Orange and black ladybug larvae will satisfy their voracious appetite for aphids on this cowpea plant.
Vegetable gardeners in South Carolina know the lull that shrinks harvests during July and August. Tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers simply can’t take the heat when daytime temperatures climb past 95 and nighttime lows exceed 75. The plants may survive, but the crops won’t set fruit.
Fortunately, some Southern staples love hot weather. Two that come to mind are okra and cowpeas. They go as well together in a sweltering garden as they do in a simmering pot on the stove.
Clemson Spineless is a widely planted variety of okra, but others are appealing. Choppee is an heirloom variety that originated in the Choppee community of Georgetown County. Cowhorn produces pods that stay tender even at 6 to 10 inches long. Want a more decorative planting? Try Burgundy—it has burgundy-colored stems and pods, but the pods turn green when cooked.
Cowpeas—also known as black-eyed peas, crowder peas, Southern peas and field peas—are more closely related to beans than peas. Typically, cowpeas are shelled and eaten fresh or frozen for storage, but they can also be left to dry on the vine and stored as dry peas. Popular varieties are Colossus, Pinkeye Purple Hull, Clemson Purple and Dixie Lee.
Now is a great time to plant okra and cowpeas. Sowing either crop too early in the spring is a common mistake. Planting in cold soil can result in seedling death, poor growth, or pest and disease problems. Officially, both crops will grow well from seed planted directly into soil that is at least 65 degrees at a 4-inch depth—around April 1 on the coast, April 10 in the Midlands and May 1 in Upstate gardens. But midsummer plantings often outperform earlier plantings.
A horticulture professor taught me to plant Southern peas soon after July 4 to avoid the cowpea curculio, an insect pest that lays its eggs in the developing pods of cowpeas, resulting in “spotty peas.” This small, black weevil is active only in early summer, so by planting near Independence Day, you can avoid this pest altogether.
Okra is safe to plant anytime from May through early July. A late okra planting anywhere in the state will bring a welcome fall crop. Be sure to harvest okra pods at 2 to 3 inches long, when they are the most tender and tasty. If pods aren’t picked daily, plants will stop bearing.
Midsummer plantings need ample irrigation during this dry time of year to ensure good seedling emergence. Once cowpeas are up and growing, they are surprisingly tough; further irrigation may not be necessary. Okra, however, will appreciate more uniform moisture. Wet the soil to a 6-inch depth once or twice a week in the absence of rainfall, and you will be rewarded with a bounty.
Go easy on the fertilizer. Two to three pounds of 5-10-10 or equivalent fertilizer for each 100 feet of row before planting should be sufficient for cowpeas. Okra may need additional nitrogen when blooms appear. Too much nitrogen fertilizer on either crop, however, can result in excessive plant growth and limited production.
Keep an eye out for insect pests, such as aphids or stinkbugs. Insecticidal soap can help combat aphids. You can pick off small numbers of stinkbugs or use approved garden pesticides with malathion or cyfluthrin if populations become excessive.
S. CORY TANNER is an area horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator for Clemson Extension based in Greenville County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.