cowpeas

Growing Cowpeas Step by Step

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This year I thought it would be fun to try growing “field peas” for the first time. Although they’re called peas, they’re really more like beans, in my opinion. I wanted to grow them particularly to experiment with drying and storing them.

I chose cowpeas, also referred to sometimes as black-eyed peas, mainly because they were right for my planting zone. Also, they add nitrogen back to the soil, they grow well in poor conditions, and they can tolerate shade, so they seemed like a good choice.

Cowpeas are well-known garden plants in the south, but I was surprised to learn that, in other parts of the country, they aren’t nearly as popular! They deserve way more attention than they usually get, though.

Cowpeas are divine tasting, with long, slender pods that are filled with lots of seeds.

When I first decided that I was going to plant them, I had to choose the perfect type for my garden. I went with the Shanty and Risina Del Transiorfino varieties. I’ll share more about what I thought of each of these in a little bit.

cowpeas

How To Plant Cowpeas

I love planting peas/beans. It doesn’t get much easier than this.

You can plant directly outdoors, as soon as the danger of frost has passed. Water your seeds before planting them to speed up their germination, and keep in mind that, while you can start your cowpea seeds inside and then transplant the seedlings, there’s really no reason that you have to do this.

Cowpeas germinate and mature quickly, so you won’t be getting that much of a headstart by starting your seeds indoors. In addition, many gardeners recommend not starting these plants indoors because the roots can be easily damaged when you are transplanting them.

Start with a fresh garden bed, nicely weeded with the soil loosened and ready for planting. You will want to fertilize with aged compost and turn the soil under to a depth of eight inches. Use a rake to remove clumps of grass and large stones.

Cowpeas are legumes, so they will benefit from a soil inoculant applied prior to planting. This should be an inoculant that is designed specifically for beans and peas. Check with your seed company before doing this, though, because some companies automatically inoculate seeds before shipping them.

Inoculants are beneficial because they enable the plants to uptake nitrogen form the air and use it as fertilizer. This way, you will see an increase in the yield and quality of your crop.

The best time to plant is after the danger of frost has passed, ideally in late spring or early summer. Sow in a sunny spot in fertile soil, ideally after the soil has warmed. Seeds have the potential to rot in colder, wetter soils.

Stick the seeds straight into the dirt, planting about 1 in. deep and 4-6 inches apart, in rows 18 in. apart. Tamp the soil down firmly.

Water thoroughly, then wait a few days for the seeds to germinate. You should see sprouts shooting through the soil in no time!

If you’re an impatient gardener like me, you can fill the time from sowing to germination by planting a crop in succession. In fact, you can sow bean seeds once every two weeks to ensure a constant crop of beans! Once your seedlings emerge, just make sure you thin them to about 10 to 12 inches apart. Do this when they are a couple of inches tall.

cowpeas

Caring for Cowpeas

Once the plants are established, they’ll start forming pretty little flower buds. From these the cowpeas will begin to grow. You can see some young pods forming underneath the blooms here.

Growing Cowpeas in the Garden http://newlifeonahomestead.com

The pods will continue to grow, getting larger and filling in with round little “peas”.

There’s not much you need to do to care for your cowpeas. In fact, these plants are pretty self-sufficient! However, you will want to do your best to keep weeds under control, especially when your cowpeas are young and tender. They will easily compete with other plants for water, nutrients, and space, so it’s essentially to weed often or use some other method of keeping weeds out.

I find it extremely helpful to use mulch around my cowpeas. Not only does organic mulch, like straw or wood shavings, help keep out weeds, but it also helps retain soil moisture and nutrients. Apply mulch about two or three inches deep and keep reapplying as needed during the growing season.

You will want to avoid disturbing the soil around the plants as much as possible. This can be tough to do when you are weeding, especially if you need to pull up a plant with deep taproots.

If possible, try not to pull up weeds like this. Instead, smother it with mulch. This will prevent the damage that is caused when you accidentally yank up the cowpea plant with the weed!

You will also need to keep your cowpeas well-watered during dry weather. The plants need roughly one inch of rain each week during the growing season. You can use a rain gauge to monitor water levels, but the best way to keep your plants consistently moist is to use a drip system or soaker hoses that will deliver water right at the soil level.

Watering with sprinklers is fine, too, and is the preferred method for many gardeners. However, the problem with watering with overhead sprinklers is that it can lead to fungal growth. When the leaves of your plants don’t have time to dry off during the day, you run the risk of diseases developing.

Harvesting Cowpeas

I learned something great about cowpeas, which I didn’t realize before growing them. You can actually pick them at any time during the growing season. The tender, young pods can be eaten just like green beans.

The larger, still green pods can be shelled, and the peas can be boiled and eaten fresh. (I actually boiled some in chicken stock, and they were fantastic!) Or, you can wait until they turn brown and dry on the vine, then pick them to save for later.

Essentially, you can harvest cowpeas at any time you might harvest your green beans. They can be harvested early on for a more tender flavor or you can wait until they have become dry to save the pods for shelling.

How will you know when your pods are ready to harvest? You can harvest pods as soon as they begin to turn yellow, but if you watch them carefully, you can leave them on the plants until they are tan.

You just need to keep an eye out for shattering, which can cause you to lose all of your seeds. Pick your pods as they mature or wait until all the pods on the plant are ready and simply uproot the plant.

Keep in mind your intended culinary purposes before you decide how and when you are going to harvest. While young pods are best eaten canned, frozen, or fresh, dry cowpeas need to be soaked and boiled before you eat them. While this does add another step to the cooking process, remember that dry cowpeas can be stored for many years without any extra preservation.

You can also save your cowpea seeds. Saving seeds is a great way to maintain your own stock for the following year. I recommend experimenting with a couple different varieties of cowpeas and saving the ones that you like most.

Try to save seeds from at least one plant, but if you want to maintain variety over many generations, try to save seeds from 10-25 plants (more if you are trying to preserve a rare variety).

Here’s another fun fact – it’s not just the cowpea pods you can eat. You can also munch on the leaves! Especially when you can harvest them when they are young and tender, they are absolutely delicious. Just pick them as needed for your salads or cook them up like spinach.

Pests and Diseases of Cowpeas

I’ve seriously considered replacing green beans with cowpeas in the garden. The problem I have with green beans is that they grow so darn quickly, and once they get to a certain size they’re no longer tasty.

Of course, you can save the huge beans for seed, but you only need so many. I’ve tossed a lot of overgrown green beans to the chickens. Cowpeas, on the other hand, are useable at all stages of their growth, so there’s really no reason any of them have to go to waste!

Mexican Bean Beetles

I’ve also discovered that cowpeas have the same pests as green beans: Mexican Bean Beetles. Sprinkling the plants with a generous amount of wood ashes should help reduce the problem. Hand picking the bugs is also a must.

You can also get rid of them by dunking them into buckets of soapy water.

An easy way to prevent pests from nibbling on your plants? Cut down and compost plants that have passed their prime – even if they are still producing –to interrupt the life cycles of these pests.

Some of the other pests that tend to go after cowpeas include aphids, cutworms, and leafhoppers. Leafhoppers in particular can be devastating, since they not only cause injury and stunt the growth of your plants, but they can also spread diseases. You may need to use insecticidal soaps to get rid of them.

Deer also love cowpeas, but you should be able to keep them out with a simple fence.

cowpeas

After a few weeks, the cowpeas will start drying on the vine. If you’re having a particularly rainy season, you might pick them a little before they turn brown and finish drying indoors so the peas don’t mold. You also want to pick the pods before they start splitting open.

Cowpeas can be susceptible to a variety of diseases and viral infections. The most common ailments include root rot, powdery mildew, downy mildew, common bean mosaic virus, and anthracnose.

Some remain in the soil for many years after you’ve harvested your crop, so you will want to rotate your crops each year to prevent this. Try not to work in your beans when the foliage is wet, as you risk spreading bacterial or fungal disease during these times.

One common problem that people notice with their cowpeas is that they have flowers, but have not formed pods. People often think that is due to a disease, but fortunately, that’s not the case.

