Embracing Opportunities: Cultivating Cowpeas for a Bountiful Garden

Cowpeas, with their rich history and cultural significance, have earned a special place in the hearts of many. Originally hailing from Africa, these legumes are often associated with good luck when consumed on New Year’s Day in the southern United States. But beyond their symbolic value, cowpeas are a healthy and versatile crop that can enhance any garden.

This article will guide you through the process of growing cowpeas, allowing you to experience the joy of cultivating these drought-tolerant “peas” throughout the summer. Not only will they add nitrogen to your soil, but they will also provide you with a steady supply of beans. With various varieties to choose from, feel free to experiment and discover your preferred type of cowpea!

The Beauty of Cowpeas

Close-up of a Vigna unguiculata plant in the garden. The plant climbs with its vines along the constructed trellises. The plant has large oval dark green leaves with pointed tips and long narrow green pods that contain 10-15 small seeds.

Vigna unguiculata, commonly known as cowpeas or black-eyed peas, are actually beans despite their misleading name. Originating from West Africa, they have become a staple crop in various parts of the world. In the United States, especially in the southern states, cowpeas are cherished for their ability to thrive in warm climates.

There are two main types of cowpeas: bush and vine varieties. Bush plants typically reach a height of 1-2 feet, while vining varieties can grow up to 3 feet. The bean pods form in clusters of 2-3 and can stretch up to 10 inches in length. These pods come in a variety of colors, including green, purple, and yellow.

The kidney-shaped beans themselves can be found in white, cream, green, black, or red-brown hues, often featuring a darker center that resembles an eye—hence the nickname “black-eyed pea.” While primarily grown for their seeds, cowpeas can also be cooked and enjoyed in the form of pods and leaves. Additionally, they are valued for their ability to improve soil health and are often included in summer cover crop mixtures or used as animal fodder.

Exploring the Types of Cowpeas

Close-up of the ripening pods of the cowpea plant in the garden. The plant has climbing vines with large oval green leaves. The pods are long, thin, green.

Within the Vigna unguiculata family, several distinct varieties of cowpeas exist. Catjang or sow-pea (subsp. biflora) is a shrubby and edible bean known for its use as animal fodder and as a cover crop. It complements other crops while improving soil health.

Subsp. sesquipedalis, also known as yardlong bean, asparagus bean, or Chinese long-bean, is named after its elongated pods, which can grow up to 3 feet in length (typically around 1.5 feet). This variety is believed to have originated in Southeast Asia.

Another cultivar, subsp. textilis, was once primarily cultivated for its fibers to make rope and fabrics. Although less popular today, it still serves as an excellent cover crop for soil improvement and weed control.

Planting Cowpeas

Close-up of small sprouts of a cowpea plant growing in moist soil. The sprouts have vertical thin pale green stems with two tiny oval smooth green leaves.

Cowpeas thrive in warm weather and don’t transplant well, making it necessary to sow dried peas directly into the soil after the risk of frost has passed and the temperature consistently stays above 65°F. The ideal planting time varies depending on your location, typically falling between April and June.

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Select a sunny spot with well-draining soil for your cowpeas, ensuring they receive at least 6 hours of direct sunlight each day. Plant the seeds 1-2 inches deep, with no more than 8 plants per 1-foot row, leaving 30 inches of space between rows. If you prefer, you can also grow cowpeas in containers with trellises, expanding your gardening possibilities.

To enjoy a continuous harvest, consider practicing succession planting. By sowing seeds every two weeks during the planting season, you can stagger the growth of your plants. Additionally, interplanting cowpeas with compatible crops like pearl millet or wheat can further enhance your garden’s productivity.

Nurturing Cowpeas

Cowpeas are relatively low-maintenance and reward gardeners with abundant growth when provided with optimal conditions. Let’s explore essential care tips to ensure the success of your crops.

Sun and Temperature

Close-up of a growing cowpea plant in a sunny garden. The bushes are lush, have climbing vines covered with large oval green leaves with oblong narrowed tips. The pods are long, narrow, green and contain about 10 small edible seeds.

Like other beans, cowpeas thrive in sunny weather and require warm temperatures to grow. They are suitable for USDA zones 5-10, though they can only be grown as perennials in zones 7-10.

