Posts Tagged ‘Southern Peas’

An Overdue Update on my Cowpeas

It’s amazing sometimes how fast time can slip by without being noticed. I guess that’s how I managed to let almost a whole month go by without providing an update on my cowpea project. I continue to enjoy pretty good success with the cowpeas as I learn about this relatively unknown garden crop. As you may recall from my previous postings, this is my first time growing them, so I am using this summer as a learning experience. Based on the lessons I learn this summer, I plan to make adjustments next summer when I start all over again.

We have had cowpeas to eat off and on for several weeks now. I have been harvesting every two to four days, depending on my personal schedule and whether the weather permits me to do so. The harvest quantity varies significantly, depending mostly on the maturity of the different planting waves. So far, only the first two waves have been producing, and they have almost run their course. The ones you see in the rightmost basket below show what I picked today. When the first two waves were at their peak, I got significantly more than this at a time.

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The plant in the next picture is one of only three plants still living from the first wave. The purple hulled peas you see in this picture are the same ones you see in the basket above.

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The second wave, planted around the end of May, included three varieties. Two of those (Mississippi Silver and SaDandy) have produced quite a few peas, but the Red Rippers have yet to produce. The Mississippi Silvers are just sitting around staying green, but not producing anything. The SaDandy, shown below, appear to be thinning out somewhat, but are producing another flush of peas which should be ready in the next few days.

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The Red Rippers, in the next two pictures have not produced anything yet, but this is not a surprise. All the literature I can find on the different varieties indicates that these take considerably longer to mature than the other two varieties planted in Wave Two. As you can see, they look quite healthy and are most definitely proving themselves to be climbers. They are beginning to produce some peas now, the earliest of which should be table-ready within days.

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The third wave has yet to produce, but is looking very promising. Many, many pods are within days of being ready to pick now. Varieties in this wave include California Blackeyed #46, Pink-eyed Purple Hull, and Mississippi Silver.

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Wave Four, which is planted in the flower bed to provide greenery and add nitrogen to the soil, is coming along nicely. No peas yet, but I wouldn’t expect them this soon. You can see in the picture below how they are doing.

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Since my last update, I have added a fifth wave to my cowpea project. This wave is planted in two separate patches on different sides of the house. Both patches are in areas intended for something other than permanent vegetable gardening, but both areas have really poor soil and could use the natural boost of nitrogen. In addition, I plan to spade the plants into the soil after harvesting the peas, providing organic mass and additional soil nutrients.

The first patch is the now infamous “bare patch” in my butterfly garden. I decided to plant California Blackeyed #46 in this patch while waiting for the recently started larval hosts (parsley, dill, fennel, etc.) to get big enough to transplant. This variety does not get very tall (meaning they should stay hidden from the road by the row of flowering plants in front of them), it matures quickly (meaning the herbs shouldn’t have to wait too long for their turn), and the plants die back quickly after harvest (giving me good organic matter for turning into the soil).

If you look closely at the picture below, you’ll see a plant other than peas right in the center. This is a milkweed that was recently eaten down to the stems by a Monarch caterpillar, as described in the post linked above. It has little tiny leaves all over it now, and should be looking healthy again in a few more days.

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In the top portion of the next picture, you can barely make out the base of the Duranta that I recently planted and discussed in a couple blog posts.

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Finally, in the picture below, you will see a new addition to my selection of cowpea varieties. About the time I finished selecting the five varieties I would try growing over the summer, my wife and I bought some Zipper peas from the local farmer’s market, and we absolutely loved them. After buying and consuming several batches of them over the summer, I decided to grow some of my own. I finally found some seeds available for sale and proceeded to order a pound! Assuming these taste like the ones we bought at the farmer’s market, this is just the first of many plantings. This location is along the back of our house near the pool pump. An old ligustrum bush recently died here, leaving quite a hole in the landscaping. I have replaced the ligustrum with a firebush, which is a species native to Florida, but it is growing slowly, so I decided to take advantage of the available space while waiting for it to fill in the space. And, as I have mentioned before, being legumes, the cowpeas will augment the soil.

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That’s it for now. Until next time, happy gardening!

Cowpea Project Update

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It has been about three weeks now since I first reported on my cowpea project. At that time, my California Blackeyed 46 peas were three weeks old and standing about 12 inches tall. As you can see in the picture above, they now average about 20 inches. At the time of my previous post, I also had some Pinkeyed Purplehull peas a week younger than the Blackeyed variety. They were standing at about 7 inches then; now they are about 15 or 16 inches.

