Collectively known as pulses, lentils should be on the farming calendar of every kitchen garden. The leguminous plants are harvested when the pods are dry and the hard lens-like seeds can be stored away for future use. Toor (pigeon peas), moong, masoor and chickpeas are a few of the most favoured lentils that are consumed daily in most regional cuisines. These nutritionally dense pulses come packed with proteins, fibre, calcium, iron, zinc and antioxidants. Like all leguminous plants, most lentils are rabi crops, traditionally cultivated after the Indian monsoons. However, they can be grown through the year in the controlled environment of a kitchen garden, if the soil is kept moist during the dry periods.
Lentils can be grown on terrace gardens with equal success. Use large deep pots or growbags filled with a mix of garden soil and sand. Companion plants like cucumber or potato can be planted alongside: they are beneficial to each other’s growth.
Choose an open sunny spot or sow in between other plants, keeping in mind the plants favourable to its growth. Prepare the soil with a mix of crumbled neem cake, organic leaf matter and clean dry compost. Healthy soil naturally contains rhizobia, a healthy bacteria that fixes nitrogen in the soil. In a small garden space, the soil will have sufficient organic matter to nourish the plants. But, farmers with large areas under cultivation often add an inoculant powder containing rhizobium culture to the soil before sowing.
Source your seeds from a farmer in your region, choosing a tested variety. Sow directly in the prepared beds, leaving a distance of 5-6 inches in between. When the plants are about 6 inches high, train them up poles or over a low trellis. Lentils will also thrive as bushes without support, but will naturally climb up taller companion plants.
Sow during the new moon and the first quarter phase, as the sap flow is drawn up. Harvest with the waning moon, as the sap is drawn down — this phase is beneficial for drying and storage of produce.
Potatoes, cucumbers and corn are good companion plants. Keep garlic and onion at a distance from lentil plants.
Though lentils are relatively drought tolerant, the plants must be kept moist through the growing phase. Feed the plants with a compost tea when they are about six inches high; repeat when they start flowering. Stop watering once the pods start drying.
Lentils are generally not prone to disease, though they may be attacked by aphids and weevils. Strong hosing with water will get rid of aphids, but weevils must be removed by hand.
Lentils are ready for harvest four months from sowing. As they are stored away for long use, pluck the disc-like seeds once the pods are dry and the seeds within are hard. Store for up to a year.
Allow the pods on the healthiest plants to dry on the plant, till the shell becomes papery and shrivelled. Remove from the stalk and dry further. Lightly coat with wood ash and store away for the next planting season.
Like all leguminous plants, lentils enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen. They continue to do so as long as the roots remain in the soil. After the harvest, let the plant dry out completely and decompose into green manure. The roots will continue to nourish the soil. For the next round, rotate crops and watch them thrive in the enriched soil.
Then and now
Lentils are an ancient Indian crop that originated from the Mediterranean region; India is now the world’s largest producer of lentils.
The seedlings of leguminous plants can be used as nutritious microgreens to be lightly sautéed or used as fresh greens in salads.
Sprouted lentils also provide an additional burst of nutrition.