Minding Those Southern Peas

The language of the garden is different depending on where you live. To northern gardeners, the word "peas" usually means English or green peas. To a southern gardener, the same word refers to shell peas such as black-eyed, crowder, and cream; and the term "southern peas" is more commonly used. Southern peas can be grown in the North as well as in the South, as long as their different growing conditions are met.

Pea Varieties

Botanically speaking, southern peas (Vigna unguiculata) are not in the same family as beans or peas. These annual legumes were originally brought to North America by African slaves in the late 1600s or early 1700s to be used primarily as an animal forage and green manure crop. However, they are a great-tasting food for us to enjoy as well.

Southern peas grow as bushes or short vines along the ground. There are three types of southern peas: black-eyed, crowder, and cream. The 'California Blackeye' is a popular variety across the country. These upright, spreading plants produce 6- to 8-inch-long pods. The peas have a mild flavor and produce a light-colored sauce when cooked.

'Mississippi Silver' is a crowder pea variety with low, bushy plants producing large brown seeds in silvery green, 6-inch-long pods. Crowder peas have a robust flavor and produce a dark-colored sauce when cooked.

Cream peas, such as 'Zipper Cream', are the mildest flavored of the southern peas. They produce a clear sauce when cooked and look similar to shell beans. 'Zipper Cream' features white peas on 6-inch-long, green pods.

For more southern pea varieties, go to Willhite Seed Company.

Soil for Southern Peas

Unlike green peas, southern peas like a warm soil. Choose a sunny, protected spot in your garden with well-drained soil. In the North, consider planting in raised beds to quicken the soil warming. Plant after danger of frost is past; about two weeks after you plant sweet corn. Peas like a slightly acidic soil (pH between 6.0 and 6.5) and soils with good amounts of organic matter. Amend the soil with finished compost before planting.

Sow seeds in rows so plants are 4 inches apart. Try growing in double rows 30 inches apart to increase yields. If you're growing vining varieties, such as 'Clemson Purple', consider erecting a trellis along the row.

Care and Harvest of Southern Peas

Since they're legumes, southern peas need little additional fertilizer all season long. Keep plants weeded and watered. Southern peas are heat and drought tolerant so they often will grow fine in midsummer when other vegetables are lagging. Mulch around plants with hay or straw to conserve moisture and keep weeds at bay.

Southern peas taste best when harvested at the "green" stage, when the pods are still green and pliable, but the peas inside have filled out the pod. Gently squeeze a pod, and if the pod opens along the seam, it's time to harvest.

The simplest way to prepare them is to cover them with salt water and cook until tender. Serve with butter.

For more on growing southern peas, go to Virtual Vegetable Guides at: www.willhiteseed.com/store/asp/guides.asp

Question of the Week

Building Raised Beds

Q. I am putting in raised beds this year for vegetables, flowers, and herbs. How deep should the raised beds be?

A. Most annual plants typically have root systems that reach about 12 to 18 inches deep. If your raised beds will be shallower than that, it's a good idea to till, or at least loosen, the soil underneath the raised bed to a depth of 1 foot. This encourages plants to form deep roots and helps provide good drainage.

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