This is a plant of many different names: crowder peas, field peas, southern peas, and, of course, black-eyed peas. In my family, we’ve always called them black-eyed peas and my mom always made us eat as many as we can every New Year’s Day for good luck.
If you want to be technical though, these are actually beans. Whatever you call them, cowpeas are great to grow in your vegetable garden over summer. They can stand heat and a little bit of drought; they’re not very picky about their growing conditions; and they keep your garden healthy by adding nitrogen to the soil. I have these on my must-grow list every summer.
WHAT ARE COWPEAS?
Cowpeas have been grown for our enjoyment and for animal fodder for hundreds of years. Black-eyed peas are a type of cowpea with a black “eye” in the middle of each kidney-shaped bean, but you can also find solid-colored cowpeas in green, black, and reddish brown.
Bean pods typically grow in little clusters and reach about 10 inches long. You can eat them fresh, like green beans, or leave them on the plant longer to dry. At that point, the part you’re eating is essentially the seed of the plant.
Yard-long beans are closely related to cowpeas. They’re super tolerant of our long, scorching Texas summers, and it’s really fun to watch the pods stretch longer and longer each day.
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OUR FAVORITE TYPES OF COWPEAS TO GROW IN TEXAS
There are many different varieties of cowpeas to grow, but these are our favorites:
- Pink Eye Purple Hull Peas – This is a beautiful bush variety that grows about 2′ tall. Plants are super productive, even in drier conditions, and grow beautiful purple cylindrical peas.
- California Blackeye #5 Cowpea – These are semi-vining plants that produce 6″- to 8″-long green pods. Inside, you’ll find that characteristic cream-colored seed with a black “eye”. Great option if you’re looking for container-grown cowpeas.
- Orient Wonder Yard Long Beans – This is a really fun pole variety to try. Also called Chinese long beans or asparagus beans, these plants produce beautiful purple flowers and then long, super skinny bean pods that can grow as long as 30″, though they’re best when harvested around 12″ to 18″ long.
DO COWPEAS NEED A TRELLIS?
It depends on which type you’re growing. You’ll notice in my recommendations above I mentioned whether each type was bush or pole.
Bush beans don’t need a trellis to climb up thanks to their more compact growth habit, but you can certainly grow them next to a small trellis if you’d like.
Vining types, or pole beans, will need some type of trellis or support structure to climb. Their vines can stretch up to 6′ to 8′ tall.
Learn more about the best vegetables to grow on a trellis HERE.
WHEN TO GROW COWPEAS
I associate black-eyed peas with New Year’s Day, but these legumes actually grow best in the summer. They love long, hot days (I can’t relate).
Here in Central Texas, our growing season for cowpeas runs from about April through early November. Cowpeas cannot tolerate frost, so you’ll wait to sow seeds until about 2 weeks after your last frost date of the season. That way, all danger of frost will have passed, and the soil will be nice and warm (at least 65°F), just the way these plants like it.
You can continue sowing cowpeas until you’re 80 days out from your first anticipated frost in the fall. For those of us in the greater Austin area, that means we’d stop planting around the end of August to give our plants plenty of time to produce before the end of the growing season.
WHERE TO GROW COWPEAS
Plant your cowpeas in a spot that gets full sun to maximize production. While they can tolerate partial shade, you’ll get way more pretty flowers and then pods if you give them at least 6 hours of sun each day.
I love to grow cowpeas in my raised beds to fill empty spaces. They’re an ideal cover crop to help the soil retain moisture and prevent weeds from growing. Cowpeas aren’t very picky about their soil, but a well-draining soil will get you the best results.
If you prefer to grow cowpeas in a container, look for compact plants like the pinkeye purple hull peas. Choose a container at least 12″ wide and 12″ deep with good drainage holes.
Cowpea pro tip:
The leaves of your cowpea plants can burn in the hot afternoon sun from the west, so morning sunlight is ideal. If your plants can receive their 6 to 8 hours earlier in the day, they’ll appreciate a little shade in the last few hours of the day. (If you notice your plants are getting scorched by late afternoon sun, cover them with a shade cloth to filter some of the harsh light.)
HOW TO PLANT COWPEAS
Beans and peas don’t like being moved once they’re growing, so it’s best to sow cowpea seeds directly in the garden area once the temps are right. Follow these simple steps to plant cowpeas.
Before sowing cowpea seeds, I recommend soaking them in room-temp water overnight to soften their seed coat a bit and ease sprouting. Once they’re in your garden, they’ll germinate fast and burst from the soil. It’s always really exciting to see them poke their way through!
Add a fresh 2- to 3-inch layer of compost to the top of the planting area. If you have mycorrhizae on hand, add a small amount to help your cowpeas grow nice, strong roots.
