Pigeon pea is a very versatile plant in a sustainable garden because of it’s many uses as food, mulch, green manure, shelter, windbreaks, living trellises, and even firewood. Read on to learn how you can grow it in your garden and benefit from it’s many uses.
What Is Pigeon Pea?
Pigeon pea is a perennial, woody, leguminous shrub that can grow into a small tree. It has yellow and/or red flowers typical of legumes. The leaves have three leaflets, green on top, grey on the bottom. The flowers become pods that resemble soybean, containing 4-5 seeds. Domesticated at least 3,500 years ago in India, it has a long history of use, first in India, Africa, and later, Latin America, where it is a common food grain. They are a good source of protein, carbohydrates, and fibre.
It grows to about 6.5 – 13 ft high (2–4m) x 3.5 – 6.5 ft (1-2m) wide and lives for 4-5 years. Seed production is highest in the first few years. Well known for it’s high heat and drought tolerance, but frost will kill it. It grows in tropical and subtropical regions, including the Southeastern United States. There are many varieties of pigeon pea available, so look out for cultivars that are suited to your local conditions. If your growing season is short, choose early producing varieties.
Pigeon Pea Uses
The most obvious use is for food. Eat the fresh green peas raw, steamed, or boiled. Store the dried peas as you would lentils; then soak and/or sprout, and cook. Use them in Indian dal (split pigeon pea is called ‘Toor Dal’ in India), soups, or South American style rice and bean dishes.
They also make a good windbreak around vegetable gardens. Grow them alongside young fruit trees for mulch, shelter, and to attract bees. Chop and drop the branches under your fruit trees as needed and they will regrow. Use them as a living trellis to grow tomatoes. Just plant your tomatoes at the base of the pigeon pea and allow them to climb. Grow as a green manure to improve your soil by chopping and dropping them as they begin to flower.
How To Grow Pigeon Pea
Pigeon pea is very easy to grow. It doesn’t require fertile soils because it can produce it’s own nitrogen through nitrogen fixation. But it will grow faster and produce more seeds in better soils, as long as there is good drainage. It can tolerate a soil pH of 4.5 – 8.4! It is best suited to an average annual rainfall of 23 – 39 inches (400-600mm), but can produce with as little as 15 inches (400mm) or as much as 98 inches (2500mm).
Plant in spring or during the rainy season when soil temperatures are 77F (25C) for germination (start indoors in cooler climates). Direct seed 1 inch (2.5 cm) deep, or in small pots for later transplanting. Germination can take up to a few weeks. Be careful not to overwater, or they will rot, especially in cool climates. Just water initially then not again until after germination, unless the soil dries out beforehand. To ensure they produce nitrogen in the soil, you may have to inoculate the seed before sowing. Cowpea rhizobium works. Ask your seed retailer for more information.
Pigeon pea can begin flowering within a few months. Harvest the green peas when they begin to swell in the pods, or wait until the pods turn brown and dry on the plant for dried beans. Remove the pods and leave them in the sun in a bag and they should split open, but you’ll have to split many by hand to remove the seeds. Enjoy your nutritious harvest!
For more information on this and other sustainable gardening methods, visit my YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/RegenerativeDesigns.