How to Plant, Grow, and Save Seeds from Cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata)
Although cowpea is a well known garden plant in the South, this crop deserves more attention across the country. Its long, slender pods are filled with a prolific number of seeds.
Most gardeners plant cowpea seeds directly outdoors. Plant the cowpea seeds 2 to 3 inches apart, ½” deep directly into warm soil, once the danger of frost has passed. Water seeds in well to speed up germination.
Different varieties of cowpeas have different growing habits. Some cowpeas climb like pole beans while others form compact plants like bush beans.
Cowpeas can be affected by a number of diseases and are susceptible to viral infections. Some of these bacterial and fungal diseases can remain in the soil for several years, so grow your cowpeas in different areas of the garden each year. To prevent the spread of fungal and bacterial diseases among plants, avoid working in your bean patch when the foliage is wet. The best way to get rid of beetles and bugs that might eat the leaves of your plants is to pick them off and toss them into a jar of soapy water. Promptly cut down and compost plants that are past their prime to interrupt the life cycles of pests and diseases.
For culinary use, cowpeas can be harvested early, like green beans, or later in the season when the pods are dry and brittle, and the seeds inside are hard.
Eating and Storing
Young cowpea pods are best eaten fresh, canned, or frozen. Dry cowpeas must be soaked and boiled before eating. They can be stored dry for years.
Cowpea is an annual crop. It will complete its full life cycle, including germination, reproduction, and death, in one growing season.
When saving seeds from cowpea, separate varieties by 10-20 feet. You only need to plant one cowpea plant in order to harvest viable seeds. To maintain a variety over many generations, save seeds from between 10-25 plants.
When the cowpea pods are completely dry, break them open to release the seeds. Separate the seeds from the chaff. If you are saving a large number of cowpea seeds, you can thresh and winnow the pods to separate the seeds and chaff.
Store cowpeas in a cool, dark, and dry place in an airtight container to keep out moisture and humidity. Under these conditions, cowpea seeds will last 3-4 years.