Providing at least 6 hours of direct sunlight daily is crucial for their development. Aim for 8 hours or more of sunlight to optimize growth and increase yields. Soil temperatures should be 65°F or higher, but excessive heat can hinder pod formation. If the temperature surpasses 90°F, using a shade cloth during the hottest part of the day can provide some relief.

Water and Humidity

A close-up of a growing cowpea plant in a garden, climbing a trellis. The plant has climbing vines with large, oval, dark green leaves with pointed tips. The soil is moist at the base of the plant.

Cowpeas require slightly more moisture than some other crops. Aim to provide them with at least 1 inch of water per week, increasing the amount on hotter days. Water your cowpeas when the soil becomes dry, ensuring a thorough soak to encourage deep root growth.

To prevent diseases, avoid wetting the leaves excessively or allowing water to accumulate around the plants. Regularly monitor the soil moisture to maintain an optimal balance, preventing both drought stress and waterlogging.

Soil

Close-up of young Cowpea sprouts growing in the garden. The plant has short stems and large oval smooth leaves with pointed tips. The soil is dark brown, loose.

Cowpeas prefer well-draining soil with a slightly alkaline or neutral pH. A pH level of 6.0 or higher ensures they thrive without encountering acidity-related issues. Loamy or slightly sandy soil types are ideal for growing cowpeas.

Providing your plants with plenty of organic matter, such as compost, from the beginning may eliminate the need for additional fertilization. However, if your soil lacks nutrients, applying a low-nitrogen all-purpose fertilizer, such as 5-10-10 or 3-5-5, once during the early growth stages can be beneficial. Remember that cowpeas are not heavy feeders, so one round of fertilization is typically sufficient.

Pruning & Training Cowpeas

Close-up of young Cowpea bushes growing near the trellis in the garden. The bushes are low, lush, have large, oval green leaves with pointed tips. The soil is covered with straw mulch.

While pruning is not essential for cowpeas, removing damaged or diseased leaves and stems can prevent the spread of diseases. If any leaves touch the ground and appear unhealthy, removing them promptly can halt the progression of disease.

Vining cowpeas benefit from trellises or other forms of support, allowing their expansive growth to flourish. Bush varieties may also benefit from trellises, although they require less support compared to their vining counterparts.

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Cowpea Propagation

Cowpea Propagation. Close-up of small Cowpea sprouts in a black plastic seed starter tray. The sprouts are small, have short pale green stems with oval dark green smooth leaves.

For most gardeners, planting cowpea seeds directly into the soil remains the most effective propagation method. As cowpeas are typically grown as annuals, sowing seeds is sufficient for their successful cultivation. To save seeds for the following year, allow a few pods to dry on the plant, then harvest and store them.

Harvesting and Storing Cowpeas

To fully enjoy the fruits of your labor, it is essential to harvest and store your cowpeas appropriately. Here are some recommended practices:

Harvesting Cowpeas

Close-up of a male hand plucking the pods of Cowpea leguminous plants against a blurred background of a sunny garden. Pods are thin, long, green, contain 10-15 small edible seeds.

You have a few options when it comes to harvesting cowpeas. If you prefer green pods, which are technically immature, you can pick them when they reach a length of 6-10 inches and feel firm to the touch. Alternatively, if you prefer to wait until the beans are dry, leave them on the plant until all the pods have dried. Cut the entire plant at the base, allowing it to hang upside down for a few days to ensure complete drying. Remove the seeds from the pods and store them.

Storing Cowpeas

Top view, closeup of cowpeas seeds in a large wooden box. Seeds are firm, oval, cream-colored with a smooth shiny surface and with a black halo on each seed.

When storing dried cowpeas, it’s crucial to keep them in an airtight container placed in a cool and dry location. Protecting them from excess moisture ensures they remain mold-free.

If you harvest green pods, you can store them in containers or freezer bags in the freezer for several months. Ensure the beans are free of excess moisture to prevent them from freezing into a solid mass. Cooked cowpeas can also be stored using a similar method and can last for a few months when properly frozen.

Troubleshooting

Cowpeas, like any other crop, may encounter various challenges along the way. Being aware of these issues allows you to take appropriate action and mitigate potential problems. Here are a few common obstacles and their solutions:

Growing Problems

Vigna unguiculata on agricultural land. Close-up of a young plant with large, elongated, oval, bright green leaves with smooth edges. The leaves have small pale green and brownish spots.

