Posts Tagged ‘pigeon peas’

The Cowpea Project

Making the transition from Kentucky gardening to Florida gardening has presented a number of challenges for me, but has introduced some opportunities as well. In some cases, situations bring both challenge and opportunity. One such example is known simply as “summer.”

In my memory of growing up around gardens in Kentucky, the most critical dates to be concerned with were the last frost date in the spring and the first frost date in the fall. There were certain vegetables that could be planted before the last frost, and others that had to wait. Some could take a light frost, whereas others couldn’t withstand any frost at all. The entire spring planting sequence could be planned out around these basic facts. As for the first frost date in the fall, the key thing to keep in mind was that certain crops had to be in the ground early enough to allow them to mature and be harvested before a killing frost would wipe them out. In either case, whether spring or fall, cold weather was the thing that had to be scheduled around.

When I first started gardening in Florida, I thought I could take what I knew about the seasons and simply extend the planting dates in either direction from the hottest time of the year. That is, I thought I could simply plant things a few weeks earlier in the spring, and I could expect things to continue growing a few weeks longer in the fall. Since the hottest days here are about the same as the hottest days in Kentucky, I didn’t give much thought to having to make major adjustments in my summer gardening routines. Granted, it stays hot much, much longer here than it does in Kentucky, but it very rarely breaks 100 degrees Fahrenheit, so what could possibly go wrong?

I know, I know. Famous last words.

The thought that never occurred to me was that there is a point each spring when it becomes too late to plant summer vegetables. That point in time also coincides with a period in which it is still too early to plant late-season vegetables. That leaves a significant stretch of time from about the middle of May to the end of August during which you simply don’t bother planting any of the things I always thought of as summer vegetables.

So, what do you do with all that down time? Many gardeners here simply take the summer off, much as gardeners in Kentucky take the winters off. However, since I’m still having so much fun getting back into gardening, I decided to see what options were available to me. For the summer of 2012, I decided to embark upon a new adventure, growing one of the few things able to thrive here if planted this time of year. As it turns out, I have never grown this crop before, so it will be a learning experience for me. I have dubbed this adventure “The Cowpea Project.”

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Until recently, I had never even heard the term “cowpea.” I had, however, heard of black eyed peas, which happen to be the most well known type of cowpea. The terms “southern pea” and “field pea” are interchangeable with the term “cowpea,” and seem to be preferred in some regions, but I was not familiar with these terms either. To be precise, cowpeas are beans that just happen to resemble peas when growing in their pods, and if harvested dry, the correct term is “pulse” instead of “vegetable,” but this is a blog, not a term paper, so I will dispense with formalities. In researching them over the past few weeks, I have encountered the word “cowpea” more often than southern or field peas, especially in academic literature and in seed catalogs, so I have adopted that name and will stick with it in my writing.

The little bit of research I have done has really opened my eyes to a world of vegetables I never knew existed. Oddly enough, it is one of the oldest vegetables known to man, having been domesticated about the same time as pearl millet and sorghum, or somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 or 6 thousand years ago. It is generally agreed that it was domesticated in Africa, most likely in the area now known as Niger, so it should be no surprise that it grows well in hot weather, and is even able to withstand some drought conditions.

Each variety of cowpea belongs to one of four subspecies of a single species, Vigna unguiculata. I have not been able to determine how many varieties there are, but I can say that so far I have run across a few dozen, a least. These varieties differ in a number of characteristics, including taste, texture, bean color, eye color, pod color, plant size, and days to harvest. To provide a reasonable cross-section, I have settled on five varieties to try this summer:

  • California Blackeye 46 — This variety is said to produce a heavy yield of light green pods with creamy-white beans sporting black eyes. This is the variety shown growing in the picture above.
  • Pinkeye Purplehull — As the name suggests, the beans in this variety have pink eyes and grow in distinctive purple hulls. Some have suggested that this variety is among the tastiest of cowpeas. I planted these about a week behind the blackeyes. You can see their progress in the next picture below.
  • Mississippi Silver — This is a relatively new variety, developed by Mississippi State University in 1965 to be resistant to a couple of plant diseases common in the south (fusarium wilt and root knot nematode). It is one of many varieties known as “crowder” peas, so called because they are literally crowded together in the pod. The hulls of this variety are silver, hence the name.
  • Red Ripper — The Red Ripper is a much older variety, believed to have originated in the 1850s in North Carolina. This variety is reported to provide heavy yields, even in hot and dry summer conditions. It is often planted as a forage crop, but is also reported to be good to eat. Unlike the others I selected, this variety grows as a vine and will do best if I provide it with some support.
  • SaDandy — This is an old heirloom variety of cream pea developed for the south. The beans are white and said to have a smoother, creamier taste than blackeyed peas.

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I planted the first two varieties above in small sections of one of my raised beds over the past couple weeks. I planted the other three varieties directly in the ground this past weekend. Even though they are planted in-ground, I still used intensive planting techniques. The Mississippi Silver and Red Ripper are planted in short, wide rows, using the available space in the same way I would if planting in a raised bed. That is, instead of planting a single row strung out in a line across the garden, I planted a triple row of Mississippi Silver and a quad row of Red Ripper. The difference between the two is simply a matter of the space I had to work with.

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The space I had available for the SaDandy was more square shaped, so I planted those in a block configuration.

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The final step in planting anything in my garden is a sprinkle with cayenne pepper. Without this step, I run the risk of coming back to find freshly dug holes where my seeds were once planted. Squirrels allegedly have a strong dislike for capsaicin, the ingredient that makes hot peppers so hot. By sprinkling it on freshly planted areas, the hope is that the squirrels will go elsewhere to do their digging, mischief-making, or whatever it is squirrels do to entertain themselves.

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There is one more hot-climate legume that I’m lumping in with this project, although it is not a cowpea: pigeon peas. Unlike the cowpea, pigeon peas were domesticated in India. Their ability to thrive in hot weather is one of the few traits they actually share with cowpeas. They take considerably longer to mature (the variety I bought takes “only” 120 to 140 days), they grow as a shrub instead of a vine, they need considerably more spacing, and in frost-free areas, they actually live for four or five years. I am hoping to get mine planted this weekend. I’ll be reporting on the progress of my pigeon peas along with the cowpeas.