Use a trowel to dig a shallow little trench about 1″ deep and then place all your cowpea seeds before covering them with soil so you can see your spacing. Place bush varieties about 4″ to 6″ apart and pole varieties about 6″ apart along a vertical structure. Avoid overcrowding your plants to prevent pests and disease.
Cover the seeds with soil by running what I call “Pac-Man hands” along the trench you dug. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, then think of pinching the soil with crab claws.
Keep the soil moist while you’re waiting on the little sprouts to emerge. Never let the soil completely dry out and form that hard crust before the seeds have sprouted. You should see their little seed coats bursting through the surface within a week.
If you’re growing a bush type and would like to spread out your cowpea harvests, sow more seeds every 2 weeks or so.
HOW TO CARE FOR GROWING COWPEA PLANTS
These are pretty easy-going plants once they’re up and growing. Your only real tasks will be watering, adding compost, and pruning of damaged leaves. If temps are spiking over 95 degrees, consider using a floating row cover or shade cloth prevent cowpeas from dropping their blossoms.
Check the soil moisture frequently with your fingertips. If the top layer of soil feels dry, it’s time to water the planting area. You’ll know you’ve been lax in your watering duties if you notice the plants start wilting and their leaves turning yellow.
You can water by hand in the early morning. We recommend using a long watering wand so that you can get right to the base of the plants. Water deeply to encourage the roots to reach down, not stay shallow, to find water. Also, avoid spraying the leaves of your plants, as wet leaves can invite fungal diseases and powdery mildew.
Another watering method is to install drip irrigation prior to planting, with a timer at your spigot to give your plants a deep drink at regular intervals. Garden in Minutes is a great DIY kit for installing drip irrigation in your garden.
Once your cowpeas are better established, you can ease up on watering a bit, but they’ll still need about an inch of water each week for high yields.
To learn more about different garden watering options go HERE.
Fertilizing cowpeas isn’t necessary to keep them happy and productive. Since cowpeas produce their own nitrogen, you can actually do more harm than good by adding a fertilizer with too much nitrogen. You’ll end up with lots of leaves and no pods.
Instead, you can ensure cowpeas have all the nutrients they need at every stage by adding some organic matter like compost or worm castings to the top of the garden bed. When the cowpeas start to flower then start using a phosphorus heavy fertilizer such as Microlife Maximum Blooms.
If the cowpeas need more support, use garden stakes and twine to help hold them upright. Help your pole peas find rungs on your trellis, and attach vines with little loops of twine if needed. You want them to feel secure so they’ll give you heavy yields.
Each week, remove any damaged or yellowed leaves from your plants. As cowpeas grow prune away some of the older, lower leaves near the base to increase air circulation in the garden and give the plant more energy to focus on pod production.
Also, remove any leaves touching the soil to prevent pests and soil-borne diseases.
Pest on cowpeas
The most common pest I have experienced with cowpeas are aphids followed by fire ants helping those aphids. You can use insecticidal soap or the Arber Outdoor Kit to help keep pests at bay. Learn more about taking care of aphids HERE.
WHEN TO HARVEST COWPEAS
If you want fresh pods, the best time to harvest is about 60 days after sowing seeds, basically as soon as you see the peas inside the pods starting to swell. These are immature pods and can be eaten whole or shelled.
Most gardeners grow cowpeas for their dry beans, which means you need to leave the pods on the plant another 30 days or so (about 90 days total). Wait until the pod is dry and straw-colored.
Yard-long beans are ready when the slender pods snap in half cleanly and the seeds have begun to form inside.
HOW TO HARVEST COWPEAS
The best way to harvest each pod is by holding the stem with one hand and gently pulling on the pod with the other. You can also use scissors to avoid tearing branches.
If you’ve left cowpea pods on bush varieties to dry, you probably won’t get another round of production. You can cut the plant at the base and hang upside down to dry a little more before shelling.
You can actually eat the young leaves on your plants at any stage. They’re best sautéed like spinach.
HOW TO SAVE AND ENJOY COWPEAS
Fresh cowpeas can go in the fridge or the freezer in a freezer bag for a few months.
Store dried and shelled cowpeas in an airtight container in your pantry. Make sure there’s no moisture inside or prevent your beans from getting moldy.
Cowpeas are great in Southern dishes, soups, and stews. I love black-eyed peas with some cornbread after they’ve been soaked and warmed up on the stove. Cowpeas are a good source of protein; plus, they’re low in fat and high in fiber.
Make sure to save some black-eyed peas for New Year’s!
We hope this guide helps you harvest pound after delicious pound of your own cowpeas!
Let us know what questions you have about growing this vegetable over summer here in Austin, TX (or virtually all over the world). We love helping you set up your own kitchen gardens and become confident gardeners. If you’re ready to set up your garden for the next growing season, now is the perfect time. Click here to start growing with us!