Many vegetables that were planted in spring, such as tomatoes, squash, cucumbers and snap beans, are finishing or have already reached the end of their productive season. Once the harvest is finished, they should be removed from the garden. But don’t let those spots stay empty and unproductive through the rest of the summer. The southern pea is a delicious and easy to grow vegetable you can plant right now.
Also known as field peas, cow peas, crowders and purple hulls, this vegetable loves heat and fills in beautifully between the early summer and fall crops. Besides having a delicious flavor, southern peas are high in protein, calcium and phosphorus. And any extras you might produce are easily frozen for future use.
Varieties differ mainly in their growth habit, pod color, seed color, eye color and seed type. When it is time to harvest, the pod color may be green, silver, white or purple, depending on the type you grow. Purple-podded varieties are especially good since the pods turn purple when it is time to harvest them, and the pods are readily visible.
The seeds may be cream, buff, brown, black or spotted. Some varieties have a different-colored area on the seed called the eye. The eye may be pinkish maroon to black. The black-eyed pea is, perhaps, the most well-known of the southern peas.
Seed types include crowder and non-crowder. A crowder pea is one in which the seeds are packed so tightly that they push against each other producing seeds that are flattened or blunt on the ends. Non-crowders produce seeds that are rounded on the ends.
Southern peas are among the easiest vegetables to grow. They are not picky about the type of soil they grow in and do not require high levels of fertility. If you will be planting into an existing bed, soil preparation is very easy. Simply remove any old vegetable plants and add mulch. If they don’t have disease issues, put the old vegetables into your compost pile and save the mulch to place back into the garden.
Spread a 2-inch layer of organic matter, such as compost, rotted leaves or aged manure, over the bed and thoroughly dig it into the upper 8 inches using a shovel or tiller. Rake the bed smooth, shape the sides (if necessary) and you are ready to plant.
No additional fertilizer is generally needed for these undemanding plants. Usually enough is left over from previous applications. In addition, southern peas are members of the legume family (Fabaceae) and can obtain nitrogen from the air through nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in the soil and their roots. Inoculants of these bacteria are available commercially and may be used to coat the seeds before planting to make sure the bacteria are present; however, this is generally not necessary.
Plant southern pea seeds directly into prepared beds about 2 to 3 inches apart and one-half-inch deep. After the row of peas is planted, place a 2-inch layer of mulch over the bed, leaving the area immediately above the seeds uncovered. Keep the bed well watered until the seeds come up.
Once the seedlings are up and growing, thin the young plants to a spacing of 4 to 6 inches and push the mulch around the base of the young plants. Planting seeds too thick and not thinning them to the proper spacing is likely to result in poor production. Keeping the bed well mulched is your best nonchemical defense against weeds. Regularly and promptly pull any weeds that make it up through the mulch.
When planted at this time of year, southern peas will be ready to harvest about 55 days from sowing the seeds. Harvest the pods when they are well filled and have changed to a light straw, silver or purple color, depending on the variety because they shell easiest at this stage. The peas themselves should have a greenish appearance.
Ideally, shell and use the peas the day they are harvested. If the pods are going to be held for more than a day, they should be refrigerated until they can be shelled. Shelled peas may be stored for several days prior to cooking in a covered bowl in the refrigerator. This is helpful for gardeners with small plantings because it may take two or three pickings to get enough peas to serve the family. For longer storage, peas are easily frozen, and the quality is excellent when they are thawed and cooked later.
Although peas are fairly drought-resistant, hot, dry weather can be a problem. Best yields are obtained when there is plenty of soil moisture, especially when the plants are young and after pod set begins.
On the other hand, excessive rain or watering, especially before flowering begins, may delay pod set and encourage excessive growth. Remember, this is one vegetable that doesn’t need to be pampered.
Gardeners who are trying to minimize spraying will love growing southern peas. They are generally not bothered by any major insect or disease problems, and they usually can be grown with minimal or no spraying. Aphids are small insects that sometimes cluster on the new growth and under leaves. Control them with an insecticide labeled to control aphids on peas or release a predator like ladybug beetles.
Other heat-tolerant vegetables that can be planted in midsummer are cantaloupe, luffa, okra, peppers (other than bell peppers), peanuts, pumpkins and watermelons.
Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter and is known as a reliable source of helpful, useful advice on lawn and garden topics. He can be reached at DGill@agcenter.lsu.edu