Are you looking to grow something different this year? If you’re anything like me, you want to break the monotony of growing tomatoes, carrots, basil, and other common vegetables and herbs.
Or, maybe you’re thinking of long-term survival strategies. As a fan of “The Walking Dead,” I cannot help but imagine the worst and ask myself how I would feed myself or a group of people in a post-apocalyptic world (or, more realistically, during a serious recession).
What do legumes have to do with anything? They’re fun to grow and add variety to the garden. They are also highly nutritious and easy to produce, which is why they serve as a staple food for millions of people around the world.
What Are Legumes?
Legumes include lentils, soybeans, peas, garbanzo beans (chickpeas), and various common beans like black turtle beans. These are high-protein, low-fat foods that are loaded with fiber, complex carbs, and nutrients such as magnesium and potassium. When dried, they also store incredibly well, remaining shelf-stable for years.
Cooked properly, beans and lentils never get boring; you can use them for salads, soups, curries, baked beans, hummus, falafel, burritos, and winter stews and chillies. Practically every culture around the world cooks with legumes. Mexican cuisine uses pinto beans. Asian countries use miso, soy sauce, and tofu (all made from soybeans) as well as mung beans. Black-eyed peas are commonly used in Caribbean cuisine.
Here in North America (in Canada, anyway) baked beans are popular. Since peanuts are technically legumes, let’s include peanut butter too. It is the go-to ingredient for sandwiches, and it’s often combined with chocolate for desserts.
Why Grow Legumes?
Not only are legumes good for you, they’re also good for the soil. Many farmers plant a cover crop of clover or fava beans in the fall to replenish the soil with nitrogen. This is one way for gardeners to improve soil quality without the use of chemical fertilizers.
If you want an interesting addition to the garden (and the kitchen!), you can grow some beautiful heirloom beans that aren’t typically available in the grocery store. Examples include: cranberry, Christmas lima, anasazi, orca, yellow eye, and tongues of fire beans.
Thinking about self-sustainability? You’ll be grateful to have a stash of dried beans in the cupboard during the winter when there’s not much left to forage for. No need to go fancy here. Some good-ole white kidney beans, soybeans, red lentils, or green and yellow split peas will do.
How to Grow Legumes: My Experiment
If you’ve read my blog before, you already know I’m a learn-as-you-go gardener. This year I planted a small batch of yin-yang beans (aka calypso beans) just to see if they would actually grow.
I won’t get into growing lentils, as I haven’t tried that yet. As for beans, you can follow the same instructions for most varieties. Plant your beans in a sunny area after the last frost. You can direct-sow the seeds or transplant a pre-grown plant. You may also innoculate the seeds to improve growth, but that’s purely optional.
I started mine in a hanging basket outside. When trying out new seeds, I prefer to plant them in potting soil rather than directly sowing them in the garden. This way, I don’t confuse them with weeds when they come up (when I first planted snapdragon seeds, I thought the plants were weeds and pulled them all out!). Next, I transplanted them to the front garden.
As you can see, the plant is bushy and upright with pods that — to my untrained eye — don’t look too different from regular pea pods. I planted the seeds sometime in June or maybe late May, and I took this photo in August. The plants kept going in September and October and even survived several bouts of light frost. In fact, they grew better than anything else in our front garden’s nutrient-poor soil.
How to Harvest
To harvest the beans, wait for the pods to mature and leave them to dry. You can just leave them outside and shield them from rain. If the green pods are already mature, you can pick them off individually and let them dry inside. Then all you do is shell them.
I chose this variety because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the Chinese yin-yang symbol, hence the name yin-yang beans. I also like how unique it is; you won’t find this variety in any of the grocery stores here.
After harvesting the dry beans, store them in a cool, dark place. My seed saving book recommends that you freeze the dried beans for five days in order to destroy any weevil eggs that may be inside the beans. I didn’t know that earlier, so I didn’t do that (oops), but I’ll make sure to freeze any 2017 batches of dried beans.
Tips and Hints
Watch for local seed exchange events in your area to find organic, heirloom, or rare seeds from local farmers and gardeners.
Bunnies and other animals love to steal the bean pods. Surround the plants in mesh or chicken wire to keep the hungry critters out.
Some varieties are climbers, so make sure to have a trellis on hand if you’re growing pole beans or runner beans.
As with anything else, choose varieties that are suitable for your climate.
Have you ever grown legumes? Share your experience in the comments below!