test your soil texture, and try new peas and beans with ira wallace

ira wallace on peasREADY TO SELF-TEST YOUR SOIL TEXTURE, and maybe also widen your definition of “peas” and “beans” to include some Southern favorites this year, no matter where you garden? Ira Wallace, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange’s well-known longtime home-garden expert and an author in the new “Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening” series of regional guides (win one for your area!) tells us how.

Timber Press vegetable guide seriesThe new series, in which Ira’s Southeast volume (Amazon affiliate link) is one of four so far, are filled with little tips, lists and charts–plus plant-by-plant growing guides, of course. In a conversation on my weekly radio program, she shared some sample wisdom. (Full details on how to subscribe to the show free, and how to win a guidebook, are at the bottom of the page.)

ira wallace’s diy soil test

Q. Since all gardening starts with the soil, Ira, one that really caught my eye was the DIY soil test with dishwashing powder and water in the glass jar. 

A. I first came across the test back in the 70s, when I was a 4-H and Girl Scout leader. The area in North Carolina where I was living at the time had red clay (just like we do here in Virginia).

You can sort of tell what kind of soil you have by making a ball of it in your hand, but to be more clear about your soil texture—so you can have a better idea of moisture-holding capacity and how much organic material in the form of compost you need—this test is great.

You take a quart Mason jar, fill it one-third to half full with soil. Make sure you’re just getting soil, and not big clumps of grass; go below that, to sample the first 6 inches.

A trowel you use for planting bulbs is great for getting a soil profile.

Then add water until the jar is about two-thirds full, plus a teaspoon of powdered dishwasher soap, to act as a surfactant. If you’re having a lot of clay in your soil, it keeps it suspended enough–so that you have really good layering, between the sand, silt and clay.

Soil texture test copyright Timber Press

Q. Those are the three components of soil—the different-sized particles, from large to small, of sand, silt and clay.  A lot of people tell me that when they make compost they get “soil” when it’s finished, but of course that’s humus, or composted organic material.  Sorry—I digress! Back to the test.

A. Yes. Take that jar and shake it up for about 3 minutes, then put it on the table, preferably in good light. Pretty soon, within 5 or 10 minutes, the sand particles will start to settle.

Q. So you’re looking at the layers, like an ant farm—and can see the proportions.

A. Yes—but the clay takes overnight to settle. And if the water is still cloudy after everything settles you have a good amount of organic matter in your soil, too—besides the soil particles themselves. If it’s clear water, on the other hand, you have your work cut out for you!

Easy vegetable chart copyright Timber Pressira wallace’s ‘easy’ vegetables

Q. Your chart in the new book of easy/medium/harder vegetables for people to try also intrigued me.

A. People ask this all the time: What can I start with? And so I divided the list further, into cool-season crops, and warm-season crops, and also into things you need a little space for—because so often people put a cucumber vine without a trellis in their raised bed, and it takes over the world.

Asparagus beans—the long beans you see in an Asian grocery store—are easy in warm season, for example.  Bush beans (though we have to cover them here because of bean beetles) are easy, and they’re quick, and you can keep planting successions all summer.

Q. In your easy warm-season list you list some tomatoes as easier than others.

A. Cherry tomatoes and paste tomatoes are easier than some of the large-fruited tomatoes—and quicker.

Hot peppers are easier than sweet peppers. Lima beans are easy if you plant them once the weather is warm.

Malabar spinach is like Jack’s proverbial beanstalk. It covers a trellis in no time—and one kind has a red stem, so it’s very attractive. We love it for summer greens.

Okra is easy, too.  Snap and snow peas are easy in the cool season; Southern peas in the warmer.

black eyed pea and crowder peatrying some of the other peas

Q. Let’s talk about those legumes (since peas, at least, are an early crop to sow). Now I know to a Southern girl, the word “peas” doesn’t even mean the same thing as it does to this Northern gardener. 

A. Down here we think of peas as actually being crowder peas [above right], or black-eyed peas [above left], but I know that Northerners think of “peas” as green peas [below, starting up a string trellis in Margaret’s garden in spring]. Mr. Jefferson used to have a neighborhood contest at nearby Monticello to see who would have the first “sweet English peas,” as they were referred to, from the garden.

We don’t have a very long season in spring for them, but we love them, and we grow a fall crop, too. I find that ‘Cascadia,’ for instance, is really good in fall for us, better at that time of year than ‘Sugar Ann.’

pea trellis with stringQ. Up here we say plant peas at St. Patrick’s Day. Do you plant different varieties, with varied maturity dates and heights, to extend the harvest?

