What Exactly Are Sugar Snaps?
Sugar snaps (Pisum sativum var. macrocarpon), are a type of edible podded pea; similar to a snow pea except that their pods are round when mature rather than flat. They’re also similar to garden peas, except the pod is less fibrous, and can therefore be eaten when young. This eliminates the need for shelling pea pods; and they can be enjoyed fresh and uncooked straight from the garden. The peas are crisp, sweet, and crunchy in the uncooked state; or they can be sautéed, stir-fried, or steamed.
Sugar snap type peas were first developed by Dr. Calvin Lamborn in Twin Falls, Idaho for the Gallatin Valley Seed Company. He crossed thick-fleshed shell peas with edible-podded varieties to obtain a plant that produced large, sweet peas; and crisp, sweet pods – both of which became sweeter as the as the pea matured. Lamborn named the pea ‘Sugar Snap’ and upon its introduction in 1979, it immediately became an All-American Selection (AAS).
Since sugar snaps can be used like snow peas in the immature stage, can be eaten pod and all at the mature stage, can be shelled for use as shelled peas, and are so sweet and tasty at any stage; I seldom grow shelling pea or snow pea varieties anymore. The sugar snaps have replaced them in my garden.
Today, there are several varieties of sugar snap peas, including ‘Sugar Daddy’, ‘Sugar Lace’, ‘Sugar Bon’, ‘Sugar Ann’, and the original ‘Sugar Snap’. The varietal descriptions identify whether they’re the dwarf bush type (like ‘Sugar Ann’) or the tall vining type (like ‘Sugar Snap’); and this determines whether they’ll need trellising. The vining varieties like Sugar Snap grow to six foot and definitely need trellises; whereas the smaller dwarves like Sugar Ann only grow to a foot or two, and can be grown without supports.
The bush types mature sooner and over a shorter period than the vining types; however, are less productive overall and aren’t quite as tasty (in my opinion). I try for the best of both by planting both the dwarf and full size seeds together (this year Sugar Ann and Sugar Snap); that way I get the very earliest peas from the dwarf Sugar Ann variety, with continuing harvest from Sugar Snaps as they reach their full height and start producing.
When to Grow
Sugar snaps are a cool season vegetable, so are usually planted early in the spring; as soon as soil can be worked (2-6 weeks before the last frost date or when the soil reaches 45°F), and can then be planted again for a fall harvest during late summer (6-8 weeks before the first frost date). Sugar snap peas grow best in 60° – 65°F daytime temperatures. This year, I planted on April 10, approximately 4 weeks before our last estimated frost date; and seedling germination and growth were excellent despite a very cold, rainy spring in Northeastern Ohio.
The peas should be planted in an area that receives at least six hours of sun a day, in soil that is well drained, and rich in organic matter. Seeds should go in about an inch deep after they have been treated with an inoculant designed for peas (legume inoculant). The inoculant contains nitrogen-fixing bacteria and isn’t required; but will increase growth, yields, and nitrogen levels in the soil.
Plant seeds about one inch apart (I like to sow thickly) in rows, or they can be sown at similar spacing in more intensive methods like wide or raised beds. One way to get them evenly spaced is to lay them out in the desired pattern first, and then go back and press them in with your finger and cover. I just sprinkle them in a prepared trench as close to the one inch spacing as possible, and cover with soil.
After germination, peas grow rapidly, so it’s important to get the trellis material in place for support if vining varieties are being grown. The plants need about an inch of water a week, and weeds should be removed from the planting; but other than that, there’s not much involved other than watching them grow.
Sugar snaps can be harvested when immature for use as snow peas, or when the pods are plump and have reached full size (1” – 2″ long) for use as snap peas; but shouldn’t be allowed to over mature. Peas that have gone too long will be starchy, and don’t taste nearly as sweet as those in their prime.
After picking – eat, refrigerate, or freeze them quickly; as the sugars turn to starch rapidly at room temperature. And before being eaten, mature snap pea pods need to be “stringed”, which mean removing the membrane running along the top of the pod (see photo below).