It’s mid-July, and early summer tomatoes, squash and eggplant are beginning to droop with the heat. For the intrepid food growers who want to keep the garden producing even in the hottest months, consider planting by mid-July any of several varieties of Southern peas (aka field peas, cowpeas or crowders).
Of course, they’re actually beans and not “peas” at all, and therein lies a long and complex tale which, if you’re interested, you can read about in volume one of the Cambridge History of Food. In short, humans have been growing what was originally an Indian and then an African cowpea, Vigna unguiculata, for thousands of years. No wonder families today take their southern peas very seriously, prizing recipes that feature their creamy texture and sweet pot liquor that forms after hours on the stovetop. These peas go way back.
Not only do these ancient legumes grow happily in full summer heat, but you also can eat them in at least three different ways: by harvesting them young and tender and preparing them as you would snap beans; by harvesting the green pods and eating only the green peas inside while they’re tender and fresh; or by letting them enlarge in the pods and allowing the pods to dry out while still on the vine. Harvest the dried pods and shuck the dried peas, which can then be stored in an airtight container and used in the months ahead.
The variety selected will make a difference in the height of the plants, in their days to harvest and in their susceptibility to disease. Below, several varieties are listed showing their height, their days to harvest, and their disease resistance.
• Arkansas #1 Blackeye pea, short (determinate) 60-70 days. Resistant to bacterial blight.
• California Blackeye 5, vining, resists Fusarium wilt and nematodes.
• California Blackeye No. 46, short, 55-60 days. Resists Fusarium Wilt, Nematodes.
• Pinkeye Purple Hull, vining, 90-95 days, bacterial blight, mosaic virus resistance; ditto for varieties “Mopod” and “Texas Pinkeye.”
• Crowder types — “Brown Sugar Crowder,” “Mississippi Silver” and “Zipper Cream,” so-called for the crowding of the peas in the pod and consequent blunting of the seed ends. Bush type, they tend to have multiple disease resistance to fusarium, root knot nematode and several strains of virus.
• Early Scarlet (bush), resists bacterial blight and mosaic virus.
• Elite (bush) Cream, resists Fusarium wilt.
In general, crop rotation and regular irrigation can help limit the soil-borne diseases. Planting into warm soil can also reduce seedling disease.
These are the pests that typically attack Southern peas. The least toxic solution for each follows in parentheses.
• Cowpea curculio (insecticides that contain zeta-cypermethrin, bifenthrin, malathion or carbaryl). These are highly toxic sprays that will kill bees and other pollinators.
• Thrips, aphids, spider mites, the green stink bug (Neem Oil) and armyworms (Bt).
The soil should have reached at least 70 degrees or above for several days before planting. Plant in rows 20 to 42 inches apart. Vining and semi-vining varieties require wider spacing and an in-row spacing of one to two seeds per foot of row. Bush varieties can be planted in closer spaced rows with four to six seeds per foot of row. Southern peas have some drought tolerance, but they will double or triple their yields when watered regularly during bloom and early pod development. Use a seed inoculant (nitrogen-fixing bacteria available at seed stores). Avoid high nitrogen fertilization (increased vine growth and reduced pea yield can result).
And finally, if you’re looking for a pea that packs a nutritional punch, go no further than the Southern Pea. It contains 27% protein.