One of the greatest satisfactions of growing a vegetable garden is having access to the freshest produce, especially those vegetables that aren't always available or are overpriced when they are.
Such is the case with snow peas, one of the vegetables that truly makes your labor in the garden worthwhile.
The flavor of grocery store snow peas is second-rate at best. Snow peas do keep longer than many vegetables in the crisper drawer, but they, like table peas, lose their flavor more quickly after picking than most other garden crops. Snow peas from the supermarket also can be pricey because few people eat them and stores don't buy them in volume.
Snow peas are an Oriental vegetable and often are relegated to an obscure part of the produce section. Too often the stock in conventional grocery stores has clearly been on hand for too long.
If you're seriously in the hunt for snow peas, your best bet is an Oriental supermarket, which will have more inventory and turn it more quickly.
Snow peas are easy to grow in the home garden, though. You can plant them now and harvest them in mid-June. A cool-weather crop, snow peas will thrive in a chill and most varieties will even withstand a mild frost. Also, because their growing season comes and goes before the bugs arrive, you don't have to worry about pests.
Like other legumes, snow peas may benefit from being planted in a furrow treated with inoculant, a granular powder that fixes nitrogen in the soil. I personally have never done a side-by-side comparison to prove that inoculant improves the yield for peas and beans, but I do use it.
The most common varieties of snow pea, generally regarded as the most reliable for gardeners in this climate, are those developed at Oregon State University: Oregon Sugar Pod II and Oregon Giant. Catalogs and retailers that sell seeds for international vegetables offer a wider selection of seeds.
The Oregon varieties produce short vines of 30 to 36 inches and are bred to stand up without staking. One thing you don't want is for your vines to lie on the ground, particularly in damp weather.
Even snow pea varieties that are marketed as being disease resistant are not entirely immune to powdery mildew and enation mosaic virus in the right conditions. If the vines do start to flop, you want to give them some support.
The pods are ready to be picked when they are 4 to 5 inches long, before the peas inside become more than just discernible and before the spine of the pod becomes stiff and develops anything that looks like a string. If you leave them on the vine too long even a couple of days too long and the peas inside fatten up, the edible pod will become a bit tougher and the flavor will go flat.
The best time to pick peas that will be held a few days before being eaten is in the morning, because cool weather heightens their flavor. Otherwise, pick them before dinner.
One of the nice things about snow peas is that they need little preparation before you can use them in cooking. Rinse them, pick off the stem and you're set.
If you have ever grown shelling peas, which require a considerable amount of manual labor in the kitchen, you'll really appreciate the expediency of snow peas.
My favorite way to use snow peas is in stir-fry with other garden veggies, seasoned with ginger and soy sauce.
When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.