates with mild winters (zone 7 and south) get an even earlier start—they sow their snowpea seeds in late fall, and then just wait for them to sprout the following spring.
Call it cabin fever or call it the lure of the season’s first crop; whatever the cause, lots of gardeners like to challenge the conventional wisdom on planting dates. “Experiment by starting some snowpeas earlier and some later,” advises Coleman, “and prove the experts wrong about when you should plant them.”
Whenever you sow your seeds, you’ll get more pods if the plants have a little extra space between them, says Brian Kahn, Ph.D., a horticulture professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Dr. Kahn compared snow pea pod plants growing 4 inches apart in double rows to ones growing 2 inches apart in single rows and found that the plants growing 4 inches apart yielded as much as 23 percent more (excuse our metric) grams of pods than the 2 inches! “We believe that plants spaced 4 inches apart branch more, and have more pods on those branches,” explains Dr. Kahn, “while the vines planted 2 inches apart barely branch at all and get bearing nodes only on the main stem.”
Another way to ensure high snowpea yields is to inoculate the seeds. The inoculant contains a bacteria (which occurs naturally in some soils) that stimulates the formation of nodes on the plant’s roots that enable the plant to extract nitrogen from the air, allowing the plant to virtually feed itself—a phenomenon called “nitrogen-fixing.” You shake the seeds in a plastic bag containing the powdered inoculant (available from many seed catalogs and garden centers).
Snow Pea Advice
Take Time to Trellis
While some varieties are touted as bush types or even “self-trellising,” snowpeas are essentially vining plants that are most manageable when they’re climbing. So plant them next to a trellis, and the pods will hang there waiting for you to remove them.
“If you grow in double rows, you can simply erect one trellis between the rows,” notes Oklahoma State’s Dr. Kahn, who adds that he prefers trellises made from nylon netting (attached to stakes) rather than metal because the nylon doesn’t rust or heat up as metal can.
Once your snowpeas begin producing, harvest them regularly and you’ll increase your total yield. That’s right, the more you pick the more the plant will produce.
I’ve heard that some people grow more snow peas than they can eat right away. This has never happened to me because many that I grow never make it into the house—I like to munch them raw while I’m in the garden. But if you do have a surplus of snow peas, you can store them in the freezer. Simply spread them out on cookie sheets and put them in the freezer. When they’re frozen, pour them into a resealable plastic bag.