Southern peas (Vigna unguiculata), also known as cowpeas, black-eyed peas or crowder peas, are technically beans, not peas. Like green peas (Pisum sativum), they are legumes, fixing nitrogen in the soil and enriching it for later crops. Unlike green peas, they thrive in hot weather and tolerate drought well. Check the Latin name when buying peas; some types of Southern peas and some types of green peas are sold as ‘field peas’, but they are grown and harvested quite differently.
There are several varieties of Southern peas. Field types are robust, vinyl and small-seeded. The starchy seeds of crowder peas, which are dark after cooking, seem tightly packed in their pods. Cream peas are small plants with light seeds. Black-eyed peas are intermediate-sized plants producing creamy seeds with black ‘eye’ spots.
How to Grow and Care for Southern Peas
Southern peas are frost-sensitive, and they are more susceptible to diseases if planted in cold wet soil. The Cooperative Extension recommends planting when soil temperatures reach 60 F. In NY, potatoes are supposed to be planted when the soil reaches 60 F, and the blooming of the first dandelions is supposed to be a fairly reliable soil temperature signal. In SC the Extension recommends planting Southern peas from late March to mid-April along the coast, or during May in the Piedmont region.
Plant bush-type peas 1/2″ – 1″ deep and 3 – 4″ apart, vining peas 6-12” apart, in well-drained fertile soil. If you haven’t previously planted peas or beans in the spot where you’re putting them, you may want to buy an organic legume inoculant of Rhizo bium, a symbiotic bacterium that helps peas fix nitrogen in the soil for the next crop.
Weed peas diligently when they’re small. As they grow they will shade most weeds out, and cultivating around them after they bloom may damage their roots. You won’t have to water much, as Southern peas are especially drought-tolerant.
Southern peas are ready to harvest when the pods can easily be shelled out; this may happen between 65 and 125 days from planting, depending on the variety you’ve chosen.
Pests and Diseases of Southern Peas
Several types of insect attack Southern peas.
Cowpea curculios cause major damage to cowpeas throughout the Southeast. These small black weevils chew into developing pods and lay eggs on seeds. Larvae eat some seeds and contaminate others. You’ll see small holes and shallow furrows in peapods. Curculios are hard to control. Crop rotation–waiting 4 years between plantings of cowpeas in the same soil–reduces the chance of curculio infestation.
Cornstalk borers chew into the stems of young seedlings and stunt or kill them. Adults are small brown moths; larvae are small brown striped caterpillars, which tunnel through the soil near plant stems. They’re hard to control. Practice crop rotation and plant herbs and wildflowers to attract insect predators.
Aphids are tiny soft-bodied creatures less than 1/10″ long. They suck plant juices, causing pale spots followed by curling, puckering and yellowing of leaves and stems. They excrete a sugary liquid called honeydew that often grows a sooty black mold. Mild aphid infestations can be controlled by spraying plants vigorously with water in the early morning every other day, 3 times in all. Heavier infestations may require organic insecticidal soap or pyrethrum.
Half-inch-long, shield-shaped stinkbugs eat all parts of plants as well as sucking juices, causing yellowing and wilting. You can handpick these insects. (Make sure you identify them correctly first; they look similar to some predatory insects, which eat other garden pests.) You can also plant herbs and wildflowers near your field peas. These plants attract insects, which prey on stinkbugs. As a last resort you might spray with organic insecticidal soap (effective against larvae) or pyrethrum (effective against adults), but stinkbugs are fairly insecticide resistant.
Leaf-footed bugs, large brown insects with thick brown hindmost legs and white zigzag patterns on their wings, eat plants and suck juices. They’re hard to control. Practice crop rotation and plant herbs and wildflowers to attract insect predators.
Southern peas suffer from few serious diseases. Fusarium wilt may cause yellowing, low yields and plant death. Southern stem blight may also cause plants to die; you’ll see white mold around the bases of affected plants. Rotate crops, add organic matter to soil, and plant in warm soil to reduce the risk of disease.
Want to learn more about field peas?
Check out these resources:
Field Peas to Foie Gras: Southern Recipes with a French Accent by Jennifer Booker (Amazon affiliate link)
Southern Peas from Clemson Cooperative Extension
Home Gardening Series: Southern Peas from University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension