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Let me say, first, that I don’t care for Southern peas very much. Each year I grow Texas 40 Lady Cream peas because it’s the one pea I will often eat. I will also eat a mere spoonful of black-eyed peas on New Years Day, only because I don’t want to challenge Lady Luck. Purple hulls, crowders, and black-eyes just don’t appeal to me, probably because I was made to eat them regularly as a youngster. Another reason I grow peas is because my husband, along with most Texans, loves them.Southern peas (also called field peas and cowpeas – an American term) were brought from Africa about 1675 by slave traders to feed the slaves en route to Jamaica. They also planted the pea seeds to grow food there. Peas thrive in tropical weather, so they flourished all over the West Indies. They reached what is now Florida early in the eighteenth century. By the end of the 1700s, George Washington grew peas much like the most common kinds available today. Some had rounded or kidney-shaped white seeds with a black "eye." Others had seeds crowded so closely in the pod that the ends of the seeds were flattened into more of a cube, eventually called "crowders."Southern peas (Vigna unguiculata) come in a variety of colors, shapes, and love warm soil. They are significantly different from English, sugar snap, and snow peas (Pisum sativum), which are most often round, green, and grow in cooler climates. In fact, having a solid stem structure, southern peas are more closely related to beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). Nevertheless, they are all classified as legumes.
Inexpensive and easily grown in warm climates, southern peas offer an abundance of nutrients. Although all parts of the plant are edible – seeds, shells (or hulls), and young leaves – a mere one cup (170 grams) of cooked peas contains about 200 calories, 35 grams of carbohydrates, and 11 grams of fiber. In addition, they are an excellent source of folate, essential in converting carbohydrates into energy. They also contain 50% of the daily value of copper, and at least 20% or more of the daily value of thiamine, iron, phosphorus, magnesium, and zinc. Finally, Southern peas are high in polyphenols, compounds that act as antioxidants in the body to prevent cell damage and protect against such maladies as heart disease, type 2 Diabetes, and some cancers.Southern peas prefer a warm (60° F. or higher), loamy soil that drains well, but they tolerate most any kind of soil except heavy clays. The soil’s pH can range from 6.0 – 7.5, and they benefit from a balanced fertilizer added to the soil at the rate of a scant pound for every 32-foot row. In most parts of East Texas, peas can be planted any time from about 4 or 6 weeks after the last frost through all of July. Peas need eight hours of sunlight each day, and they tolerate drought conditions well.Peas should be planted in rows 1.5 feet wide and raised at a height of about four inches. Multiple rows should be two to three feet apart, with the seeds directly planted at a depth of about an inch every 3 – 4 inches, thinning to 6 – 12 inches apart, depending on the variety of pea. Actively pull weeds and grass from the area until the canopy of pea plants is established which forms a weed-control barrier of its own. Depending on the specific type of peas planted, they mature in 70-90 days.
If peas have never been grown in the chosen area, they will benefit from an inoculant, Rhizobium, which is a nitrogen-fixing bacterium. This will aid in the formation of nodules in the peas’ roots that convert unusable nitrogen into a usable form. These nodules form naturally, without aid, in healthy soil. After legumes have been planted and harvested, the soil keeps the nitrogen for use in the next plantings, thus maintaining or even improving the quality of the soil.This is another reason to grow peas. Use peas as a cover crop. Doing so not only fixes nitrogen to the soil, but it protects against erosion, suppresses weeds, and boosts organic matter (just roto-till the plants in the soil when fall planting begins), and so the plants improve the general health of the soil. Perhaps best of all, the delicate blooms provide nutrition for pollinators.Peas are not without their problems. Most diseases, such as root rot and damping off, can be avoided with good gardening practices such as crop rotation, using well-draining warm soil, and not over-watering. Other fungal diseases include powdery mildew and fusarium wilt. Most fungi can be controlled with an anti-fungal application; however, fusarium is soil-borne. Soil will need to lay fallow for a couple of years, or the infected part of the garden will need to be solarized. Removing the affected plants will help control fungi.A variety of pests like to eat peas as well as Southerners. If you live in an area where there are deer or rabbits, or you have farm animals, adequate fencing will protect the plants from these and other mammals. Planted pea seeds should be well covered with soil so birds aren’t attracted to them. Insects that give gardeners the most problems are leaf-footed bugs (AKA stink bugs), aphids, and pea weevils. Leaf-footed bugs can be controlled by picking them off and catching them in the egg or nymph stage. Lady bugs are an ecologically friendly way to control aphids. Pea weevils lay their eggs inside the peas, rendering most insecticides useless on the larva. Here, again, wise gardening practices help tremendously.And, if like me, you genuinely like to plant, grow, and harvest, and you always grow more than you can use, you can share your bounty with friends, family, or even local organizations like food pantries that can use the food. If you allow the peas to dry on the vine, the resulting seeds can be stored and cooked, used to plant in your garden the following year, or you can share those, too. The dried peas should be kept refrigerated or frozen. If you and your family actually love peas, be sure and plant plenty. They can be canned or frozen (using safe methods) to eat throughout the year.The Walker County Extension Office is now on Facebook! Walker County -Texas A&M AgriLife has been established to provide updates and information to Walker County residents and landowners on a timely basis. If you have any questions about the information in this article or any of the Extension programs, please contact the Walker County Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Office at (936) 435-2426. For more information on the Walker County Master Gardeners, please call (936) 435-2426 or go to the Walker County Master Gardeners Facebook page. The WCMG Facebook page is a bounty of useful gardening information, and citizens are encouraged to peruse it often.
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