Usually, a lack of pods is caused by a nutrient deficiency (generally calcium or phosphorous) as well as heat or moisture stress. Check the levels of all of these factors and address as needed.

Growing Cowpeas in the Garden http://newlifeonahomestead.com

Shelling and Storing Cowpeas

Shelling peas is actually pretty fun. You simply just split the pods open and dump out the peas. My children literally begged to help. I was glad for their company, and grateful for another opportunity to let the kids participate in the process of growing and storing our food.

Growing Cowpeas in the Garden http://newlifeonahomestead.com

 I did learn that you need to let the cowpeas dry further before storing them. When we first started shelling, we were pouring them straight into a mason jar. But after a few days I noticed that some of the beans were getting a little fuzzy.

The not-quite-dry ones were molding. Definitely lay the shelled peas out to dry completely before storing in a jar. And separate the green pods from the dried ones as you pick them. The green pods will also start to “sweat” and mold when crowded together and left out for a few days.

Growing Cowpeas in Containers

You can even grow cowpeas in containers! While you’ll experience lower yields than if you were growing them in the ground, you can easily cultivate cowpeas in containers that are at least 12 inches deep. This will leave plenty of room for the roots to develop, and will also give you room to insert stakes if needed.

As annual plants, cowpeas should be grown in full sunlight. You can also grow them in partial shade, making them candidates for containers (you can easily move them around). They don’t tolerate cold temperatures, so if temperatures dip, simply bring them inside.

You can use any kind of container for growing your cowpeas, but plastic, wood, or clay containers are best. Make sure the container has good drainage holes and fill the container in with potting mix.

Add a bit of compost on top to add nutrients, since containers not only dry out more easily, but also have a tendency to be nutrient-deficient.

Avoid overwatering your cowpeas, but don’t underwater, either. Generally, you will need to water every few days. Check the moisture before watering, though. If it feels dry at a depth of one inch, water.

Your container-grown cowpeas will be ready for harvest in 60 to 90 days.

cowpeas

Differences in Varieties

There are many different varieties of cowpeas out there, each of which has a unique growing habit. While some climb like pole beans, others are more compact, like bush beans. If you’ve ever grown green beans in the past, you’re probably already familiar with this growing habit.

All cowpeas are considered warm season and are best adapted to heat and dry conditions. Some of the most popular varieties are:

  • Colossus: vigorous growers with few side runners that produce dark brown, easy-to-shell peas
  • Big Red Ripper: good table pea with 10 inch pods containing up to 18 large peas each
  • Big Boy: produces tall bushes that bear ten peas per od
  • Carolina Crowder: produces bright cranberry-red pods that are resistant to nematodes and other problems
  • Queen Anne: dependable producer that puts out seven inch pods that are ready in just 60 days and are great for canning, freezing, and drying

I did notice a significant enough difference in varieties to develop a preference. As you can see, the Shanty Pea was much larger in size than the Risina Del Transiorfino cowpea.

Considering that they both took up the same amount of garden space, even though the Risina produced slightly more pods, the Shanty variety was definitely more bang for your buck.

The Risinas also vined like mad. I wondered if I should have trellised them instead of letting them sprawl the garden bed. The long tendrils tangled and twisted around neighboring plants, and made harvesting a real pain. The Shanty peas didn’t really do that.

The Shanty Cowpeas are definitely my top choice.

That’s my experience with field peas so far. I’d love to know if you have any tips or advice to add!

Have you tried growing cowpeas? What’s your favorite variety and how do you use them?

growing cowpeas

updated 01/22/2020 by Rebekah White


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29 thoughts on “Growing Cowpeas Step by Step”

  1. I’m growing Lady cow peas in Denver. Not a whole lot, it’s only two of us. I don’t want to let them dry out. But I only have one out of about ten plants that have fully grown beans on it. Can I let those sit and harvest and shell them all at once? I’m trying to do them like my granny used to back in Alabama.

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  2. To Central Florida gardener: Florida heirloom varieties of yellow squash and zucchini produce well for me in spring. I used to plant in mid-March but with warming climate I now plant in late February. The heirloom Seminole squash is heat tolerant and a good cover among tall plants like tomatoes. It is hard like a butternut and tastes like acorn squash, but grows in the spring and summer. It has an amazing storage life, I just pile them above my kitchen cupboards and use all year.

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  3. I assume from reading these entries that cowpeas are annuals? I’m planning on putting these in for a food plot for deer. If left alone, will it self-seed and volunteer over a few years?

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    • They are frost tender. If you live in a cooler climate you will need to replant every year. Also, if you absolutely want more beans, it wouldnt hurt to poke holes in the ground and put beans in yourself, rather than wait on the possibility of nature doing it for you.

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  4. I grew several types of Southern field peas this year to see the differences. Of Mississippi Silver, Colussus, and Pink Eye Purple Hull, the latter were our favorite for tasting, and I love the fact that the green pods turn purple when the beans are mature inside. I also have Tohono O’odham (Holstein), Brown Sugar, and Big Red Rippers which will be ready to harvest soon, but those varieties did not produce as well as the others. Next planting, I will try bean inoculant on the seeds, which I hear is a big help in getting nitrogen production going. Pink Eye Purple Hull’s are going in for a mid-season planting this week! They are really great.

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  5. Field peas(or cow peas) remind me of my youth in Charleston, SC….my grandparents used them(and only them) for Hoppin John….

    I live in Boston and now have some germinated cow peas I’m gonna stick in the ground and see what happens……any tips? They share a veggie garden with zukes and tomatos…..

    Mike

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    • I, too, would move to have an answer to that question. I’ve planed trellis type crowder peas, lots of large leaves and vines but no flowers yet.

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  6. Put the dried, even mostly dried, pods in a pillowcase. Toss into clothes dryer on very low for about fifteen minutes. The heat will pull out the rest of the moisture AND split the hulls. Dump into a bucket and shake. Shells and seeds will separate. The dryer heat will also completely discolor to almost black any bad peas.

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  7. I’m in Florida. Last year I had over 50 okra plants in containers. This year we built raised beds. The spring crops did well then summer hit and none of the okra, squash, or beans would thrive like before, so I decided to plant cowpeas (varieties resistant to nematodes). As soon as they flowered we got a cowpea curculio infestation. I read about it and it sounded BAD even with insecticides (which we usually don’t use). Fortunately the first mild one we used worked and we haven’t sprayed a second time and the cowpeas are close to maturity. I like that you can eat them whenever. I’ve been eating the peas raw in the yard, lol. I’m also having good luck with Asian long beans and Asian cukes in a pot in the front yard using my rain tree as a trellis. Last year I planted Thai eggplant and am still harvesting this summer from the same plants (with more production than from the Japanese or regular eggplant). Trying different things for our hot summers.

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    • I live in Atlanta with long hot summers. Ive found that Roma tomatoes do well in our heat, as they are from hot Italy. Many tomatoes stop setting fruit when it gets too hot, but not Romas. I also grow Malabar spinach, the green variety, not the red. It is just like regular spinach, but very prolific, loves the heat and is a tall vine that I put on a tripod trellis. Many of the mediterranean vegetables do well in our hot climate.

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    • Linda,
      Curios as to what kind of squash you get to grow in the summer. I am in Central FL and I have the poorest luck with summer or winter squash, no matter what time of year I grow them. Also, would like to know what variety of cowpea has worked best for you. I’m currently growing pinkeye purple hull and they are producing very well. Another thing that has worked very well for me this summer is Astro Arugula. I will definitely be growing it again.
      Larry

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  8. Hi Kendra-

    Great entry on cowpeas! So how many plants of them did you have and what was the yield of the crop? I had planted Jacob’s cattle beans and lima beans this year. What I discovered was that my growing space was better used for other plants than dried beans. Our yield was too low to consider using such good growing space for next year in our raised beds. I would be willing to try a different variety and grow them in our tilled field area where we used to garden before we went to raised beds.
    Would appreciate your thoughts on the value of growing the dried beans.
    Thanks!
    Sherry

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    • Great question, Sherry! Well, in all honesty I just kinda stuck the seeds in the ground and didn’t count how many plants came up. But if I had to guess, I’d say there were probably close to 80 plants (in an 8×4 bed). Maybe. I didn’t weigh the harvest. The beans are very light. But I got about 2 pints of dried cowpeas. That doesn’t sound like much, does it? LOL! I need to keep better notes next year for sure!

