What You Need to Know in Growing Snow Peas

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Story at-a-glance -

  • Snow peas are great in stir-fries, salads and as a crunchy snack on their own, and you can buy them in many grocery stores or farmers markets, but you can also grow them in your own patio garden or backyard plot
  • An early crop like lettuce and cauliflower, snow peas can tolerate cold weather so you can plant the seeds directly into your garden in early spring without being bothered by a light frost to around 35 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Depending on the variety of snow pea seeds you plant, some produce greater harvests due to extra growth nodes, some are bigger and others mature faster so chilly or hot temperatures won’t hinder their growth
  • Snow peas, like black beans, kidney beans, lentils and grains, contain lectins, which in large amounts can be harmful, potentially causing inflammation and increasing your blood viscosity
  • Rats fed protein hydrolysate extracted from yellow garden peas showed a 20 percent decrease in blood pressure in one study, and the pea protein may delay or prevent the onset of kidney damage

Snow peas aren’t just for Asian dishes. They’re delicious in all kinds of stir-fries with other vegetables, a tasty addition to salads and a crunchy snack all on their own. You can buy snow peas in the refrigerated case of many grocery stores or at farmers markets, but imagine heading out onto your own patio garden or backyard plot to pick handfuls of super-fresh snow peas you planted yourself.

Unlike the little round peas removed from their pods, snow peas (Pisum sativum var. saccharatum) are eaten with the pod intact. They have a crisp, remarkably sweet and satisfying flavor, and both the pods and the seven-or-so peas inside are highly nutritious. However, according to Organic Facts:

“Snow peas don’t have a long shelf life, so after purchasing or picking these peas, you can store them in your refrigerator for two to three days before the quality will begin to diminish. After two to three days, the peas will have less of a crunch, and their slightly sweet flavor will also begin to disappear.”1

What’s the difference between snow peas and other types of peas? As thekitchn.com2 explains, snow peas, snap peas and garden peas are all members of the legume family and all three are climbing plants, but snow peas, aka Chinese pea pods or Holland peas, are flat. Seveur3 notes that they’ve been cultivated since the 1500s. Garden peas, also known as sweet peas or English peas, are firm, round veggies that are removed (“shelled”) before the pod is discarded.

They can be eaten either cooked or raw, but they’re most commonly shelled and frozen. A cross between snow peas and garden peas, snap peas have tough strings that can be removed before they’re eaten, but they’re sweet and crunchy.

Snow peas are a favorite veggie for many gardeners to grow, not just for the fresh flavor and crunchy texture but because they’re an early crop. Like lettuce and cauliflower, snow peas can tolerate cold weather, hence, the reference to snow in the name. You can plant the seeds directly into your garden in the earliest spring plantings. Down to a low of 35 or 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they can even handle a little frost after they’ve started sprouting.

Growing Peas: Easy Peasy

Peas, whatever the variety, are easy to grow, needing little beyond soil made up of an even mix of sand and clay and some mulch as a built-in food. The seeds are basically large, dried peas which are planted to a depth of about twice their diameter. According to the featured video above, peas are a remarkably easy crop to grow:

“Push them into the ground to about 8 millimeters, cover them up, water them and while they’re coming up as baby shoots … I kept an eye on them, kept them watered and kept training them up the trellis. As they get taller and taller, you just want to make sure that the peas keep holding onto the trellis … eventually they’ll latch on.”4

Scientists testing several snow pea varieties found that two types in particular yielded the greatest harvests: Oregon Sugar Pod and a more disease-resistant variety called Oregon Sugar Pod II, both bearing snow peas in 65 to 70 days after being sown. In two locations, OSP and OSP II produced at least 20 percent more than other varieties in yield experimentation.

James Baggett, the Oregon State University breeder responsible for developing the two OSP varieties, said the secret to the bigger yield is that most snow peas produce just one pod at their “growth nodes,” but the two Oregon varieties produce two pods for every node.

The cold weather tolerance of peas also means that the further south gardeners live in the U.S., the sooner they can plant snow pea seeds in the garden, and the sooner they can begin harvesting them. But the cold tolerance on one end of the weather spectrum is just the opposite when the temperature begins soaring upward. According to Rodale’s Organic Life:

“All snow peas 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.”5

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Size Matters: Snow Pea Varieties Can Vary

Experts say that the Dwarf White Sugar or Short N’ Sweet varieties may be best for Midwestern gardens because test plantings in those states yield a better harvest compared to other types. In addition, even though these two are smaller, they weighed more per pound than the OSP, which bears 3- to 4-inch-long pods; the pods from Dwarf White Sugar are much more petite at 2 to 2.5 inches in length.

Most snow peas at optimal maturity measure around 4 inches long and three-quarters of an inch across, but two heftier strains can reach 4 and even 5 inches in length: the Mammoth Melting Sugar, which did well in Florida and Alabama, and the Oregon Giant. You can harvest the former in 75 days, and the latter will reach peak size and flavor in just 65 days.

If you live in an area of the U.S. that tends toward dampness and cool temperatures much of the year, you may find that disease-resistant varieties are the way to go when choosing snow pea seeds. If you’ve noticed in past pea-planting that the vines curl but fail to produce pods, or pods are small and tinged with yellow, it may be a malady known as pea enation virus. It’s good to know that if your peas are plagued with powdery mildew on the leaves, stems and pods, the OSP II variety resists both diseases.

