Chickpea, gram, or garbanzo bean, these legumes have been cultivated for 7,500 years. High in protein and easy to grow, chickpeas also make an excellent green manure.
Speaking of green manure, chickpeas produce the most seeds when they are provided with plenty of sunlight and very little nitrogen. Being a legume, chickpeas are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form usable as plant food. If they have access to too much nitrogen in the soil, you will get plenty of vegetative growth and very few seeds.
The chickpea plant
Chickpea plants (Cicer arietinum) grow 8 to 20 inches tall and are bushy. They have feathery leaves and delicate white flowers with pink, violet, or blue veins. Like other legumes, the seeds are called pulses. Often (incorrectly) called a pod, pulses are simple fruits that develop from a single carpel, and that usually open along a seam (dehisces). Each pulse contains one or two seeds. Chickpeas have taproots that can reach 15 to 40 inches down into the soil. This makes them a good choice for reducing compacted soil and improving soil structure. [Translation: this fall, pick the worst spot in your landscape and plant chickpeas. Fava beans are another good choice.]
There are four major chickpea varieties, and over 90 genotypes. The familiar garbanzo bean (kabuli chana) is light-colored, large, and smooth-coated. Cicer reticulatum only grows in Turkey. There are two black chickpeas: Desi chana and cici neri. Ceci neri are a rare large, black chickpea grown only in southeaster Italy. Desi chana is the closest relative to ancient chickpeas. It is small, dark, and rough-coated, and can be black, green, or speckled
How to grow chickpeas
Here in California, chickpeas are a winter crop that is usually started around the first frost date. To speed the process, you can start chickpea seeds indoors, in pots, several weeks ahead of time, as long as you can provide them with enough sunlight and protection from summer heat. Transplant seedlings into the garden when they are 4 to 5 inches tall. Chickpeas prefer full sun. They can be grown in partial shade, but you won’t get nearly the same production.
Chickpea seeds are planted deeply, from 1-1/2 to 2 inches deep. Contrary to popular myth, do not soak chickpea seeds before planting, or water heavily after planting, as this makes them susceptible to cracking. Seeds should be planted 3 to 6 inches apart and thinned to 6 inches between plants. If you are growing chickpeas in rows, space rows 18 to 24 inches apart. Your chickpeas will be ready to harvest in approximately 100 days. Chickpeas do not handle competition from weeds very well, so you need to stay on top of them. Also, high boron levels can stunt chickpea growth, so be sure to get your soil tested. There are also a few pests and diseases you’ll need to watch for.
Chickpea pests and diseases
Fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, ascochyta blight, anthracnose, bacterial brown spot, bean mosaic, bacterial blight, cucumber mosaic, curly top, and several root rots affect chickpea plants, especially those caused by Pythium, Rhizoctonia, and Macrophomina. Charcoal root rot, white mold, and black rot may also occur, and nematodes can be a problem. Aphids, armyworms, corn earworms, cucumber beetles, cutworms, darkling beetles, leafhoppers, leafminers, loopers, lygus bugs, spider mites, stinkbugs, thrips, weevils, and wireworms may all try feeding on your chickpeas. Luckily, these plants can produce an abundant amount of food, and crop rotation goes a long way toward interrupting the lifecycle of most of these pests and diseases.
Did you know that roasted chickpeas can be ground up and used as a coffee substitute, or that chickpea water (aquafaba) can be used as an egg substitute to make merengue?
I didn’t either.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!