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Peas and beans are among the oldest and most important vegetables in human history. Not only are they rich in protein and carbohydrates, but they actually fertilize the soil as they grow!
Farmers have long used a process called cover cropping (also called green manure) to reinvigorate a spent garden or to supercharge the soil for a new planting. This technique is a lost art, but you can use it to achieve astonishing results in flower beds or vegetable gardens.
The best way to prepare your fall garden is to first plant a cover crop of black-eyed peas or beans. Plant your peas or beans 30 to 50 days prior to your fall planting date, and you will have all the fertilizer, mulch, and pest control you need already built into your garden!
What is Nitrogen Fixation and How Does it Help?
Beans, peas, and other legumes fertilize the soil as they grow through a process called nitrogen fixation. In this process, the roots of the plants convert nitrogen in the atmosphereto usable nitrogen in the soil.
Moreover, the broad leaves of beans and peas form a canopy to shade the soil, which helps to retain soil moisture, prevent weeds, and provide a habitat for beneficial predators, such as frogs, toads, and ladybugs.
Only use bush beans or peas as a cover crop, and not pole beans that require a trellis. Southern peas, such as black-eyed peas or cowpeas, are grown in hot weather, and are best planted in the heat of early September. As the weather cools, plant bush beans of any variety. English peas, such as sugar snap, can be planted in the cold weather of winter.
How to Plant a Cover Crop:
- Prepare your garden beds by tilling the soil and raking the surface smooth.
- Plant your black-eyed pea or bean seeds four inches apart in all directions. Plant the beans or peas 1” deep, and water them daily until they sprout. Then water them once or twice per week, or as needed.
- For maximum nitrogen fixation, till the entire bean or pea plants into the soil when they are at full flower, but before the pods set. Alternately, you may harvest all the beans or peas you want, leaving the plants intact. When you are finished harvesting, till the entire plant into the soil.
- You will now have maximum soil fertility with excellent organic material as mulch. Plant the seeds or transplants of your favorite fall and winter veggies directly into your enriched soil.
To determine when to plant your peas or beans as a cover crop, check the seed packet for the number of days to maturity. Top Pick Pinkeye peas take about 45 days to mature, and they will flower at 30 days or so, and ready to be tilled into the soil.
Before the days of chemicals, gardeners routinely rotated beans and peas into their gardens to condition and fertilize the soil. This old-fashioned technique is still the best way to invigorate a garden for planting!