Southern peas include crowder peas, field peas and cowpeas, but the type that may be most familiar is black-eye peas. These are all classic Southern crops that produce well in hot weather. Even better, they tolerate a lack of rain pretty well.
Southern peas that I have tried include black-eye peas, common field peas, javy peas, purple hull peas, lady creams, Colossus peas, and Piggott family cowpeas. All the varieties that I have cooked and eaten have a flavor similar to black-eye peas, but not exactly the same.
Anyone who has grown several varieties of tomatoes will understand how that works. They all taste like tomatoes, but there are differences, too. The differences are what makes growing more than one kind worthwhile!
For gardeners who may not be familiar with Southern peas, these are not an edible-pod type of bean. We eat the shelled-out peas from inside the pods.
This year, my Southern pea patch is all ‘Purple hull speckled’ cowpeas.
Look for a fast-maturing variety
Southern peas can be a good crop to plant in mid-summer, if the space won’t be needed for other crops before mid-October. Many varieties produce mature peas in about 60 days.
Gardeners who plant a fast-maturing variety of Southern peas within the next week or two are likely to begin harvesting peas in early October. Any gardener as far South as the metro-Atlanta area, planting now, can expect to harvest plenty of peas before the first frost.
‘Purple hull speckled‘ has peas ready for picking in about 60-62 days (two months). I noticed that Baker Creek also offers a variety called ‘Six week purple hull’ that sounds promising as a fast-maturing type.
Plant size when full grown
Those of us with small gardens, especially when the gardens are in the front yard, like mine, try to be aware of smaller-growing varieties, even when we totally plan to grow huge ones. The classic ‘Purple hull pinkeye’ is a neatly mounded plant, growing to about two feet high. ‘Colossus’ peas that we grew at the farm where I used to volunteer have a similar growth habit.
Some Southern peas, however, are long vining plants that will sprawl over the whole yard if they are not trellised. ‘Piggott family’ is one of the vigorous growers. Years ago (2012!), I made a little video about these peas:
‘Purple hull speckled’, the variety I am growing this year, is described in more than one seed catalog, as being a short, bush plant, but that is not exactly how they turned out in my garden. The plants in my garden do have a basic mound shape at the core, but they have sent out runners, long runners.
If I had known what was coming, I would have set up something for them to climb. Instead of going up, the plants are reaching into the lawn and across other plants in the garden.
In the video about ‘Piggott family’ peas linked above, I tell that the small patch of peas has already produced two quarts of dry peas, and it is easy to see that more are on the way. The plants are covered up in pea pods!
This year’s smaller patch, planted in a two-by-three foot space, has produced about one quart of dried peas so far. The plants also still have plenty of flowers and smaller pods that will, eventually, add to the total harvest.
For this variety, there was a big flush of peas to start, but the plants continue to make flowers and pods, the way some bush-type green beans do — a big harvest at first, then smaller amounts until the plants are decimated by pests or killed by frost.
When to harvest
The great feature of purple hull types is the color change, from green pods to purple pods, that tells a gardener when to harvest the peas. I love a color-coded garden!
For plants that do not have the purple hull feature, like ‘Piggott family’, I harvest by feel. If the pods feel as though they are beginning to dry, when the pods are turning a bit papery and tan, then they are ready.
Usually, leaving the pods on the plants until they are bone-dry is totally safe. However, in wet weather, pods many need to be harvested a little early, so they won’t turn moldy on the vines.
Most Southern peas are easy to harvest because of the way the pods are held away from the plants on stiff stems. The gardener does not have to hunt through the leaves to find the pods!
I have read that deer love Southern peas. I’ve also read that deer leave Southern peas untouched. So far, deer have not eaten my plants, but that could be a result of luck more than how much deer like to eat Southern pea plants.
Other wildlife most commonly attracted to Southern peas are wasps. For some people, this may be a problem, but I have never been stung while working around Southern peas.
Many insects are attracted to Southern peas because of the nectaries that are on the stems near the flowers. Nectar is a main food for adults of some of the predatory wasps. These wasps hunt caterpillars to feed to their babies, so attracting these wasps to your garden is actually a good thing.
North Carolina State University’s publication about Southern peas notes that the cowpea curculio is a serious pest on Southern peas, but not the only pest. More common garden pests like aphids and stinkbugs can also cause damage in the Southern pea patch.
So far, though, my Southern peas, over many years of growing them, have been untroubled by pests.
How to grow Southern peas
Southern peas are known as “light feeders”. This means that they do not need a heavy dose of fertilizer to grow well and make lots of peas. If the space you are planning to grow them was already well-fertilized for the crop that was there before them, adding a layer of compost (2-3 inches deep) may be all you need.
The downside of a “light feeder” is that some soils may be so rich in nutrients that the plants grow to be lush and beautiful without producing many peas.
This crop is also one that does well in a lower pH soil. A range of 5.8-6.3 pH , according to Clemson University extension, is best — this is more acidic than the preferred pH range for some garden vegetable crops.
My garden is in the red Georgia clay, and its pH is about 6.5, which is close enough. I typically amend it with compost and other organic sources of nutrients. For my garden, adding more compost before planting Southern peas in mid-summer is all that is required.
Deep, raised beds, filled with commercial composts that include some animal wastes, might not be good places to grow Southern peas. These composts can be too high in nutrients for good pod production.
Even in spring, I plant my Southern peas directly in the garden. I don’t start them indoors in pots/flats/trays. As a heat-loving crop, Southern peas are going to perform their best when planted in warm soil. I planted this year’s ‘Purple hull speckled’ peas in the second week in May.
The plant spacing recommendations I have found are for row crops. If your garden is all row-crops, you can use the 3-4 inch spacing for smaller varieties and 6-8 inches for larger varieties, with 24-36 inches between rows.
If, however, you plant in blocks, using like I often do, some experimenting with plant spacing may be required. My little patch is ringed by some foldable wire fencing, that encloses a space about two-by-three feet. It contains 12 plants. The spacing is about 6 inches, but none of the plants is up close to the wire enclosure.
I had to lean down and hunt through the leaves to count them and estimate the spacing, because I forgot to write it down at planting time.
Plant the seeds about an inch deep. Then, water them in well.
In general, the plants will do fine most of the summer without regular watering, but the seedlings, the newly emerging plants, will need regular water for a few weeks.
Southern peas in the kitchen
Black-eye peas may be the most familiar Southern pea for most people. These are the peas my Mom says (and other people seem to agree) we need to eat on New Year’s day, for good luck in the coming year.
Even if you love them, though, branching out to other types is worth the effort.
Field peas and crowder peas all (I think) cook up to make a brown gravy that is delicious. A good way to start eating these peas is as gravy to pour over mashed potatoes. The ‘Piggott family’ variety, especially, is great to use this way.
Cream peas seem to be the mildest flavored types. The peas usually are smaller, too, than the other types of Southern peas.
There is a Southern pea grown in a small part of Italy, the Lake Trasimeno bean, that has been included in the Slow Food Ark of Taste. I have been lucky in being able to try these beans in Italy, and each time they were served the same way: cooked, then drained, then drenched in olive oil, with a little salt added.
The tiny size and mild flavor of the Lake Trasimeno beans made me think that cream peas might be their closest match in the United States. Last year, I purchased a bag of Lady Cream peas to prepare the same way, and the flavor is close enough that I will make it again. The peas I purchased are not organic, which is a good reason to grow my own in future gardens.