A. Here in Virginia, we plant around mid-February (then again in fall), and yes, you get a longer harvest by including several varieties.

We also make best use of our space with a technique called “relay planting” (also known as “intercropping”)—growing two different vegetables with different growth patterns and nutrient needs in one space.

In the early spring, we plant four rows of a quick-maturing spinach in a 4-foot-wide bed with a row of dwarf snap peas down the middle—or we might put peas in a bed of overwintering spinach. The last spinach is pulled around the time the peas are ready to start harvesting.

Other relay-planting ideas: tomato and lettuce (tomatoes 2-4 feet apart with the fast-maturing lettuce between), or radishes alongside the base of beans or broccoli. In the heat of summer we plant lettuce or spinach or parsley in the shade beside the taller crops.

Q. So what about “Southern peas”?

A. We use Southern peas not only to eat, but also as a cover crop.

There are many different varieties of Southern peas, from the mildest-flavored cream peas, to mild-flavored black-eyed peas, and stronger-flavored crowder peas.

And the plants are different sizes, too. Black-eyed peas such as ‘Queen Anne’ or ‘Pink-Eye Purple Hull’ are produced on short, sturdy bushes that put the peas up above the foliage.

With crowder peas, the bush can be sprawling and huge, and to control it in a small garden, you usually have to trellis it. I like ‘Colossus,’ with a big pea that’s easy to shell.

The big ones are longer-season, but the shorter, small ones, such as the cream peas ‘Fast Lady’ and ‘Zipper Cream,’ are more like 65 to 70 days.

You can eat the peas two ways: When they’re still green (though not on the inside, where they are tan or another color) but when the pod is still green and the pea has just formed, or when harvested dry.

greasy beans and yardlong beanQ. The other most-familiar legume: beans. And again, down South you seem to grow kinds not everyone is familiar with, I suspect. Besides asparagus beans [above right], which you mentioned, any to suggest?

A. I recommend trying one that I learned from an English friend: fava beans [or broad beans]. We plant them in March here; people farther South grow them in the fall.

Runner beans—like ‘Scarlet Runner’—are something else recommended by my English friend. In England, they’re more common than other pole beans, and they eat them when they are young and green and tender. The runner bean plant is really a perennial—and some people here dig up the roots of their runner beans and put it away with the dahlias to overwinter, then replant them.

Greasy beans [above left] are pole beans that don’t have hairs on the pods, so they look shiny or greasy, and they stay tender after the seeds form in the pods.

And I highly recommend the ‘Red Noodle’ and Chinese mosaic types—also very long, and beautiful.

Q. A friend tosses them and just puts them on the grill in summer—one of her favorite grilled vegetables.

A. They’re great stir-fried in oil, Chinese-style, too.

cousins: what genus is my pea or bean in?

THOUGH ALL ARE legumes (meaning in the Fabaceae family), and all are in the same subfamily (Faboideae), the “peas” and “beans” we mostly eat are in various genera.

  • Snap and shelling peas: Pisum
  • Cowpeas, Cream peas, crowder peas, black-eyed peas:  Vigna
  • Bush and pole green beans: Phaseolus
  • Yardlong or asparagus beans: Vigna
  • Chinese Mosaic or ‘Red Noodle’ beans: Vigna
  • Fava beans: Vicia
  • Soybeans, Glycine
  • Chickpeas, Cicer

enter to win a guide for your region

Timber Press vegetable guide seriesI’VE GOT COPIES OF EACH of the four new Timber Press guides to vegetable gardening to share with you.

All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box way down the page–and also tell me which area guide is right for you.
What “peas” and “beans” do you grow in the garden? (And again: Tell us where so I can match a guide to your area.)

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say, “count me in,” or the equivalent and I will. I’ll chose random winners from each area after entries close at midnight Sunday, March 23. Good luck to all.

prefer the podcast?

IRA WALLACE and I talked vegetable gardens on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The March 17, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

(Both illustrations above copyright Timber Press; photos of crowder peas, black-eyed peas, greasy beans, and yard-long beans from Southern Exposure.)


  1. Mariah says:

    This year I am grown golden, green, and purple podded snow peas, edamame, and peanuts! A first for me–I usually just stick with peas.

