Cowpea Growing Guide
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Cowpea Growing Guide

Cowpea Varieties & Classifications

Depending on what part of the country you’re from, you may be familiar with cowpeas and field peas. What you may not know is that they are actually the same thing, just with different names. Here in the South, cowpeas or field peas are a long time staple of southern cuisine because of their exceptional eating quality and how well they grow in our warmer climate.

This low maintenance crop is not only delicious but they are also legumes and are great for fixing nitrogen in your soil as a cover crop. While we do know them as peas, cowpeas and field peas actually have less in common with traditional green English peas and are more like beans. The best way to decide on which cowpea to grow in your garden is to first look at their qualities.

Cowpea Growth Habits & Traits

The growth habit of some cowpeas like the Top Pick Pinkeye is much like that of determinate tomatoes in that they only grow in a compact, bushy habit. These compact varieties can be planted in long, double rows that will help support each other as the plants mature side by side.

Other varieties like the Red Ripper Pea grow in a more indeterminate habit and have long trailing vines. While you can trellis these varieties, they don’t have the tendrils like green peas do to wrap around and climb in the traditional way. We tend to let these varieties trail outward naturally.
Another good way to determine what kind of cowpeas to grow is by taking a look at how easy they are to harvest, shell, and store.

Crowder Peas

Crowders got their name from how tightly packed they are in the shells. They are easy to spot because of their unique oblong shape and their medium size. Crowders produce a dark "pot liquor" when cooked.

Pink or Purple Hull Peas

Similar to black-eyed peas, pink and purple hull peas are easier to find in the green foliage. Several varieties like the Top Pink Pinkeye are even easier to harvest because they grow on top of the plant.

Zipper Peas

Zipper peas are actually considered a crowder-type but these varieties are the easiest to shell for their "zipper" that runs along the pod. Typically medium to large in size and have a round shape.

Cream Peas

Cream peas are hands down the most popular Southern delicacy. Mostly due to the fact that they are more difficult to shell so lots of work goes into getting just a few peas. They are typically very small.

Our Favorite Peas to Grow

When to Plant Cowpeas

Cowpea plants grow best when direct-seeded outdoors and don’t transplant well because they don’t like having their roots disturbed. Cowpeas mature relatively quickly and only take between 65 to 70 days to fully mature depending on if you want to harvest them green or dried. They are not a frost-hardy plant and do better in warmer climates, making them a popular Southern crop.
The best time to plant cowpeas is after any chance of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 65°F to 70°F. If planted too early while the soil is still too cool, the seeds will not germinate and will, instead, rot in the ground. A safe bet is to wait 3-4 weeks after your frost date just to be on the safe side that your soil is warm enough for proper germination.

For zones 7-9, the average frost dates can vary drastically from year to year so bear that in mind when deciding to plant for a fall crop. The dates below give a guide for planting dates for a fall crop.

Zone 7 – July 1st to July 30th
Zone 8 – July 15th to August 15th
Zone 9 – The whole month of August

Did you know?

Did you know that growing cowpeas in the fall can help you avoid pests? We have found that cowpeas do better as a fall crop. The cowpea curculio is a major pest for cowpeas and they are less active in the fall.

Cowpea Plant Spacing

Hoss Garden Seeder For Efficient Planting

Maximizing Space

When choosing a spot to grow cowpeas, full sun is always recommended. Using the HOSS Garden Seeder makes planting the right amount of peas much faster and easier.

Depending on their growth habit, some cowpeas perform very well when planted on double rows. Plant two rows about 6″ apart, then skip over 3-4′ and plant another double row. This will allow you to maximize garden space and produce more vegetables per square foot of garden.

If you are growing a determinate type that tends to run more, traditional row planting will likely work better to give the plants plenty of room to sprawl. You can also plant much thicker if you’re using cowpeas as a cover crop.

In-Ground Planting

Row Spacing – 3 feet
Plant Spacing
Determinate varieties – 4 to 6 inches
Indeterminate varieties – 8 to 10 inches
Planting Depth – 1 inch

Raised Bed Planting

Row Spacing – 2 feet
Plant Spacing
Determinate varieties – 4 to 6 inches
Indeterminate varieties – 6 to 8 inches
Planting Depth – 1 inch

Granular Garden Soil Inoculant

Inoculate Your Soil

If you have never previously grown legumes in the spot you choose to grow peas, we recommend using our Garden Soil Inoculant during planting to boost nitrogen fixation in your soil and boost performance. The inoculant contains millions of live rhizobacteria that will maximize yield benefits by out-competing the indigenous rhizobia for root nodulation.

Cowpea Plant Soil, Irrigation, & Fertilizer

Soil Requirements to Grow Pea Plants

  • Loose, well-draining soil
  • pH between 5.5 and 6.5
  • Rich in organic materials
  • Good quality compost added to the soil

Legumes use naturally occurring bacteria in soil called rhizobacteria to get nitrogen from the air and then feed this nitrogen to the plants. In return, cowpea plants then feed carbohydrates back to the bacteria. This relationship is extremely beneficial for soil health because planting peas helps to “fix” the nitrogen levels in your garden for future plantings.

HOSS always recommends getting a soil sample to your local extension office several weeks before planting. Once you get your results, you will need plenty of time to adjust your soil accordingly and make sure your plants are getting the best nutrients possible as soon as they hit the ground.

Click here to find your local extension office.

Cowpea & Field Pea Irrigation Requirements

Because they are so heat tolerant, cowpeas can be planted on drip irrigation but if you are limited on irrigation options or don’t already have drip irrigation, cowpeas and field peas are a great crop to produce well during the hot, dry summer.

