Lentils are packed with protein and fiber, add nitrogen to the soil, and they are easy to grow.
You see them in bags at the grocery story, but have you ever thought about growing your own lentils? People have been eating lentils for 13,000 years! These members of the pea family are called pulses because they are grown to be harvested as dried beans. Lentils are legumes that can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to plant roots. Lentils grow 18 to 24 inches tall and produce small white to light purple flowers. The pods are very small, each containing only one or two seeds, so you will need 4 to 8 lentil plants per person. You can grow lentils in containers, but it takes several plants to get a decent crop.
Lentils come in several colors, ranging from brown and black, to yellow, orange, red, pink, and green:
How to grow lentils
Being a cool season crop, lentils (Lens culinaris) can be started two weeks before the last frost date. Lentil seeds should be planted 1/2 to 1 inch deep, and 1 inch apart. Lentils prefer full sun, loose soil, and a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, so you may need to acidify your Bay Area soil. I grow my lentils in raised beds, so pH and compacted soil are not issues. It makes weeding one heck of a lot easier, too!
At 68°F, they will germinate in about 10 days. Seedlings should be thinned to one plant every 4 or 5 inches. Rows should be 18 to 24 inches apart. You may want to use row covers, at first, to protect young plants from pests. Be sure to keep the soil evenly moist, at first. Lentils are very drought tolerant once they get a good start. You may want to provide a low trellis, but it is not necessary. Lentils take 80 to 110 days to reach maturity, depending on weather, soil, and sunlight. Stop watering when the pods begin to dry.
Harvesting lentils is a labor of love. Allow the pods to dry out completely before using. Since each pod only holds one or two seeds, I suggest a good movie, a bowl for lentils, a towel on the floor, and a large pot between your feet to collect the discards. The job of hulling lentils becomes a rhythmic Zen sort of experience, once you find your rhythm. You can also harvest immature lentil pods the same way you would harvest green beans. Lentils can also be sprouted and added to salads.
Lentil pests & diseases
Aphids, weevils, nematodes, armyworms, cutworms, cucumber beetles, loopers, lygus bugs, leafminers, whiteflies, thrips, spider mites, stink bugs, and wireworms may try feasting on your lentils before you do. Insufficient air flow can lead to fungal diseases, such as Alternaria rot, anthracnose, root rot, Botrytis grey mold, leaf spot, collar rot, downy mildews, Fusarium wilt, powdery mildew, and rust. Lentils are also susceptible to viral diseases. These include bean leaf roll virus, bean yellow mosaic, pea seed borne mosaic, cucumber mosaic, broad bean mottle, and broad bean stain. It's a wonder that anything can survive! The best thing you can do to protect your lentils is to provide adequate air flow and monitor your lentils regularly. In spite of the number of threats, lentils are more rugged than they appear.
The rich, earthy flavor of lentils make it an excellent addition to soups, stews, and salads. How about adding some lentils to your landscape this year? Give it a try!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!