A few months ago I wrote about heat-loving Southern peas (Vigna unguiculata), but now that September is here and temperatures have begun to cool off ever so slightly, it’s time to switch gears to cool-season peas (Pisum sativum): sugar snaps, snow peas and garden peas.
Peas have been in cultivation around the world for thousands of years, but the sugar snap pea that we enjoy today is American-made, thanks to a plant breeder named Calvin Lamborn of Idaho. In the 1970’s he crossed a garden pea with a snow pea, resulting in a tender pea with a crisp, sweet, edible pod. This new pea was introduced to the public in 1979, and has been a sensation ever since. ‘Sugar Snap’ was the original introduction of edible-podded peas. It is a vining variety that can reach 5-7 feet. ‘Super Sugar Snap’ is an improved version with resistance to powdery mildew. Both varieties mature in 62-65 days.
Most peas are compact bush types that grow 24-30” tall and begin producing slightly earlier than the vining types. A few reliable sugar snap varieties include ‘Cascadia’ (58-60 days to maturity),
‘Sugar Ann’ (52-56 days), ‘Sugar Bon’ (56 days) and ‘Sugar Sprint’ (55-58 days). If garden or shelling peas are more to your liking try the heirloom varieties ‘Wando’ (68 days) or ‘Little Marvel’ (62 days). A more recent introduction is the 2000 All-American Selection winner called ‘Mr. Big’ (58-62 days), a vining variety which grows 5-6 feet and produces large pods filled with 8 to 10 plump green peas.
Sugar snap peas can be eaten at any stage of development; the entire pod is edible when the peas inside are small and immature. Fresh, crunchy pods can be served with dip or sliced and added to salads. Whole pods are delicious sautéed or roasted (see accompanying recipes). Peas that are allowed to fully mature can be shelled and prepared like any garden pea, by simmering in a small pot of water just until tender.
Peas can be a challenge to grow because they are particular about the weather and must be planted during a short window of opportunity. Too hot and they will wither away, too wet and they succumb to powdery mildew, too cold and they will drop their blooms and potential pods. Plant peas at least 8 weeks before your first average freeze in fall so plants have time to grow and mature before the cold weather sets in. In my Central Texas garden I usually plant peas in early September, and again a week or two later. Then I keep my fingers crossed and hope that the peas grow fast and our first frost comes late.
The soil will still be hot at these recommended planting times, so try shading it with row cover, shade cloth, burlap or several layers of newspaper for a week or so before planting to help moderate the temperature. Planting after a rain is ideal, but if you are not so lucky be sure to irrigate a day or two before planting so the soil will be moist and ready to receive seed.
Because peas are legumes they have a special relationship with a beneficial soil bacteria called Rhizobia. The peas allow the bacteria to live on their roots and the bacteria extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form the plants can use. If you are planting peas in a new garden, a container or an area of your garden that has not hosted legumes before you can encourage this relationship by inoculating the pea seed before planting to ensure that the bacteria is present in the soil. The inoculant is often available at garden centers or it can be ordered through most seed catalogs. The process is simple and involves nothing more than coating the dampened seeds with the inoculant powder before planting.
Plant the seed 1-1½” deep and 3-4” apart. Bush-type varieties that grow 24-30” are considered self-supporting, but I find that they are easier to tend and easier to harvest if given some kind of support. They will also get better air circulation (therefore less prone to disease) if grown upright and off the ground. Try using string or chicken wire tied between stakes or insert pruned branches next to the plants for support. The tall, vining varieties, like ‘Super Sugar Snap’, must have sturdy support and should be planted at the base of a tall tomato cage, a fence or a trellis. Once your peas start producing, harvest them frequently for peak quality and to encourage more production. And be sure to use two hands when harvesting or you could easily pull up an entire vine (been there, done that).
Your home-grown peas that travel from garden to kitchen in mere minutes will look better, taste better and cost less than any fresh sugar snap pea that you can buy at a grocery store – yet another reason to grow-your-own!
Sugar Snap Peas with Mushrooms
Some peas, especially heirloom varieties, have strings, so be sure to snap off the end and peel the strings off before cooking.
½ lb sugar snap peas, trimmed
1 T olive oil
½ lb mushrooms, sliced
Sauté peas in olive oil 3-5 minutes. Add mushrooms and sauté 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.
Roasted Sugar Snap Peas
1 lb sugar snap pea pods, trimmed
2-3 Tbsp olive oil
½ tsp salt
¼ tsp pepper
Toss pods with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in a 475° oven for 12-15 minutes.