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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

The Hot New Sugar Snaps

by Deborah Wechsler

'Sugar Snap' pea

The 1979 debut of Sugar Snap pea on the gardening stage was received with extraordinary enthusiasm. It was featured on catalog covers, and All-America Selections made it a Gold Medal winner. Food and garden writers raved about the new vegetable: Nothing short of sensational," wrote James Beard in the New York Post. "Sugar Snaps might revolutionize children's attitudes toward vegetables," wrote Marion Burros in the Washington Post. Gourmet restaurants and groceries clamored for them; unscrupulous pea growers sold underripe shell peas as snaps; seed was in high demand and short supply.

Now, 16 years later, the sugar snap pea has proved to be an enduring star. It has won the hearts of children and adults alike and upstaged ordinary peas in many a garden. After all, why shell peas when you can eat them pod and all? Indeed, why even carry them into the house when you can stand in the garden and munch to your heart's content?

Although sugar snap has become the generic name for all sweet, fat, edible-podded "snap" peas (as opposed to regular "shell" peas and flat-podded "snow" peas), it is by no means the perfect variety. Though delicious, 'Sugar Snap' is tall and rangy and needs to be staked. Plants are slow to produce and prone to powdery mildew, and the seeds germinate poorly.

More than a dozen other kinds of snap peas have been released since the original Sugar Snap, offering earliness, dwarfness, greater disease resistance and stringless pods.

I've always been a loyal fan of 'Sugar Snap'. Then I heard about 'Cascadia', a promising new variety from Dr. Jim Baggett at Oregon State University. I also talked to Dr. Calvin Lamborn at Rogers Seed Co., breeder of 'Sugar Snap' and many of the other snap pea varieties. He's excited about several other new sugar snaps now in development. It's time, I thought, for some snap pea variety trials. How does 'Sugar Snap' measure up to the competition? How will the new varieties perform?

With the help of National Gardening's horticulturist Charlie Nardozzi, I contacted 11 of NG's Test Gardeners last spring and asked them each to grow and evaluate seven sugar snap varieties. Testers were located from Washington to Maine, Wisconsin to North Carolina, from zones 3 to 7. Varieties tested included the original 'Sugar Snap' (introduced in 1979), 'Super Sugar Mel' (1981), 'Sugar Ann' (1984), 'Sugar Daddy' (1987), 'Cascadia' (1993), 'SP 537' (1996) and 'SP 680' (1996). These last two are Dr. Lamborn's as-yet unnamed varieties scheduled for release next year.

Each tester planted a 10-foot row of each variety, all on the same day, at the typical pea-planting time for their area and trellised at least the tallest varieties, 'Sugar Snap' and 'SP 537'. The testers ranked each variety for germination, vine vigor, pod size and fullness, ease of harvesting, taste and yield, and gave each pea an overall score.

A variety trial is fun. In February I received seven packets of peas in the mail, along with seven carefully labeled wooden stakes and my record sheets. I planted the seeds according to instructions and waited. Long before harvesttime, each variety had its own personality -- sturdy little 'Sugar Ann', racing ahead for the first flower and first harvest, 'Sugar Snap' and 'SP 537' quickly demanding extra trellis, a dwarfed and distorted 'SP 680' straggling along at the rear. At harvest, I conducted taste tests, picking into seven anonymous numbered baskets, setting them before tolerant relatives and friends, and demanding their reactions. Our opinions were remarkably uniform, with clear winners. Based on my own trials, I can tell you unequivocally what I would grow again for both taste and performance.

Did other testers agree? Despite our geographic spread and varied conditions, there was considerable agreement on the best and the worst, with the middle rankings showing much more variation. To determine the following ranking, NG averaged all of the overall s the testers had given each variety.

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