When growing a garden, we rarely plant just one vegetable or fruit. We like to have many of favorites growing from early spring to late fall, yielding an enchanting bounty for both the palate and the eyes to enjoy. When we plan our gardens we visualize beautiful robust plants full of nourishing edibles. To get these types of plants we must fully care for our gardens. Caring for our gardens is considering the many factors that affect our plants.
These factors include determining the right amount of sunshine and water needed for each plant variety, reducing pests, and limiting our plants exposure to harmful chemicals. Another key factor to think about when trying to improve the health of our gardens, is the condition of our soil. Proper soil condition can make or break a garden. It is critical that our soil is providing sufficient amounts of necessary nutrients, allowing roots to grow and water to percolate properly, and is free of harmful diseases that can weaken our plants.
When discussing necessary nutrients for plants we often think of the top three: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are extremely critical for suitable plant growth, as are calcium, magnesium, and sulfur, along with many micronutrients. A deficit in one or more of these nutrients can cause our plants to suffer and yield less nutritious produce.
We can amend soil to ensure our gardens have a healthy nutrient profile. This is best accomplished by adding organic material, as opposed to manufactured chemical fertilizers. Soil amending can include the addition of organic manure that is rotted, composted, or made into a tea, as the nitrogen content may be too “hot” for some plants if fresh and directly applied.
Organic matter that has been composted is also a good way to fertilize soil. This method will add in a variety of nutrients your soil may be missing, including micronutrients. Compost material can also improve soil structure which is beneficial to your garden’s ability to let roots grow and water to percolate through.
Another way to reduce nutrient depletion, as well as add back in nutrients, mainly nitrogen, is crop rotation. If you are from an agricultural area your mind may conjure up visions of corn and soybean rotations. That’s because this practice is fairly prevalent and there is good reason for it. Corn takes nitrogen from the soil and soybeans (a legume) fix it back in. Better said, the nitrogen-fixing (N-fixing) bacteria, such as rhizobia bacteria (Rhizobiaceae, α-Proteobacteria) that live in the root nodules of the soybeans, and other legumes, fix atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into its biologically useful form, ammonia (NH3).
Rotation of crops not only improves soil, it also prevents the buildup of diseases and pests that can affect a family of plants. If you plant the same plot every year, it best to create sections to grow a variety of plant families. This way you will have the ability to move plant families around each year, often following non-nitrogen fixing plants, with N-fixing plants. This rotation keeps disease and pests from accumulating in your garden. If you are thinking about adopting a rotation method of planting, why not plant some N-fixers that you can enjoy at your dinner table.
While crops such as clover and alfalfa are N-fixers, they are not a very delicious addition to the dinner plate, unless you have big ears, a twitchy nose, and small fluffy tail. That said, a crop you can grow that is beneficial and is quite tasty, is lentils. This cool season, drought tolerant plant grows well even in subpar soils, as long as the sun shines on them and they don’t sit too long in water. Plant seedlings a few inches apart, give them a trellis for support, and watch them grow.
Lentils are a legume just as are peas, beans, and peanuts. However, lentils are at the top of the list for protein content originating from a plant source. They are also an excellent source of fiber, iron, and complex carbohydrates (starches). One problem with legumes, due to their indigestible carbohydrates, like raffinose and stachyose, is that they can produce gas. The gas is produced when intestinal bacteria ferment the indigestible carbohydrates. To help curb this problem soaking and sprouting methods can be utilized. Not only can sprouting and soaking improve digestibility by releasing enzymes to break down the carbohydrates, they can also enhance flavor, palatability, and nutrient content.
Lentils can be properly soaked and sprouted as follows:
Using 1 cup of lentils and 3 cups of lukewarm water (preferably distilled), put the lentils and water in a glass or ceramic bowl or jar.
Cover it with cheese cloth or something similar. Soak overnight (8-10 hours). Rinse the lentils fully (again preferably with distilled water). Make sure the lentils are fully drained.
You can cook the lentils now, but their full digestibility, flavor, and nutrient content are not at their peak. It is best to continue onto the sprouting process.
Taking the drained lentils place them back in the original bowl or jar, and cover with a towel. Put the lentils in a warm, dark spot to sit for 4 days. Rinse the lentils twice each day. This should be done very gently to prevent the sprouts from being separated from the lentil. The lentils need to remain damp to sprout, but not wet, as this will encourage spoilage. Once the little sprouts reach their full height (~1”) place them in direct sunlight. Sprouts will be ready in 3-5 days.
Once lentils are sprouted you can use them in a variety of dishes including salads and soups.
To use them in a salad, just make your favorite garden salad, add the sprouts, top with a little olive oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, then enjoy.
For an easy soup, add the lentils, with other veggies, to some heated broth. Combine with salt, pepper, and any other spices and herbs you enjoy. You can even add a little hot sauce to spice things up! Don’t be afraid to get creative.
If preparing and eating lentils aren’t forces you want to reckon with, growing them in your garden is still very beneficial. They are simple to plant and grow, and will benefit your soil greatly. If you choose not to eat them you can pick and give them away, or you can leave them and plow them under at the end of the growing season. They will have improved the nitrogen content of your soil while growing, and then as they decay in the soil after plowing, they will add in other nutrients. Lentils are a win, win for both you and your garden.
Brown, A. 2007. Understanding Food Principles and Preparation. 4th Edition. CA: Wadsworth /Thomson Learning. ISBN number: ISBN-10: 0538734981 | ISBN-13: 978-0538734981
Flynn, R. June, 2015. New Mexico State University. College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Science. Nitrogen Fixation by Legumes. Guide A-129. https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_a/A129/
Heirloom Organics. 2016. How to Grow Lentils. Guide to Growing Lentils. https://www.heirloom-organics.com/guide/va/guidetogrowinglentils.html
Organic Facts. 2017. Health Benefits of Lentils. https://www.organicfacts.net/health-benefits/health-benefits-of-lentils.html
Wikipedia. December 16, 2016. Nitrogen Deficiency. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_deficiency
Wikipedia Commons. November 23, 2016. File:Lentil plants.jpg. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lentil_plants.jpg