Grow Cowpeas for Food Resilience
Grow Cowpeas for Food Resilience
A selection of different cowpea cultivars displayed in a wooden bowl. Photo credit: Roemj9999 on Wikipedia

Grow Cowpeas for Food Resilience

by Desirée Fleck of Squires, MO

Cowpeas, also known as Southern peas or Vigna unguiculata, are a genus of beans that everyone in the middle and southern States ought to know about. They are a super-easy-to-grow, versatile, nutritious, highly edible family of beans that includes many cultivars of heritage, heirloom, and landrace flavors. Some you may have heard of before are the Black-eyed pea, Crowder pea, and Asparagus Bean which is a close relative from Asia. Just like green beans, there are vine and bush varieties of the cowpea, so keep that in mind when choosing which varieties to grow.

As I mentioned before, they are super-easy to grow and they can easily produce enough food to be considered a staple crop. Plant them starting in early May when the ground has begun to warm up, and keep planting into late June. We like to do successive plantings of them to keep them going all season long. Often we will plant cowpeas into a bed that has been recently harvested of early spring veggies like radishes or lettuce. They are a nitrogen-fixing plant, like all legumes, so they also make a great cover crop or green manure. They are not very picky about soil conditions so almost any garden bed or plot will be just fine. Too much nitrogen already present in the soil may end up growing a lot of green and not much bean. Plant them 4-6 inches apart if you are doing a monoculture of cowpeas, or give them a little extra space if you intend to add companion plants to the mix. You can grow them in a Three Sisters planting with corn and squash. They can also be interplanted with okra, melons, cucumbers, and strawberries. We love to include cowpeas in our perennial/permaculture plantings and they usually thrive in a variety of guilds. Last year we had some climbing up Slippery Elm trees, up our Asian Pear, around some False Indigo and in various other spots. They seem to get along really well in most places. They grow very quickly and they are not big “space hogs” so they make a great living mulch, vining or bushing among other plants.

After you plant them in the ground, water them or let the rain do it. They are a drought-tolerant crop originating from Africa, so they require little to no irrigation. Yes, a staple crop you can easily grow that you do not even need to water!

Want to know another great thing about cowpeas? The whole above-ground plant is edible! You can harvest the beans like snap green beans where you can eat the whole young, tender pod; like shelling peas where you harvest the immature bean seed from the hull and prepare them like green peas, or let them completely dry out for dry beans that you can enjoy all winter long and beyond. But not only are the beans edible, the stems/vines and leaves are edible too! They can be enjoyed similar to Austrian Winter Peas, either raw in a salad or cooked.

We have grown several varieties and saved seeds from all of them including Zipper Cream, Queen Anne blackeye pea, Whippoorwill, Red Ripper, Pink Eye Purple Hull, and they all did great. We are very excited to plant cowpeas again and again. This year the goal is to produce enough cowpeas to enjoy many pots of them over the winter and save enough to plant even more next year.

So there you have it. If you did not already know about cowpeas, you do now and if you have the space, I highly recommend that you grow some!