The pigeon pea has to be one of the most versatile permaculture plants. I started growing this legume shrub in my garden because it improves soil fertility by fixing atmospheric nitrogen.
But I soon discovered that pigeon peas have many more uses...
Those are a lot of uses out of one single plant, and there are probably more. You can find my favourite ways to use pigeon pea in my permaculture garden on the bottom of this page.
The pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan, family fabaceae) is thought to have originated in India, where it is still widely grown as a food crop. It is also used extensively as a cover crop, green manure, inter crop etc. in many sustainable farming systems in the tropics and subtropics, and in many home gardens in warm climates.
The plant is a short lived perennial shrub. It grows to two to four metres (6-12 ft) and lives for about five years. The flowers are yellow or yellow and red. The leaves consist of three leaflets and are a dark green above and silvery underneath.
The fruits are pods, containing four to five seeds.
The seeds can be a range of colours. Mine are light brown, but they can be cream, grey, purple or black, depending on the variety.
Pigeon peas will grow just about anywhere. They can cope with poor soils and little water. Of course they will grow faster, bigger, better, and live longer if they have plenty of water and nutrients.
Most varieties are not frost tolerant, although there are some newer varieties that supposedly can handle a bit of frost. If you get freezing winters you can grow them as an annual crop. That's not ideal from a permaculture point of view, but it's still a great food crop and soil improver.
You grow pigeon peas from seed. There are many varieties of pigeon pea around the world, from tall tree like species to smaller bushes and dwarf varieties. The different varieties also mature at different times. If you live in a cool climate grab a faster maturing species.
If you want to take advantage of the plant's ability to fix nitrogen then you may have to inoculate the seeds. It depends where you live. (See Nitrogen Fixing Bacteria.)
Pigeon Pea is not very specific. For inoculation you can use any rhizobium of the cowpea group. I used a rhizobium that I had purchased for my Dolichos lablab seeds and it worked. (I later found out that it was indeed a cowpea rhizobium.)
Planting depth is whatever. Just stick them in the ground, they'll grow. The seeds take about two to three weeks to germinate. Germination is faster in warm soils and takes longer in cooler climates.
Initially the plants grows very slowly. For about three months it will look like nothing much is happening, but then they take off.
Flowering and Harvest. Plants can start flowering in as little as two months and you could theoretically harvest the first seeds after three to four months. However, depending on the variety and the planting time it can take a lot longer, up to eight months.
The plants are day length sensitive and will flower sooner when the days are short.
Pick the pods green if you want fresh peas or leave them on the plant to dry. Pigeon peas are very heavy croppers and the seed pods grow in big clusters at the end of the branches. It's easy to gather a good amount for a meal.
You can prune your plants at any time if you want to use them as mulch. If you need all the peas then the best time is obviously after the harvest. However, my most vigorous bushes get a good cut every few months and they just keep growing back bigger and stronger.
Here are a few ways I have used pigeon peas:
Find more permaculture plants that make life easier.