Things You Should Know About Peas: Lectins and Pea Protien

Lectins are carbohydrate-binding proteins you’ll find in many plants. Around 30 percent of fresh plant-based foods contain lectins, which attach to specific biological structures as part of the plant’s self-defense mechanism. Unfortunately, some lectins (but not all) can be harmful to people who eat them in large amounts. In small amounts, lectins can provide such health benefits as immunity and inflammation modulation.

Legumes such as black beans, soybeans, lima beans, kidney beans, lentils and grains contain the highest amounts of lectins, but you’ll find them in peas, too. Certain lectins trigger inflammation and may increase your blood viscosity by binding to red blood cells, making them sticky, which can result in abnormal clotting. Lectins can interfere with gene expression and disrupt endocrine function, as well as promote leptin resistance and, in turn, increase your obesity risk.

That being said, peas contain fiber and many valuable nutrients, including vitamins A and C, iron, potassium, folic acid, iron, magnesium and a small amount of healthy fats.6 The protein in peas, including snow peas, has been shown in clinical studies to help fight both high blood pressure and chronic kidney disease (CKD), a condition that puts patients at higher risk for cardiovascular complications and kidney malfunction.

A Canadian study7 found that rats fed pea protein hydrolysate extracted from yellow garden peas had a 20 percent decrease in blood pressure compared to rats being fed a normal diet. In people with high blood pressure, pea protein may delay or prevent the onset of kidney damage, and in people who already have kidney disease, pea protein may help maintain a healthy blood pressure so these individuals can live longer.

However, just eating peas, cooked or raw, may not produce the same blood pressure-lowering effects as the protein extract used in the study, as the beneficial proteins are inactive and require treatment with special enzymes to become active. For people suffering from this condition, drugs that are used to treat hypertension can’t change the underlying cause of your high blood pressure. Additionally, Organic Facts notes:

There are a number of impressive health benefits of snow peas, including weight loss, cancer prevention, improved heart health, reduced constipation, stronger bones, optimized immunity and lower levels of inflammation, among other (benefits).”8

How to Increase Snow Pea Yields

When it comes to carrying more crunchy snow peas from your garden for dinner, you can “latch on” to certain tried-and-true methods proven by veteran gardeners. Here are three great ideas:

Spacing — Depending on the brand of the snow pea seeds you purchase for planting, you may find the recommendation for spacing to be 2 inches apart in single rows, but according to Oklahoma State University horticulturist and professor Brian Kahn, placing the seeds 4 inches apart in double rows can increase your yield by as much as 23 percent by gram weight, as it did in comparison test plantings. He explains how that happens:

“We believe that plants spaced 4 inches apart branch more, and have more pods on those branches, while the vines planted 2 inches apart barely branch at all and get bearing nodes only on the main stem.”9

Trellising — You may have seen pretty trellises in attractive, high-yield gardens on which curly snow pea tendrils create long vines that latch on and climb. Keeping “space” involved in your snow pea planting also can involve going vertical as well as horizontal, which means you can go “up” as well as “out.” It may involve a little more planning, but it’s worth it. Simply plant your seeds next to a trellis and the pods will literally hang around waiting to be picked.

When you grow double rows of snow peas, you can just set up one trellis between the rows, but another perk to trellising is that, rather than lying on the ground to become a snack for every passing slug and snail, the peas are much more safe and unavailable to critters.

Snow peas are very lightweight, so a long length of string or twine running between frames of bamboo poles or sticks allows you to pack a lot of peas in a small amount of space. Once the plants are tall enough to reach the bottoms of the frame, gently lift the twining tendrils onto them to allow them to latch on. That’s all there is to it.

Seed inoculation — In some soils, a naturally occurring bacteria stimulates the formation of nodes on the snow pea plant’s roots that make it easier to extract nitrogen from the air. This means the plant virtually feeds itself in a phenomenon called “nitrogen fixing.” One simple way to do it is to shake the seeds in a plastic bag containing the powdered inoculant, which you can order from seed catalogs and pick up at garden centers.

Promptly picking your snow peas is one of the most basic ways to increase your yield simply because allowing the pods to languish for too long on the vine renders them slightly tough rather than tender/crisp. Another reason is a simple rule of the garden: The more you pick, the more the plant can produce.

Good Advice: Plant Early, Harvest More

One thing you’ll find about snow peas is that once you start cultivating them yourself, you’ll see how hardy they are even in the chilliest weather. Planting them in early spring will ensure germination even when the air temperature dips as low as 40 degrees Fahrenheit, although their favorite sprouting temperature is somewhere between 50 and 60 degrees F.

Gardening expert Eliot Coleman notes that some of his fellow gardeners who live in milder climates such as those in Zone 7, roughly the upper Southern areas of the U.S., get an early start by sowing their snow pea seeds in the late fall for sprouting the following spring. His own snow pea-growing system has altered over time:

“[Coleman] … [h]as 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' snow peas 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 snow peas grow unprotected.”10

Coleman has advice for other snow pea growers for increasing their yield and getting the snappiest, greenest and sweetest snow peas, especially if they’re anxious to get started: “Experiment by starting some snow peas earlier and some later, and prove the experts wrong about when you should plant them.”

If you find yourself with a surplus of snow peas (which is hard to achieve, as they often end up being munched right in the garden), you can store them in the freezer. Still Tasty11 says you can spread the raw pea pods flat on baking sheets, place them in the freezer and once they've frozen, quickly transfer them to resealable freezer bags or shallow airtight containers. Return them to the freezer to keep for 10 or 12 months, and maybe longer.