Southern favorite hails from India

The June Gardener

Southwest Georgia Master Gardener and guest columnist Jeris Pitts displays some of the vegetable plants in her Lee County garden.

Southwest Georgia Master Gardener and guest columnist Jeris Pitts displays some of the vegetable plants in her Lee County garden.

According to the University of Georgia calendar for vegetable gardening, June is the month most gardeners begin to harvest vegetables such as beans, peas, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and okra.

June can also be a great time to start thinking about what you will plant for your fall garden, since many of the spring vegetables will finish producing at the end of June and early July. Sweet potatoes and Southern peas are great choices for the fall garden.

The Southern pea, or “field pea,” has long been a staple in the Southern garden. There are records that indicate that the pea was grown in the American colonies as early as the 1700s According to the North Carolina State University Horticulture Information leaflet, Southern peas originated in India, were then taken to Africa, and finally to America.

In India, peas like our Southern peas are known by 50 common names. Today in the United States, they are called “field peas,” “crowder peas,” and “cowpeas,” but “Southern peas” is the preferred name (Vigna unguiculata ssp. Unguiculata). This wonderful vegetable can be found all over the world.

The growth habit of the Southern pea can be vining, semi-vining or bush. The pea seeds are best planted in spring four weeks after the last frost and when the soil has reached a temperature of 60 degrees. For the fall crop, plant in June or early July. They will mature in 60 to 90 days, depending on conditions and the variety planted. The Southern pea loves a pH in the range of 6.0 to 6.5 and will grow in a wide variety of soil types but prefers well-drained sandy, loamy soil.

If you do not know your soil pH, your local UGA Cooperative Extension Office has sample containers, submission forms and instructions on how to collect the soil sample. The cost is $6, and the University of Georgia will send you a soil analysis report in about a week.

According to the Clemson Cooperative Extension Home and Garden Information website, the Southern pea is a bean, not a pea, and it is part of the legume family. Most varieties of Southern peas produce their own nitrogen in root nodules, making them a great choice for a soil-building summer crop.

Some of the pests that you might encounter when growing Southern peas are aphids and thrips. The home gardener can treat these with insecticidal soaps or by planting in aluminum foil that has been laid on the planting bed and filling yellow pans with water to trap the aphids or thrips. In the past few years, the cowpea curculio, a brown weevil, has become one of the main pests to attack the Southern pea.

“This pest is to Southern peas what the boll weevil is to cotton,” said David Riley, a vegetable entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Planting a fall crop can help with these pests as well as being careful to rotate where you plant.

When I was growing up on my dad’s farm, we called the many Southern peas we grew and ate field peas. Some of the field peas we grew were black-eyed, pink-eye purple hull, lady fingers, white peas and cream 40s. My family picked peas when the pea hulls were green but full gown. Some people prefer to wait until the pea hull is fully matured and beginning to turn purple, as in the case of the pink-eye purple hull, or brown in other peas.

Waiting until the pea hull is no longer green will increase the yield because the pea will be larger. However, this older pea will taste a little starchy. Today you can find field peas frozen or canned in your local grocery store with snaps, which are young pea pods too young to shell but can be “snapped” into several pieces and cooked with the shelled peas. But frozen or canned peas cannot touch the taste of fresh peas from your garden.

The University Of Arkansas Department of Horticulture, which is one of the world’s premiere centers for developing new varieties of peas, reported in a 2003 news release that Southern peas are a good source of protein and one of the best sources of dietary fiber available. They are also very high in foliate, a form of B vitamin that is important in the prevention of anemia, cancer and birth defects. In fact, orange juice, which is often advertised as a good source of foliate, has only about 10 percent of the amount found in a serving of southern peas.

The sweet potato is another great choice for the late garden since it is a warm-weather plant and needs the soil temperature to be at least 70°F when planted for the plant to properly grow and mature. According to the University of Georgia, the sweet potato is a Native American plant. It is high in calcium, potassium, and vitamins A (which helps prevent night blindness) and C. Also, it is rich in dietary fiber and has small amounts of iron. Sweet potatoes are a healthier alternative to white potatoes.

Sweet potatoes are produced from plants called “slips,” which can be bought from your local garden centers. These plants are more likely to be disease-resistant, making them a good choice for the home gardener. Sweet potato seeds can be difficult to obtain and difficult to get started.

There are several varieties that will grow well in Georgia including Beauregard, Centennial, Jewel, Porto Rico and Yellow Jersey. When selecting a variety, consider the type of soil the variety will tolerate, numbers of days until maturity, which ranges for 90 to 120 days, and the color of the sweet potato when mature. Most sweet potatoes that you find locally are orange-fleshed. But, the Yellow Jersey, for example, has yellow flesh instead of orange when mature.

Sweet potatoes prefer a well-drained loamy to sandy soil that receives eight to ten hours of sunlight per day. If your soil contains clay, add some aged compost or other organic amendment to the planting bed to improve drainage and consider using Centennial variety because that variety tolerates clay soil better than other varieties. Sweet potatoes grown in unamended clay soils are usually small.

As you enjoy the bounty of your spring garden, begin now planning what you will plant in your fall garden.

Jeris Pitts is a Master Gardener extension volunteer.