Cowpeas need at least 1″ of water per week during the growing season. To avoid soil borne bacteria, don’t plant your cowpeas in a low area that retains too much water. The roots don’t do well when they have too much moisture.

Cowpea & Field Pea Fertilization

Cowpeas and field peas need little to no fertilizer during their growing season. Using a good quality fertilizer like the Hoss Complete Organic Fertilizer on your soil before or at planting will be enough to sustain the plants while they grow. Too much fertilizer can result in too much foliage and vines and not enough production in the pods.

In-Ground Fertilizer Schedule

Several Weeks Before Planting

Test your soil at your local extension office.

1 Week Before Planting

After adjusting soil pH to 5.5 – 6.5, mix 1 1/2 cups per 10 ft. of row of Hoss Complete Organic Fertilizer with your soil.

Raised Bed & Container Cowpea
Fertilizer Schedule

Several Weeks Before Planting

Test your soil at your local extension office.

1 Week Before Planting

After adjusting soil pH to 5.5 – 6.5, mix 1 1/2 cups per 10 ft. of row of Hoss Complete Organic Fertilizer with your soil.

Pea Plant Pest & Disease Protection


Organic Controls

Spinosad Garden Insect Spray
Thrips, Army Worms, Leaf Miners

Neem Oil

Horticultural Oil
Aphids, Stinkbugs, Flea Beetle, Whiteflies, Spider Mites

Bug Buster-O
Aphids, Flea Beetle, Whiteflies

Monterey BT

Take Down Garden Spray
Aphids, Army Worms, Flea Beetle, Whiteflies

Diatomaceous Earth

Non-Organic Controls

Bug Buster II
Aphids, Horn Worms, Stinkbugs, Flea Beetle, Whiteflies, Spider Mites, Thrips, Leaf Miner

Treat as needed using label instructions.

Common Diseases

Organic Controls

Crop Rotation and Select Resistant Varieties
Fusarium Root Rot, Bacterial Blight, Mosaic

Non-Organic Controls

Liquid Copper Fungicide
Bacterial Blight

Garden Phos
Pythium, Downy Mildew, Powdery Mildew

Fungi Max

Vegetable, Flower, Fruit and Ornamental Fungicide
Rust, Botrytis Blight, Gray Mold

Treat as needed using label instructions.

Harvesting, Preserving, and Storing Cowpeas

When & How To Harvest Cowpeas

Cowpeas can be harvested at different times during their growth period depending on your preference. They can be picked when the pods start to change color and the pods are full of peas. This makes sure that they are easier to shell. Be careful to inspect your crop for any diseases or pests. If you see any compromised pods, be sure to discard them to avoid any issues while storing.

Depending on the variety of peas you are growing, harvesting is relatively simple. Simply use two fingers to pick the pea from the vine, being very careful not to damage the vine itself. Harvesting often will signal the plant the continue to produce more peas and get several harvests.
To shell your field peas, simply break them open at the “seam” and dump out the peas into a container.

Storing & Preserving Cowpeas & Field Peas

After harvesting, cowpeas need to be shelled or preserved very quickly, ideally the same day. Since it is a summertime crop, keeping the cowpeas cool until they’re ready to be shelled is extremely important. We like to spread all of the pods out in one layer and keep a fan running on them so that they don’t overheat and start to turn and rot, which can happen very quickly if you’re not careful.

You can store your cowpeas several different ways. If you want to eat them fresh, simply boil them in chicken stock or water with a protein like salt pork and they make a fabulous meal. But to enjoy them throughout the winter, cowpeas can be canned or blanched and frozen.

One of the old school ways that cowpeas have been stored here in the South by our grandparents and great grandparents is to harvest the pods, keep them in the shells and store them in a cotton pillowcase in the freezer. The pillowcase is said to keep them dry and you can go get them from the freezer as you need them.

If you have chosen to dry your cowpeas, make sure that there is absolutely no moisture left in the peas before they go into their container. Moisture on even one pea can cause you to lose the whole container because it will result in mold and bacteria growing.

The Most Damaging Pest To Cowpeas

By far the worst pest that pea plants encounter is the Cowpea Curcurlio. This particular pest can wreak havoc on your crop by stinging the pea pod and laying an egg inside the pod as well as feeding on the pod itself. Once the egg inside hatches, it feeds on the peas inside. These tiny pests are especially present in Southern gardens during the Spring and can be easily identified by the small black dot that the Cowpea Curcurlio leaves behind when stinging the pods.

The best way to treat these is using an insecticide like Bug Buster II as a preventative treatment to keep these pests effectively at bay. It’s also really important to keep your peas picked regularly and not leave them susceptible to pest infestation.

The Cowpea Curcurlio requires a strict treatment program to keep them in check. The best method to control them is to use Bug Buster II as a preventative spray before the first sign of damage.

Peep Our Peas!

Pea Plant Growing Tips & Tricks

The Plant That Keeps On Giving

As you’ve learned, legumes are an extremely good source of Nitrogen, a vital part of good, healthy soil. Once you’ve harvested all of your peas, add the rest of the plant, stems, leaves, and all, to your compost pile. These nutrient-rich plants added to compost help make a great alternative to inorganic fertilizers. But be careful not to add any plants that you suspect have been infected with diseases or pests.

Pick Your Peas In The Morning

Pea pods are the most crisp in the morning right after the morning dew has dried up. Don’t wait until the hot afternoon to harvest to make sure they have the best texture and flavor.

How Green Is Your Thumb?

Legend has it that the phrase “green thumb” came from King Edward I of England, who had a love of green peas so much that he had at least six servants shelling peas during the season. The servant who had the greenest thumb won a prize!

What Are Field Peas?

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