Growing sugar snap peas are a great way to kick start a vegetable garden in the spring. They also makes a fine farewell to the growing season in the fall. If you’ve never grown them before — here is a quick guide on how to grow sugar snap peas. They are one of the first and last sweet veggies harvested. Don’t get me wrong: after a long cold winter I am decidedly not picky come mid-spring. I’ll take radishes, and loose leaf lettuce. I’ll take them and be glad for them. But salads get so much better when sugar snap peas are tossed into the mix.
Sugar Snap Pea Seeds
Obviously, the classic – Sugar Snap. This variety took salads by storm in the late 1970s. They grow about six feet tall and take about two months to grow before you can harvest them. One of the advantages of the classic Sugar Snap is that they continue to produce throughout the entire spring and sometimes even into early summer. The only drawbacks are that they will definitely need a trellis in order to grow properly, and that they will need to be de-stringed before you eat them. Which is a shame, when all you want to do is stuff them in your mouth, right there in the garden. (Nope, I am not proud.)
This year I am growing Sugar Ann. It’s a dwarf pea plant that does not have to be trellised and is ready for harvest two or three weeks before other sugar snap peas. Plus they take up almost no room in the garden – which means I can have about sixty plants in the same amount of space as four broccoli plants. Sadly they still need to be de-stringed.
The Sugar Sprint variety is the answer to the string problem, if that’s a hang-up for you. This variety grows to be about the same size as the classic sugar snap pea and takes about the same amount of time to grow before harvesting. But hey…no string! Which means you can stuff them into your mouth a few seconds sooner once you do harvest them.
Planting Sugar Snap Peas
Most varieties are best planted first in the early spring, and then again in early fall. There is no need to wait until after the last danger of frost, like most other crops. Peas can handle some frost. Generally sugar snap peas don’t produce when daytime temperatures get into the eighties. And if they do they tend to be stunted, or not as sweet as they could be.
Early spring plantings of sugar snap peas can be tricky. Once the ground is soft enough to work, the spring rain comes. And when it rains it pours. The downside here is that too much early moisture means pea seeds tend to rot in the ground before they germinate and sprout. To compensate, I usually sprout my pea seeds indoors where I can control how much water they get, and can keep them cool and prevent rot.
Not that this is a sure-fire solution, either. You have to be careful, because peas have delicate roots, and can be difficult to transplant. (Note: since starting them indoors also prevents birds from picking off the seeds, I think it’s a better wager, on balance. Your choice.) I haven’t had too much trouble transplanting them, since I only let them stay in a seed starting cell or tray for about 2 weeks. Once they have sprouted, the danger of rotting in the ground is over, and pea season can officially begin. You can plant your pea seeds (or transplants) about a month before the last frost of the year.
Once the peas are about four or five inches tall, they face their next critical issue. Bunnies! Sure bunnies are cute, but it’s less than cute to find your peas mowed down by these fuzzy but diabolical munching machines. A net or row cover will do just fine keeping the bunnies at bay. However, if you are growing a sizable garden and bunnies and other wildlife are going to munch on a variety of other plants, the best thing to do is to put a fence up around your entire garden. Don’t worry about the bunnies and deer, they’re resourceful and will find plenty of other things to eat. (I should note that the tender shoots are edible not just for bunnies but for people as well. Or so I’ve heard, anyway. Come mid-spring, as far as I’m concerned the problem is not a lack of edible green leaves, it is the lack of things to go with the edible green leaves.)
Caring for Sugar Snap Peas
Sugar snap peas grow best in neutral to slightly acidic soil. Generally no additional fertilizer is needed. If anything, the peas themselves will actually improve your soil conditions. Since they are in the legume family, they are a nitrogen fixer. Which is a fancy way of saying their roots trap nitrogen in the soil, as will their eventual decomposition, once you’ve harvested…which is a good thing for soil and for the next plants to occupy that real estate. Just make sure that the soil is loose enough for the plants to establish good roots. Soil that is rock hard will stunt your plants and diminish the harvest.
Keep the soil damp but not soaked. Watering about once a week is usually enough, unless your area is getting about an inch of rain a week, in which case nature is doing the watering for you. If you are planting in spring, keep a few transplants going in case there is so much rain that the soil becomes waterlogged. If some plants get destroyed by the rain you will be ready with backup plants.
If you are growing a variety that needs a trellis, make sure the trellis is in place before you plant. Otherwise you run the risk of damaging the delicate plant roots when you put in the trellis. As the vine grows taller, help the plant find and cling to the trellis. Peas have strong tendrils and will naturally want to climb. A word of caution, once the tendrils have grabbed onto something it can be hard to pull them away. So make sure they’re grabbing the trellis, and not a neighboring plant, or something. At the end of the season be sure to remove all tendrils from the trellis before storage.
Although they may be favorites of the winged and four legged pests, peas are generally free of most diseases. However, the plants can be prone to powerdry mildew, which usually doesn’t infect plants during their peak harvest time. It is caused by high amounts of humidity. Unless you are planning to save your own seed the mildew should not be a problem.
Root rot can be another problem for pea plants. The base of the stem starts to turn yellow and gradually works its way to the top of the vine, ultimately killing you pea plant. To avoid this in the future, be sure not to plant peas in the same area of the garden year after year. The diseases can build up in the soil over time, and eventually make growing pea plants impossible.
The vast majority of other diseases are seed-borne. So when you are buying seeds make sure you use an established and reputable seed company. Let’s face it: pea seeds are pretty cheap. So spending an extra dollar on quality seeds at the start of the season will save you a headache later.
Harvesting Sugar Snap Peas
The variety you planted and your garden conditions will determine when you harvest your peas. Generally, when the pea pods are about three or four inches long and rounded, they are ready to pick.
The best way to harvest a pea pod is to pinch it off the plant. Use your forefinger and your thumb pad to separate the pod from the plant. Removing the crown at the top of the pod will help the plant to keep producing peas. The last thing you want to do is yank on the pea pod, as it will damage or break the vine.
As temperatures start climbing higher and higher, your plants will begin to die back. The same goes for fall planted sugar snap peas, in reverse. When the temperatures start dropping lower and lower, the peas will eventually die. I guess all good things must come to an end… but not just yet…
Remember, as I mentioned above…they are nitrogen fixers! So if your plants made it through the season healthy and disease free – go ahead and turn the vines and leaves into the soil. Let them compost and you’ll have free organic fertilizer for next year, or your next crop planting.