Black-eyed peas are associated with the U.S. South and especially as a symbol of good luck on New Year's Day. However, black-eyed peas are certainly not exclusive to the Southern states. In fact, they're grown worldwide. Dozens of black-eyed pea varieties exist—some are old heirlooms and others are currently being bred for different qualities. The most commonly grown type is the California Blackeye; the buff-colored beans with a black dot in the curve that you find at the grocery store
History and Overview
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 United States. Black-eyed peas, as with all legumes, fix nitrogen in their roots, leaving it in the soil for the following vegetable planted in its place. You get a delicious vegetable and a fertilizer, all in one.
They're 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 tend to turn a shade of purple when cooked.
The leaves of the black-eyed pea plant are the familiar pointed, heart-shape common to beans. They grow alternately and can be smooth or fuzzy. Some varieties will have a tinge of purple to the stems. The flowers can be white or shades of yellow, pink, or purple. They're only open for one day, but they're 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 grow best in 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 six feet. The bush varieties tend to get only two to three feet tall but can spread to another two feet.
Days to Maturity
Black-eyed peas can be harvested as a snap bean in about 70 days. To harvest the "black-eyed" dried bean you will need to wait a little longer, from 80 to 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 following are some popular types of black-eyed peas:
- Big Boy: A very prolific bush variety.
- California Blackeye: There are several different strains, differentiated by a number. Check with your local extension office for the best one for your area.
- Queen Anne: This used to be a compact plant but is now most commonly a vine.
Harvesting and Using Black-eyed Peas
You can begin harvesting snap beans as soon as the pods are at least three to four inches long. Be careful pulling the pods from the stem—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.
If you think you'd like to plant and care for your own black-eyed pea plants, here are some suggestions to help with the growing process:
- 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.
- If you want to grow your own seedlings, start the seeds indoors, four to six weeks before your last frost date. Beans do not transplant well, so you'll want to use some type of peat or paper pot so that you don't disturb the roots. Transplant outdoors when the soil is warm enough, about 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
- The bush varieties can easily be grown in containers, although you won't get anywhere near as many beans as in the ground.
- Black-eyed peas 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.
- The soil needs to be well-draining, with a soil pH that's slightly acidic to neutral (5.8 - 7.0). Adding some organic matter before planting will give you both fertility and improved drainage.
- Seeds are usually direct sown and should be planted about one inch deep. There are both bush and vine varieties of black-eyed peas. Plant the vines about two feet apart. You can simply broadcast the bush types or plant them every two to three inches.
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. Leaving the leaves wet makes them more prone to fungal diseases, so do your best to keep them dry.
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're 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 six feet tall and sturdy. Pole beans can use a mid-season boost by side-dressing with compost.
Pests and Diseases
Root-knot nematodes commonly attack black-eyed peas. You won't notice them until your plants start struggling. Dig one up and check to see if there are lumps or swellings on the roots, other than the small, white, nitrogen nodules. Unfortunately, there's no cure, so you'll need to remove the affected plants immediately.
Aphids can spread bean mosaic virus. If this becomes a problem, plant resistant varieties. Besides aphids, you'll want to watch out for the common bean beetles. Be ready to knock them into a jar of soapy water.