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 taste 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 degree 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 field 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.
Plant for Productivity
No matter which variety you grow, you must start the seeds early. As their name suggests, snowpeas 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, renowned expert on gardening in cool conditions, used to start snowpeas indoors and later transplanted the seedlings to his garden. But he has developed a different system that has him plucking pods in his Harborside, Maine garden earlier than ever before: He sows two rows of 'Short N' Sweet' snowpeas 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 snowpeas 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 snowpea plants growing 4 inches apart in double rows to ones growing 2 inches apart in single rows and found that the plants grown 4 inches apart yielded as much as 23 percent more (excuse our metric) grams of pods than the 2 inchers! "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 snowpeas 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 snowpeas, you can store them in the freezer. Simply spread them out on cookie sheets and put them in the freezer. When they've frozen, pour them into a resealable plastic bag.