Ask Master Gardener Volunteer Linda Clemens
Easy Vegetable to Grow
One of the easiest vegetables to grow in your summer vegetable garden is the southern pea, also known as cowpeas or field peas. Not only are these peas tasty, easy to cook and preserve, but the plants will actually improve your soil. Peas are legumes and nitrogen fixing bacteria on the plant roots will add nitrogen to the soil. Southern peas grow well in hot weather and sandy soils, making them an ideal summer garden crop for our area. My family grows them every year.
Three Main Types of Southern Peas
There are three main types of southern peas: black-eye, crowder and cream. Black-eyed peas have a dark eye and are probably familiar to most people from the New Year’s Day tradition of eating black-eyed peas for good fortune in the coming year. This group also includes other peas with colored “eyes”, such as pink-eye peas. Crowder peas grow squashed together in their pods and are starchy, flavorful and generally easy to shell. Cream peas are pale green, small and tender.
There are literally hundreds of different varieties of southern pea available at garden and feed stores and from on-line catalogs. Some of the varieties that have done well for me include black eyed peas, pink-eye purple hull peas, knuckle crowder, Mississippi crowder, and Big Red Ripper. I like the taste of cream 40 peas, but the pods are small and tedious to shell. Iron Clay peas are a type of southern pea usually grown as a cover crop or as forage for deer, but can also be picked and shelled.
Late March or Early April
Start planting your southern peas as the soil warms up in late March or early April. Southern peas can be planted throughout the summer, making them an ideal cover crop to plant as other things come out of your garden. Plant southern peas in full sun, with four to six seeds per foot of row and rows about three and a half feet apart. We plant our rows far enough apart to use a tiller for weed control until the plants grow large enough to shade out the weeds.
65 to 125 Days to Produce
Southern peas can take from 65 to 125 days to produce. Pick the peas when they are well filled out so they will be easier to shell. While the peas are producing, it may be necessary to pick every day or two so the peas are at the point of being easy to shell but not too dried out. We will generally get several pickings from a planting of peas. If you keep the mature pods picked, the plants will re-bloom and set another smaller crop of peas. Pests are usually not a major problem, but watch for caterpillars and aphids and treat before they spread. When your peas are finished producing for the year, they can be mowed and tilled into the soil as a green manure.
Once You Pick Your Peas
Once you pick your peas, you will have the pleasure of shelling them out. Shell the peas within a couple of days of picking. Peas will spoil quickly if left in a bucket, so if you have a large amount, pile them loosely on newspaper or an old sheet in a cool part of the house. We like to sit in the air conditioning with our pea pods in a large bowl in our laps and a bucket at our feet for the shells. A baseball game on the television, a cool drink and some good conversation makes the time pass quickly. Refrigerate any shelled peas you will cook and eat later that day; otherwise blanch the peas for two to three minutes in boiling water, drain, chill and freeze. A pot of peas from your garden and a pan of cornbread will bring back the warmth of summer to the coldest winter day!
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