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I had also just spent much of my Memorial Day holiday planting three additional varieties to round out the cowpea project. I am happy to report that all three are doing quite well. The Mississippi Silver peas are the tallest of the three. At around 14 inches, they are almost as tall as the Pinkeyed Purplehull.

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Next in sequence are the Red Rippers, which you see below planted with a trellis, as they are said to produce vines and to do better with support. At 12 inches, they are a little smaller than the Mississippi Silver.

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The third and final variety from my Memorial Day planting are the SaDandy peas. At 10 inches, they are the smallest of the three varieties. So far, all the varieties are looking healthy. I thinned them to a single plant every couple or three inches about a week ago which is the final spacing for this type of plant.

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The last thing to report with this update is that this evening I planted another round of three of these varieties. I planted some more Blackeyed, some Pinkeyed Purplehull, and some Mississippi Silver. I stopped at that point because I’m basically out of space. The spaces I used for these were all in unused areas of my blueberry bed (a 3×6 raised bed).

I chose this space primarily because it was available, having previously been used for cool weather crops that succumbed to the Florida summer heat. I also reasoned that they will not get tall enough to shade the blueberry bushes, and they should help enrich the nitrogen content of the soil, something that the blueberries should appreciate. Here’s hoping that cowpeas do okay in acidic soil! Another risk factor is that I realized after planting them that, much to my chagrin, I am out of cayenne pepper, which I used as squirrel repellant. Assuming they tolerate the soil in this bed and assuming they escape the ravages of little, furry rodent feet, I should start to see this round of cowpeas pop up on Tuesday or Wednesday.

I’ll keep you posted on this project as the summer moves along.

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.

Dem Beans, Dem Beans …

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The traditional African American spiritual, “Dem Bones, Dem Bones,” recalls the writings of the Hebrew prophet Ezekiel. In the 37th chapter of the book named after him, Ezekiel describes his vision of the Valley of the Dry Bones, in which the bones rise up and come alive again on God’s command. Interpretations of what this passage symbolizes vary widely, but one thing that is certain is that in Ezekiel’s time, about 2600 years ago, beans were a well-established part of the diet in that part of the world.

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In all likelihood, Ezekiel would have eaten varieties of what we now call fava beans (or broad beans), lentils, chickpeas, and peas. However, Ezekiel most certainly would not have eaten any green beans, kidney beans, black beans, cranberry beans, pinto beans, or navy beans, even though varieties of these had already been domesticated for well over a thousand years. Those beans were domesticated in the Americas, and it would still be a couple millenia before the first contact between Middle Eastern and American civilizations. On the other hand, it is possible, though far from certain, that Ezekiel would have eaten cowpeas (such as black eyed peas), which grew predominantly in Africa at the time and eventually made their way to the Americas with the slaves, whose descendants would end up singing that spiritual song.

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As I stand in my garden and plant beans, I can’t help but find it humbling to think about the connectedness of it all. Each little bean that I hold in my hand is largely unchanged since the days when they were planted by Mayans. It is not too far-fetched to think that the lima beans I have growing in my backyard right now could be descended from lima beans grown by the ancestors of the Incans. In the same way, the green beans I ate with dinner this evening could conceivably be traced to seed sown in three-sisters fashion by the tribes of North America.

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Among the more recent additions to my garden are some of the oldest types of bean on the planet: cowpeas, whose DNA could very well have crossed the Atlantic in slave ships. By the time I finish my summer plantings, I will have at least one variety that originated in Asia, as I have some pigeon peas on order.

This ancient food, the lowly bean, is every bit as intertwined with the broad scope of human civilization as the vines in my garden are with the poles, strings, and trellises I use to keep them up off the ground. Moreover, the varieties of beans available in global genetic banks (approximately 40,000) reflect the breadth and scope of diversity that makes up the human mosaic.

Of those 40,000 varieties, I’m currently growing nine:

  • Green Beans
    • Kentucky Wonder
    • White Half Runner
  • Dried Beans
    • Lina Sisco’s Bird Egg
    • Pinto
  • Lima Beans
    • Dixie Speckled Butterpea
    • Fordhook 242
    • Henderson
  • Cowpeas
    • California #46 Blackeyed
    • Pinkeyed Purple Hull

Of these nine varieties, it is the White Half Runner that stands out most in my memory. I had grandparents on both sides who grew this bean, and I remember growing it in my own garden. It is also the only one of these that has yielded food for me thus far this gardening season. I will report more on the others as the season progresses.

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