The Mystery of Black Eyed Peas

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
The Mystery of Black Eyed Peas

What comes to mind when you hear someone say black eyed peas? Hoppin' John. New Year's Day and good luck.

A fantastic source of protein and fiber. Those peas that taste like dirt. Sorry. Nothing in this world enjoys the support of the entire population! However, there is always hope for a change of heart.“Those peas that taste like dirt” is what I thought of black eyed peas when I was a kid, so, even facing the risk of a whole year of bad luck, my mom could never get me to eat them on New Year's Day. I credit the pressure of wanting to impress my boyfriend, who eventually became my husband, with helping me to discover the truth. His family also participated in the New Year's Day tradition of eating black eyed peas for good luck. Not wanting to be insulting by refusing eat them, I said yes when offered a bowlful. Black eyed peas slow cooked with smoked ham is now one of my favorite dishes. The prospect a year without bad luck is now just an excuse for sneaking in another meal that includes them.

As I was pushing my cart through the grocery store one day after my conversion, I stopped at the section where dried beans were sold so I could pick up a bag of black eyed peas. As I grabbed the bag, I heard a voice behind me say, "Honey, you are missing out if that's where you get your black eyed peas. Have you ever tried the frozen ones?" I turned around and looked down to see a tiny older woman wearing a calico print dress, a hat, and carrying a little purse on her arm. I told her I hadn't. She went on to explain that frozen black eyed peas taste like fresh black eyed peas and while the dry ones are good, they can't touch the frozen one. She encouraged me to try them. I did. And she was right.

When I finally had the space for growing more than a few tomato and pepper plants, I decided to try growing my own black eyed peas. I grew a bush variety (which I still prefer) that first year rather than a vining variety. I was pleased to discover that black eyed peas are one of the easiest plants to grow, requiring very little care. They are a treat for the busy gardener who sometimes find it necessary to choose which plants receive water on a hectic day, and also for the distracted gardener who occasionally forgets to water. A bonus is they are ego boosters.

They are fast growers when the hottest summer days arrive. While everything else seems to be stressed and leaving you worried or discouraged, black eyed pea plants grow enormous and are covered with thick, dark green foliage. Watching the pods begin to emerge from stalks that stand high above the foliage, and seeing them quickly grow from small, thin spikes into beautiful long pods is an encouragement to both the novice and the experienced gardener.

The planting directions on the seed package were sufficient for me that first year, leaving me with a successful harvest in the fall. The biggest challenge was trying to figure out when to harvest the peas. With a few years of growing experience under my belt now, I have learned to harvest some at different stages. In the photo above, the bowl at the bottom that is full of pale green peas shows the stage at which they are edible fresh. When they are this small, they do not dry well. They shrivel up to nearly nothing. When harvested at the stage they are in the bowl to the far right, they can be eaten fresh and whatever is not eaten can still be dried or frozen. If drying black eyed peas which harvested at this stage, they need a lot of air circulation to prevent them from molding. Spread them out and stir them daily. If freezing them, blanch them prior to putting them in the freezer. The bowl at the top left of the photo is full of beans that have been dried. The easiest way to dry black eyed peas is to leave them on the plant until the pods are dried out. If you harvest them at this stage, when you open the pods, the black eyed peas inside the pods are already dried and ready for storage.

black eyed peas plant

A few basics for growing black eyed peas:
They will grow in any pretty much any soil, rich or sandy, as long as it is well drained.

They grow best in warmer weather. Once the soil is over 65 degrees, they thrive.

Although they need regular watering, they are drought tolerant and benefit from light waterings.

They do not need, and should not receive, a high nitrogen fertilizer.

The seed can be treated with a bacterial inoculant powder to help produce healthier plants and increase yields, although their effectiveness in creating a significant increase is debatable. I never use it but I live in an area with very hot summers (thus very warm soil) and we incorporate a lot of composted manure and vegetation into our soil every year so the bacteria the inoculant encourages is already abundant in our soil.To determine when to harvest for fresh eating or freezing, the outline of the individual peas should be obvious through the pod as seen in the pod in the rear of the photo above.