I was excited to learn two years ago in CCCC’s Spring Organic Crop Production class that sugar snap peas can be seeded outside early in these parts—as early as mid-January. I am gratified by the thought that, by seeding sugar snap peas, I can be conjuring the warmth, sunshine, and greenness of spring at a time when cold, wet, gray winter and my weariness with the winter season are at their heights. Seeding sugar snap peas has become a much anticipated harbinger of spring for me, and it assumed a special significance for me during this year’s particularly harsh winter. Never mind the repeated ice storms and snow storms, the above-average precipitation, and the frequent gray days, the act of seeding peas seemed to say: spring will come!
In this year’s Advanced Organic Crop Production class, we seeded sugar span peas on February 10, when it was 38 degrees and snowing. Despite several subsequent bouts of extremely cold and wet weather, including multiple nights with single-digit temperatures, the pea plants had emerged approximately 2 weeks later. The crop is going strong as of this writing on March 9.
The snap pea is a cool-season plant that dislikes heat and has shallow roots that make it sensitive to drought. Seeding sugar snap peas early can help to ensure a good crop before the hot weather comes in June. Young pea plants tolerate frost and mild freezes very well.
Sugar snap peas’ cold tolerance notwithstanding, planting peas outside in winter is not fool-proof. We learned in Advanced Organic Crop Production that chances of success can be enhanced by soaking pea seeds for 2 to 8 hours before they are planted in soil. The soaking “wakes up” the seeds and speeds germination and thereby reduces the chances that the pea seeds will rot in cool winter soil. We added inoculant to the water to provide bacteria that colonize the roots of the growing pea plant and fix nitrogen, a major plant nutrient. We also learned to create a ~2-inch soil berm in the pea bed and to plant the pea seeds on the south side of the berm. The berm soaks up the sun’s rays and functions as a heat sink. The radiant heat from the berm helps to protect the emerging pea plant from cold temperatures. Further, the berm protects the young pea plants from the prevailing winds. We saved labor by planting the peas in a bed where trellises that had supported last year’s tomato crop were still standing. Sugar snap peas, even the dwarf varieties that grow to a height of only 2’ to 2.5’, need trellising to support plants and facilitate harvest. Classmates in Advanced Organic Crop Production secured twigs from the wooded area near the student farm to the bottom of the tomato trellises to give young pea plants something to climb to reach the height of the tomato trellis.
I often transfer my CCCC learnings directly to my husband’s and my small farm in Hillsborough. At our farm this year, I seeded peas—the tall Sugar Snap variety as well as the dwarf Sugar Ann and Cascadia varieties—both outside in the field and inside in our hoophouse. For the peas seeded outside, I followed the lead from our class by using the berm technique and planting the peas where our tomato trellis from last year still stands. Both the outside and inside pea plants are thriving. The plants in the hoophouse, which were seeded at about the same time as the outside peas, are larger and more developed.
Sugar snap peas are a hybrid of English peas and snow peas. Sugar snap peas are sweet, crisp, and juicy—to me, the taste of spring. My favorite way to eat them is “straight up”: raw and just off the vine. They are also good eaten fresh in salads, steamed, or sautéed. Jo Robinson, author of Eating on the Wild Side, notes that the pods contain more fiber and healthy antioxidants than the peas themselves. While sugar snap peas can be preserved by freezing, their antioxidant activity is reduced by approximately 25% by freezing and by approximately 50% by canning, according to Robinson. The pea shoots—young pea stems with leaves and tendrils—are as delicious as the peas themselves. Pea shoots, which are high in antioxidants and vitamins C and K, can be eaten fresh in salads or cooked by brief steaming or stir-frying.