  2. Tricia Deering says:

    My favorite pole bean here in western central New Jersey is purple trionfo violetto. It;’s a romano with a nutty sweet flavor. I find it to be very prolific, tasty and a fun color (even though it turns green when cooked).

  3. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    I grow ‘Garden of Eden’ pole beans almost every summer. Once I tried ‘Trionfo Violetto’ purple pole beans, and once a yellow one, but I missed the Garden of Edens too much. I place the pole beans on a tall plastic expanding trellis supported by 6 foot rebar (against strong wind) driven into the ground and attached with zip ties.
    I choose a bush bean variety each year which has easily identifiable pods, like the striped ‘Dragon Tongue’ or a yellow or purple podded type. Hunting for the mature beans goes faster this way.
    I like ‘Sugar Ann’ edible podded peas and ‘Green Arrow’ shelling peas. Both bear well and fairly long for me. I’m NOT planting peas on March 17th this year … more’s the pity. I still have icy spots in the shadier areas, but mercifully the majority of the 66″ of snow has departed. My compost piles are still frozen and the soil is not yet “workable”.
    Thanks for asking folks to say where they are when they post. We could all learn so much more this way.

  4. Linda says:

    In King,NC I grow Fortex beans and Mr.Big peas, but the favorite ones in my household are Lima beans, Fordhook 242.

  5. Pete says:

    Lancaster County PA. We will plant Mountain Greasies (provided by a friend in Asheville NC). We also plant bush beans (not sure which kind – last year was Dragon’s Tongue), and sugar peas.

  6. Jeanne Mcintyre says:

    I live in the Pacific Area. Northwest Nevada-High Desert.
    I plant Snow Peas. We have a short growing season.

  7. margaret says:

    And the winners are: Jeanne in Nevada; Susie Middleton in the Northeast; Franni in the PNW; and Angelique in the Southeast.

    Thank you all for contributing! Another great conversation.

  8. Thor says:

    I’m in! Thanks for this great stuff Margaret. Helped me through the long winter. Planting Oregon Sugar Pods and sugar snap in April.

  9. Georgie Bouthillier says:

    Also putting them in this year: Purple Violetto Pole Bean grew 8′ tall then started back down strings again with a little traning,fantastic prolific harvest right up till frost as long as I continued to pick them,no matter how big and bulging I let the pod get it always stayed tender with no strings at all and great flavor,I let a few fines alone at end of the season so they dry and fully ripen to dry seed on the vine so I have my own fresh seed to plant every year!I also grew Scarlet Runners in two 18″ diameter pots 16″ deep and 12″ dia.12″deep under hang over of front porch southeast/southwest orientation,put one hook 8′ high dead center over each pot in over hang of glassed in front porch with about 9 to 18 strings attached to rim of each pot going up to one hook in pyrimid shape with all natural compost,perlite,a little sand,azomite,fishbone meal,a dash of blood meal,soft rock phosphate,a dash of dolomite lime,oyster shells,egg shells,shredded comfrey leaves from my patch,a dash of 4/4/4 organic espoma fertilizer,and my own worm castings and composted maple leaves&ect. I basically did the same thing to the rased bed I had the above beans in and I safed seed at end of season from the Scarlet runner aswell so I plant my own seed and have good harvest with very good size Scarlet Runners aswell!! I basically do the the same to my soil conditions for my Mammoth melting sugar snow pea only they have a 5 foot high fish net I made about 10 feet long but they are in the back yard with a south east exposure in an octagon raised bed very healthy and good harvet aswell,I think I am in zone 5 or 6 in Ct.06075 sorry I forgot to add that I put inoculant in the with the seeds I grow with a dash of molasses that helps it stick and help friendly bacteria grow!AVERAGE PEA HARVEST BUT i HUMBLY FEEL I HAD AN UNEQUALED ABUNDANT FANTASTIC BEAN CONTINUED HARVEST WITH SEEDS TO SAFE TO BOOT!!!HOPE THIS ASSITTS AND HELPS ANY GARDENNERS OUT THERE IT IS A LITTLE EXTRA WORK IN THE BEGINNING BUT THE LONG TERM RESULTS ARE FINAMINAL!!

  10. Rika says:

    Northeast. I was successful last year in growing Slenderette beans and Blue Lake bush beans, Sugar Ann bush pea and Laxton’s Progress bush pea. I really enjoyed the beans and the peas were started late, but were also enjoyable. I am excited to see what this year holds!

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