Sugar-snap peas are the ultimate garden fast food.
There are few things more delicious than sugar-snap peas fresh from the plant, and there are few things more difficult than not eating them all before you get to the kitchen. (If a few do make it all the way inside, use them as quickly as possible so that they’re at their best.)
Sugar-snap peas are actually a cross between regular garden peas and mange-tout peas, grown when a farmer was trying to give mange-tout peas thicker pods. Sugar-snap peas offer great texture as well as flavour, so are a popular treat for kids’ lunchboxes, and are also the first thing picked out of a green salad. They can be cooked too, in a number of ways, but in our humble opinion that is such a waste of garden gold.
Along with the mange-tout varieties, sugar-snap peas are actually some of the easiest peas to grow, and growing them from seed is close to the ultimate example of garden satisfaction. Seedlings can also be found at good garden centres, but seeds germinate so quickly and easily that seedlings only make sense for a last crop before you run out of time.
When to sow
Seeds should be sown in autumn and through to early winter (March to July) – before that it’s too hot and after that they will run out of cool weather before they’re ready to be harvested. They should ideally be timed to grow in winter and flower after the frost. Sowing times vary from region to region and sowing guides are just that – guides. Work out your best time to sow based on your own microclimate.
It’s a good idea to do three sowings about two weeks apart, for a sustained harvest. Germination takes 9 – 13 days and the time from sowing to harvest is usually 8 – 10 weeks. Despite liking the cold, peas are not frost hardy.
How to sow
To sow, prepare a garden bed by digging in a decent amount of compost and adding some slow-release fertiliser. Ensure that you choose a spot that drains well (peas don’t like to be waterlogged) and in full sun to partial shade. A flat trench works well, either dug straight or in a circle around a support structure.
Plant the seeds 3 – 5cm deep and about 30cm apart, and place a stake next to them after filling in. Staking will help even the bushier varieties to keep their leaves off the ground and the plants well ventilated.
For the climbing varieties, staking is non-negotiable. Support structures can be as simple as a wooden or bamboo tripod, or a piece of trellis or netting. After sowing, water regularly to keep the soil moist but not soaked, and feed weekly or fortnightly with a liquid feed.
Feeding your snap peas
Four weeks after germination, feed with a potassium-rich fertiliser and repeat this once the plants have flowered. Don’t use a nitrogen-rich fertiliser or the result will be lots of leaves and few flowers/seedpods. You’ll know your peas are ready to harvest when the pods are bright green and almost cylindrical, looking as though they are about to burst. You can pick them earlier but you’re missing out on fatter peas, but if you leave them too long, they will lose their fresh appeal by becoming stringy and tough, and you will have to shell and cook the peas.
Because they are legumes and add nitrogen to the soil as they grow, peas are great companion plants for heavy feeders like cabbage, kale and the other brassicas, as well as lettuce, carrots, beetroots and cucumbers. It’s also a good idea to interplant the peas with early and fast-growing cool-weather crops like Swiss chard, spinach and radishes.