Though sometimes invisible to the eye, soil is alive. Soil is an ecosystem where microbes, fungi, hibernating insects and plant roots all compete for nutrients, and where the tiny pockets of air and water navigate. As a result, soil health is the key to homegrown, chemical-free vegetables.
So what is your soil like? Austin’s soil profile changes quite drastically from west to east. West Austin soil is very shallow and laden with limestone. East and southeast Austin soil is composed of a lot of clay. Clay soil is alkaline and rich in nutrients, but with a propensity to compact, which closes up needed air spaces. As a first step, we recommend getting your soil tested by sending a sample to the Texas Plant and Soil Lab or Texas AgriLife Extension. The results will give you a better idea of your soil composition.
More than likely, wherever you live in Central Texas, your soil will need to be amended by compost, but you also can use cover crops to improve your soil. These plants are grown primarily for their soil-improving benefits, rather than for harvest.
Typically legumes or grasses, cover crops offer a cascade of beneficial effects to soil: They add organic material and their roots host beneficial life that increases the nitrogen available to plants, improves water absorption, reduces soil compaction and prevents erosion.
Cowpeas (also known as black-eyed peas) are a great cover crop for Central Texas. Part of the legume family, cowpea roots produce nodules that house microbial life. In this symbiotic relationship, cowpeas produce carbon for the microbes and in turn the microbes produce nitrogen for the plants. Additionally, cowpeas are heat- and drought-tolerant once established.
As soon as soil temperatures reaches 65 degrees in the spring, you can begin to sow cowpeas and can continue through August. Strategically plant them alongside nitrogen heavy feeders like tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash or okra. Plant cowpeas in holes 1 inch deep and 6 inches apart. Plant one to two peas per hole and cover lightly with soil.
Water deeply and daily, but do not waterlog the soil until seedlings are well-established. As cowpeas grow, you can harvest the beans frequently, but remember, cover crops don’t need to be more work. You can leave them growing while you take a break from gardening through the hot summer.
Cut cowpeas back towards the end of the summer season; leave the clippings on the soil. If time allows, cut up the clippings to smaller pieces, speeding up the decomposition of these nitrogen-rich greens. Mix in the clippings to the soil with a turning fork and allow one to two weeks before planting your fall crops.
A great summer recipe that uses cowpeas is Sustainable Food Center’s Panzanella Salad. Historically, Panzanella Salad hails from Italy where the star ingredient is stale, crusty bread. This is a Central Texas version of the recipe that you will enjoy immensely.
4 cups fresh whole wheat bread cut or torn into 1-inch pieces (see note)
¼ cup plus 3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
3 cups butternut squash, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. honey
1 cup cowpeas
½ cup fresh basil, finely chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place bread pieces in a bowl. Drizzle 2 Tbsp. of olive oil over bread and toss to coat. Spread bread pieces on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Bake for 5-10 minutes, until lightly toasted. Allow to cool.
Place butternut squash cubes in a casserole pan. Drizzle 1 Tbsp. of oil over squash and toss to coat. Roast squash for about 15 minutes, until cooked through and slightly browned on edges.
Combine the vinegar and honey in a bowl; whisk in ¼ cup of olive oil. Combine toasted bread, squash, peas and basil in large bowl. Pour dressing over salad and gently toss. Allow salad to stand for about 20 minutes before serving.
Note: Stale, crusty bread or croutons can be used instead of fresh whole wheat bread. If you do use one of these, skip toasting the bread and start the recipe by cooking the squash.
— Joy Casnovsky, The Happy Kitchen/La Cocina Alegre