If your cowpea plants fail to produce pods, several factors may be at play. Start by checking the soil temperature, as temperatures below 65°F or above 90°F can hinder pod formation. Using frost covers or shade during extreme temperatures can help regulate the environment.

Inadequate watering can also cause issues. Both excessively dry and overly wet soil can stress the plants and lead to suboptimal growth. Adjust your watering practices accordingly.

Excessive nitrogen can be problematic, especially if you have previously grown legumes or provided excessive fertilizer. Balancing nitrogen levels by interplanting leafy greens and applying wood chip mulch can mitigate this issue. Additionally, rotating your beans with other crops each year prevents nitrogen buildup.

Pests

Close-up of a Mexican bean beetle on a leaf, against a blurred green background. The Mexican bean bug is a small, yellowish-orange beetle with black spots and long, spiny legs that feeds on leguminous plants.

Several pests may target cowpeas, potentially damaging or destroying your plants. The cowpea curculio poses a common threat, as adults feed on pods and seeds while laying eggs inside the pods. To prevent these pests, it is vital to remove the adults before they have a chance to reproduce. Insecticides or natural alternatives like hand removal and neem oil can be effective control measures. Encouraging beneficial insects such as tachinid flies through the planting of yarrow, asters, feverfew, and oxeye daisy can also help control the curculio population.

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Mexican bean beetles, bean leaf beetles, aphids, and green stink bugs are additional pests that may be attracted to cowpeas. These pests can usually be removed by hand or with water, and neem oil is an effective natural control method. Targeted insecticides can also be considered for specific pest control. Cornstalk borers are only a concern if you have corn planted alongside your cowpeas, so separating these crops will prevent any related issues. Weevils pose a storage problem that can be addressed by using airtight containers.

Nematodes can cause nodules on roots and lead to yellowing and wilting foliage. Beneficial nematodes can be introduced to the soil to combat the detrimental nematode population. Removing roots from previous plants and incorporating organic matter into the soil can also help reduce nematode numbers.

Diseases

Close-up of leaves of a Cowpea plant affected by mosaic virus in a garden. The leaves are large, elongated, oval in shape, with pointed tips. Dark green leaves with yellow-green mottling.

Preventing diseases is the best course of action, as most cowpea diseases cannot be reversed once they occur. Promptly removing infected plants can help prevent further spread. Fungicides can be used to manage fungal diseases, and controlling pest populations can also mitigate disease risks.

Common diseases to watch out for include powdery mildew (characterized by white powder on the leaves), rust fungus (red-brown spots), cercospora leaf spot (brown spots), and mosaic virus (mottled yellow and green leaves). Fusarium wilt results in wilting and withering leaves. This disease can eventually lead to root rot in affected crops.

While bacterial canker typically affects fruit trees, it may appear on cowpea plants as well, presenting as goopy lumps. Southern stem blight is another prevalent fungal disease that affects stems near the soil line. Both diseases require careful management to ensure plant health.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the difference between cowpeas and black-eyed peas?
A: Black-eyed peas are a type of cowpea, distinguished by their characteristic black eye. However, not all cowpeas have this distinctive feature, as some are solid in color.

Q: What are cowpeas used for?
A: Cowpeas find use in culinary endeavors and as animal fodder.

Q: Why are they called cowpeas?
A: The name “cowpea” originates from their historical use as cattle feed. These legumes have been cultivated since as early as 1798.

Q: Are cowpeas edible?
A: Yes! The seeds, pods, and leaves are all edible, with the leaves requiring cooking prior to consumption.

Q: What do cowpeas taste like?
A: Cowpeas possess an earthy flavor with a subtle nuttiness.

Q: What’s the difference between cowpeas and peas?
A: Cowpeas are beans, while peas belong to a different legume family. Both share similar characteristics and nutritional benefits.

Q: Are cowpeas and field peas the same?
A: Field peas are another term for cowpeas, as they fall under the same classification.

Q: Do cowpeas add nitrogen to the soil?
A: Yes! Cowpeas, being legumes, have the remarkable ability to fix nitrogen, improving soil quality and reducing weed pressure.