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  9. We always grow Zipper Cream which is another variety of Southern Cowpeas. They are wonderful eaten green. You can eat any cowpea green even Blackeyed peas can be eaten straight from the garden before they are dried. They are very good either way. Unfortunately the deer ate every plant we had this year. So no peas for us.

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  10. You should check out the blog “Hickory Holler Farms”. She does a lot of bean drying and has a lot of experience and is an altogether very wise woman! I love the pics of her pantry, if only I could can like that!

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  11. I have always loved crowder peas. Which are one of the bigger full pod types of cowpeas like your Shanty. We have planted Purple Top-Pick Crowder Peas the last two years. The grow easy, are a bush variety, and the peas are mostly at the top making them super easy to pick. We also planted blackeyed peas this year which is still a cowpea, but of a smaller variety and not as plump. Therefore it is not considered a crowder pea. They are not a bush variety and needed to be trellised. Both are yummy, but I prefer the crowder taste. I just wrote a post on canning them both.

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  12. 1. It’s really disappointing to get this far, and then find a batch of peas which have molded in storage. After air drying, I put them in my dehydrator for further drying, then I include silica gel packets when I store them. I got a big box of silica gel packets on E-bay, for a very reasonable price.
    2. Oversized green beans can be dried and saved just like any other bean.
    3. You can save the hand shelling process. My wife has made several bags (I think from old pillowcases), and puts the bean or peas into them and tumbles them dry in our clothes dryer. When done, they are all shelled. The pods can be picked out and the chaff separated by winnowing on a breezy day. She first tried a mesh bag, but it left too much chaff in the dryer. This also helps if you’ve picked more than you can shell immediately, as they are prone to mold in the shell

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    • Thank you so much for that advice, Dave. I guess I should probably put my beans in the dehydrator. I love the pillowcase idea. What a great tip. We don’t have a clothes dryer, but we could probably just let the kids stomp around on it and get the same effect, lol. Awesome 🙂

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  13. This year, I grew both Provider bush beans and my family heirloom Yard Long Beans. It was my first success with bush beans… and the first time I grew them in a raised bed where the animals had a harder time getting them. We have possums, raccoons, and skunks… and my free-range hens. So, it takes some work to get a harvest for us. To my surprise, I had a bounty from the bush beans; but they fizzled out by the end of June. Then, in August, my LONE volunteer Yard Long Bean started producing. Would you believe the ONE plant gives hubby and I enough beans for a scant serving every week!

    Normally, I plant 5 bean seeds per person and add in 5 extra for friends and guests. For the bush beans, I found they didn’t take very much space compared to the vining Yard Long beans. So, I ended up planting alot more. I think in my 4′ X 6′ space that I put in between 30 and 40 seeds; which gave me about 10 pounds of beans total. I planted 3 rows with only 3 or 4″ apart. The close proximity helped them support each other instead of a short trellis. And for the pole beans, the final spacing is about 6″ to 12″ apart; and seeds can be planted on either side of a sturdy trellis (hog wire?) to make a double row. They vine out about 10 feet, so they do take up some space. I have planted butternut squash and basil below them before and had excellent crops from all three: yard longs, butternut, and basil.

    But… my point… by planting both (about mid March for us) I’ve had beans from May until now, excepting July when I used some frozen bush beans since there was nothing to harvest. Provider bush beans are more cold tolerant, and the yard longs love the heat. In fact, the Yard Long seeds just lie in my soil dormant and wake up when it’s finally warm enough for their liking. As I study more about how my plants produce, I’m trying to plant a greater diversity. Often, I can plant less of each type, and get more variety in the same place. Just a thought.

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