Overview and Description
Black-eyed peas are associated with the U.S. South and especially as a symbol of good luck on New Year's Day. Since I'm not a Southerner, I'll defer to my colleague from Arkansas to explain how they became known as lucky.
However black-eyed peas are certainly not exclusive to the South. In fact, they are grown worldwide. The most commonly grown is the 'California Blackeye.' That's the one you see in bags at the grocery store, the buff-colored beans with the black dot in the curve. However, there are dozens of varieties. Some are old heirlooms, others are currently being bred for different qualities.
Black-eyed peas are a type of cowpea and are closely related to the asparagus bean. They've been grown since colonial times, in the U.S. Black-eyed peas, as with all legumes, fix nitrogen in their roots, leaving it in the soil for the following vegetable planted there. So you get a delicious vegetable and a fertilizer, all in one.
They are called "Black-eyed" because of the prominent black dot where the bean was joined to the pod. Despite this quirk, black-eyed peas are grown the same as other legumes and are actually closer to a bean, than a pea. And despite the name, the eye can be a different color altogether, although they all tend to turn a shade of purple when cooked.
- Leaves - The leaves are the familiar pointed, heart-shade common to beans. They grow alternately and can be smooth or fuzzy. Some varieties will have a tinge of purple to the stems.
- Flowers - The flowers can be white or shades of yellow, pink, or purple. They are only open for one day, but they are very attractive to pollinating insects.
Black-eyed Pea, Cowpea, Southern Pea, Field Pea
Full sun will give you the biggest yield. The vines will need extra water in especially hot areas, but they still want full sun exposure.
Cowpeas are annual. They mature and go to seed in one season.
Mature Plant Size
Plant size will vary according to the type of black-eyed pea you grow (bush or pole), the variety, and your growing conditions. Vining plants can be very robust, growing well in excess of 6 ft. The bush varieties tend to get only 2 - 3 ft. tall, but can spread to another 2 feet.
Days to Maturity
Black-eyed peas can be harvested as a snap bean in about 60 - 70 days. To harvest the "black-eyed" dried bean you will need to wait 80 - 100 days.
Suggested Varieties of Black-eyed Peas
Very often you'll just see seed labeled as "Black-eyed Peas," however there are several named varieties. Like their colloquial names, it's often hard to tell the difference between the varieties, but experiment to find what grows well in your garden and which you enjoy eating. (The days to maturity given refer to the snap bean stage.)
- Big Boy - A very prolific bush variety (75 days)
- California Blackeye - There are several different strains, differentiated by a number (Ex.: California Blackeye #5) Check with your local extension office for the best one for your area. (70 days)
- Queen Anne - Southern Exposure says this used to be a compact plant but is becoming more of a vine.
Harvesting and Using Black-eyed Peas
You can begin harvesting snap beans as soon as the pods are at least 3 - 4 inches long. Be careful pulling the pods from the vine. You may accidentally take the vine along with them.
For shelling beans, harvest when the pods are full, and you can see the beans protruding in the pods.
Leave the pods on the vines to dry completely, for dry beans.
Soil: The soil needs to be well-draining, with a soil pH that is slightly acidic to neutral (5.8 - 7.0). Adding some organic matter before planting will give you both fertility and improved drainage.
Sowing: Seeds are usually direct sown and should be planted about 1 inch deep. There are both bush and vine varieties of black-eyed peas. Plant the vines about 2 ft. apart. You can simply broadcast the bush types or plant them every 2 - 3 inches.
Don't try and get a head start by planting outdoors early in the season. The soil must be warm, or the seeds will rot. If you need to stretch your growing season, you could try warming the soil by covering it with black plastic and hoping the sun will shine on it.
Or you could start the seeds indoors, 4 - 6 weeks before your last frost date. Beans do not transplant well, so use some type of peat or paper pot, so that you don't disturb the roots. Transplant outdoors when the soil is warm enough to sit on about 60 degrees F.
The bush varieties can easily be grown in containers, although you won't get anywhere near as many beans as in the ground.
These are heat-loving vegetables and won't really take off until the temperature remains reliably warm. They also have a fairly long growing season, with some needing up to 90 days to mature. Bush beans will mature earlier. If the weather cooperates, you can succession plant them every couple of weeks throughout the summer.
Maintenance of Black-eyed Pea Plants
Keep the plants regularly watered, especially once they start to flower. Allow the soil to dry between waterings, but don't leave them thirsty for long. When the soil feels dry a couple of inches below the surface, it's time to water.
If at all possible, water the soil, not the leaves. I know it's impossible to keep the plants perpetually dry, but leaving the leaves wet makes them more prone to fungal diseases, so do what you can.
Your black-eyed peas shouldn't need supplemental fertilizer unless your soil is really poor. If the leaves are unusually pale, feed with a nitrogen fertilizer like fish emulsion or blood meal.
If you are growing the poling variety, you'll need to provide some type of support. Put it in at planting time and make sure it is at least 6 ft. tall and sturdy. Pole beans can use a mid-season boost by side dressing with compost.
Pests and Diseases
Diseases: Root-knot nematodes commonly attack black-eyed peas. You won't notice them until your plants start struggling. Then dig one up and check to see if there are lumps or swellings on the roots, other than the small, white, nitrogen nodules. There's no cure, so remove the affected plants immediately.
Aphids can spread bean mosaic virus. If this is a problem, plant resistant varieties.
Insects: Besides aphids, there are the usual bean beetles, to be on the alert for. Be ready to knock them into a jar of soapy water.