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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
updated 01/22/2020 by Rebekah White