Published in the Toronto Star, April 9, 2016
The United Nations have deemed this the Year of Pulses. For most readers the idea of focusing on an obscure agricultural crop like this is likely of little interest.
I am here to change that. Fact is, pulses are huge right now and you do know them, just not likely by that name: the pulse family includes dried beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas, all members of the legume family. Measured in nutrients-per-acre, pulses come out on top of most surveys, way ahead of grains and we won’t even talk about beef. Countries like India and many African nations have come to rely on pulses to feed their densely populated regions.
The United Nations have determined that the Year of Pulses will be an opportunity to, “heighten nutritional benefits of pulses as part of sustainable food production aimed towards food security and nutrition.”
Over the past generation in North America the popularity of pulses has grown at a staggering pace. Interestingly, Canada has become the second largest producer of pulses ( lentils anyway) in the world (Pakistan is #1).
Why eat them?
They are good for you. Lentils, one of the most popular pulses, are rich in iron, zinc, and several B vitamins. They are fat-free, dense with dietary fibre and contain no cholesterol. Same can be said for chickpeas, dried beans like pinto, black and Romano varieties and they are inexpensive.
Why grow them?
The idea of growing your own pulses may appeal to you if you are interested in taking control over the quality of the food that you put on your table (you, the grower, have complete control over the process) and it can be fun and rewarding. Besides, this is a great opportunity to teach your kids about pulses and good food in general.
How to grow pulses.
Start now. In early April, you can sow the seeds of some pulses. Peas, while technically not a part of the pulse family, are legumes and they can be sown in the ground just as soon as the soil is frost free (so can carrots).
Be sure to provide your pea crop with support: a trellis or fence works best. They need a minimum of 6 hours of sunshine, an open, fertile, organic-rich soil. Add at least 3 cm of Bio Max composted manure to the soil before planting. Sow seeds in a row about 10 cm apart and space the rows by 30 cm. Harvest when the seed pods have swollen as if they are filled with a puff of air. They will be ready for harvest in about 80 days. Shucking peas is fun and fresh peas from the pod are irresistibly sweet.
As we draw closer to the first frost-free date (usually around May 24) you can sow the frost-tender pulses in your garden. Early to mid May is the perfect time to sow Romano, pinto and black beans, lentils and chickpeas. Generally they will be ready for harvest in 80 to 100 days.
Chick peas, or ‘garbanzo beans’ as they are sometimes called, are best sown before the last frost date. Start them indoors in mid April and transplant them mid to late May. They germinate in 7 to 10 days in good quality seeding mix. Plant 15 cm apart in rows that are 50 cm apart. Most chickpea varieties grow to 80 cm tall and are quite bushy. Unlike ‘peas’ they do not need staking as the plants tend to support one another (like a real family!)
Grow in fertile soil and avoid using commercial fertilizers. As nitrogen-fixers they can actually add nutrients to the soil, unlike most other plants in the garden. They convert energy from the sun and nitrogen from the air into root nodules in the first half of the season. Each little nodule contains a mini-pack of nitrogen. Be sure to add 3 to 4 cm of composted manure to the soil before planting. All pulses require a minimum of 6 hours of sunshine.
After the first four weeks, water the plants when the soil becomes dry 3 cm deep.
The first pulses were discovered in the Ravi River Valley in India around 3300 BC. There is evidence that the Egyptians used them in their diet and in one Swiss village there is more evidence that they were used in the Stone Age. Pulses have, indeed, been around for a long time.
It seems odd, then, that it has taken us this long to more fully appreciate the finer points of growing and consuming pulses.
For more information I can recommend the new book The Power of Pulses by Dan Jason, Hilary Malone and Alison Eathone. Published by Douglas & McIntyre.