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. LJW says:

    Start my sugar snaps inside by planting them in the fiber egg cartons. When the soil FINALLY thaws out – I lift the whole egg carton and place it under my vertical fence – perfect spacing for peas and they don’t realize they were moved. It has been a frigid winter here in SW Iowa, but we are short on moisture!

  2. Sarah says:

    I grow snap peas, bush beans, and for the first time this year Kentucky Wonder pole beans. Count me in, please, for southeast!

  3. annieg says:

    great article & am going to try this, if I’m fortunate to get a garden plot
    this year in my apartment complex’s 8 plot garden site. I love your site and have gotten tons of great easy to understand gardening information. That said, however, I’m not thrilled about your new site design as I can only see about 6 lines of the article as the header takes up over 1/2 the screen even with the compatibility view enabled. I’m too old to read articles this way everything all bunched up. if I increase the print that means I get only 2 lines. I hope this is something that changes as it’s making me not even bother reading your posts since the change. Which means I may just unsubscribe for a while & maybe check back in a month or so.

  4. Krysta says:

    I grip snap peas, soybeans, bush beans and pole beans. I garden in Nevada which is in the southwest zone 8b or 9a. Not really sure which guide I would fall into, I guess southeast.

  5. Karen says:

    On Maryland’s Eastern Shore…I grow sugar snap peas, pole beans, occasionally long beans. I sprout my peas inside so the squirrels and birds don’t get them. As an extra precaution I cover the sprouted peas with row cover until they are established. One year I grew a purple bean that turned green when it was cooked…entertaining for grandchildren. This year I will try endamame.

  6. bunkie says:

    Great post with lots of good info! Here in eastern Washington state we like the ‘Multistar Pea’ and the ‘Mayfair Pea’ for planting, tho we’re still experimenting with other varieties. For beans, we have many many different varieties of both bush and pole, with favorites being the purple podded.

  7. barbara bruce says:

    We plant snow peas and this year are trying black turtle and vermont cranberry beans. We live in south central ohio.

  8. Sharon Wilson says:

    Here in NE Washington (zone 4-5) my favorite beans to grow are Garden of Eden. I also grow Provider, Black Coco Dry Bean and the “Boling Bean”, a dry bean my family has been growing and saving seed from since before 1900 when my great grandparents brought seeds from Indiana. I like all peas but my favorites are Sugar Sprint, afilia type bush peas and Lincoln (Homesteader).

  9. Jean Murray says:

    We are in the northeast region.

    We grow these peas:
    organic Cascadia snap pea

    We grow these beans:
    organic provider bush bean
    organic royal burgundy bush bean
    organic gold rush yellow wax bush bean
    organic Kentucky wonder pole bean

  10. Susan says:

    My grandfather died just before I was born but my grandmother told me of his great success farming peaches , dewberries , and especially beans . He took them to market all across the south . The beans were dumped onto a tarp in the truck bed , covered , and tied . Upon arriving at market he tied the bundle to the dock and drove out from underneath it . When he then opened the bundle to reveal his beautiful beans the other bean farmers packed up early and went home .
    My grandmother was not a person to brag . I knew she was giving me a glimpse into my grandfathers’ values . He loved to grow things and it showed .
    And one of his favorites was the greasey bean . It really is pretty !

  11. Sara Hallberg says:

    This is my first year growing beans and peas (we’re in the SE only a couple hours from Southern Exposure). I’ve chosen dragon’s tongue for pickling, classic English shell peas, and Hendersen bush limas in my garden. We’ve also chosen sugar daddy and cow peas for my 5-year-old’s garden. Count me in!

  12. Peggy says:

    Living in a patio home doesn’t give much space to grow veggies, which I love, but I can grow pole beans beside my deck, they can grow up a trellis there.
    Please count me in. Southeast.

  13. Joyce A says:

    I grow sugar & snap peas in northern KY. Last year I grew Big John beans which were wonderful. This year I’m trying greasy beans & Lady Cow Peas.

  14. Mary says:

    We grow black turtle beans, black valentine beans, great northern beans and kidney beans along with out traditional blue lake green beans, wax and purple beans. The dried beans I store in the freezer until winter, after all of my other garden chores and drying and preserving of vegetables and then I pull them out and pressure can them so they are ready for use at any time. We grow heirloom beans so we save the biggest and best looking pods for next years planting. We haven’t had much luck with peas, to my disappointment, they are one of my favorites! We are in lower Michigan, can not wait for the snow to melt so we can get started on the garden this year!

  15. Cecilia says:

    We usually plant Kentucky Wonder, boring but reliable. Last year we built a trellis, planted a tri-colored pole bean pack (not sure what they were) and had the best time watching them grow. Not one of those pole beans made it into the house because my children played under the trellis and ate the beans. It was a win, win delight anyway to get my children in the garden and to eat more veggies. Now my kids have “bean fever”, they each get to choose their own bean type to plant and to watch grow.

  16. Mary says:

    Tenderpod and Provider are two I’ve tried here in the Northeast but really my pea and bean experience is limited and I’d like to expand it, so I’m saying please count me in! Thanks!

  17. Andrea says:

    Sugar snap peas and fava beans in the cool season and rattlesnake, purple, yellow, scarlet runner and roma pole and bush beans in the warm season in California.

  18. Meredith says:

    I grow sugar snaps and kentucky wonder. I am planning on trying some other beans this year. Garden is starting later than usually due to all the snow in the North East this year.

  19. john says:

    Here in The State of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations (er, that’s the Northeast) I have grown Snap and sugar peas, pole beans and soy beans… No hard and fast rules for what I “have to grow”

  20. Sharon says:

    am not doing much in the beans and peas arena besides some basics but am excited
    about trying malabar spinach, a new green for me.

    Thinking March will leave the Northeast as a lion too

  21. Pat R says:

    I love the asian noodle beans in all 3 colors. I tell people to tie them in a pretzel shape and blanche, then throw into italian dressing while they cool and serve them as an easy appetizer or put on salads. I had many people try them this way and really enjoy them. I have also pickled them in segments long enough for finger foods on a relish tray. YUM

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