How to Grow and Care for Lentils—a Self-Pollinator You Can Plant Right in Your Backyard (or in a Container)
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If you're interested in adding legumes (plants that grow in pods) to your garden, consider starting with lentils. The nutrient-dense food thrives in growing zones 4 through 11, and can grow to be about 30 inches tall at maturity. Lentils are named for their lens-like structure, producing small pods that contain about two seeds per pod.
While they're commonly grown and harvested for their nutritional value, lentils are also a great way to promote biodiversity in your garden or in ornamental settings. The self-pollinating plants are relatively easy to grow and care for, but they do require routine maintenance and should be diligently protected from weeds.
Related: Your Complete Guide to Creating and Maintaining a One-Stop Kitchen Garden to Fulfill Your Culinary Needs
How to Plant Lentils
Lentils should be planted in spring—around late April or early May—when temperatures reach above 40 degrees and the threat of frost is behind you. Plant them in an area that gets full sun and has well-draining, loamy soil. "If it's the first time growing peas or lentils in your garden, then adding rhizobial inoculum to the seed is beneficial," says Clarice J. Coyne, Ph.D., horticulturalist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Be sure to get inoculum specifically for lentils or peas."
Lentils can be planted in your garden or in a container following the steps below. Note that for container planting you should only plant about two to three seeds per pot to avoid overcrowding.
Dampen lentils and roll them in inoculant.
Remove nearby debris and weeds.
Rake the soil.
Plant seeds about 1 inch deep and 6 to 7 inches apart from other seeds.
How to Care for Lentils
In order to ensure your lentil seeds grow and produce seed pods, you must meet the plant's light, soil, water, and other maintenance requirements.
Lentils should be planted in an area that receives at least 8 hours of full sunlight. When kept indoors, display your lentil plants near a south or east facing window where they'll be exposed to more natural light.
Lentils can adapt to a variety of soil types, but the plant does have a preference. "Lentils grow best in deep, sandy loam soils, and will grow in all well-drained soil types," says Teresa Warne, food and health lab program manager at Montana State University. "They do not tolerate water-logged soils." Test your soil before planting—while lentils can tolerate moderate alkaline or saline conditions, they are best adapted to soils with a pH of 5.5 to 7.
You have to be careful when it comes to watering lentil plants, as they won't survive in water-logged soils. "They're pretty hearty and only need about 1 to 2 inches of water per week," says Dominique Charles, garden consultant and founder of Plots and Pans. "This is not the plant you need to soak."
Although pruning a lentil plant isn't necessary, you will need to be diligent about weeding. "Lentils do not compete well with weeds," says Warne. "Be sure to pull weeds while carefully not disturbing lentil plant root systems." You may also need to tend to your lentil plants if you spaced them too close to one another. "If plants are spaced too close in proximity, one may gently and carefully pull the smaller, weaker seedling to allow space for the other plants," says Warne.
How to Propagate Lentils
Lentils are much easier to propagate than some other plants that require propagation by cuttings or division. "Lentils will grow directly from the seed," says Warne. This means that once you produce seeds, you can use them to grow more lentil plants by planting them following the steps outlined above.
How to Harvest Lentils
Lentils are typically ready to be harvested 100 days after planting, which is when they reach maturity. Typically, the lower pods will turn brown when they're ready to be harvested. "Lentils will dry on their own if you stop watering them," says Warne. Taper off your watering schedule to start the drying process. If your lentils are planted outside, wait until rain is out of the forecast to begin drying.
Taper off water.
Pull lentil plants out of the ground.
Lay the plants flat in a sunny, dry area.
Once fully dried, crack open the pods and gently hull the lentils from the dried pods.
Blow off any remaining debris.
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Types of Lentils
You'll have many types of lentils to choose from when planting them yourself. "There are many varieties of lentils that come in numerous colors—hues of green, yellow, orange and red, brown, black, and mottled—and sizes ranging from extra small to large," says Warne. Despite the diversity, there are some varieties that are more common than others.
Brown lentils are one of the most common types of lentils you'll find. "Brown lentils have a brown seed coat with numerous very small, darkly pigmented dots," says Rebecca J. McGee, Ph.D, research geneticist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "The seeds are more rounded than other lentils and are small."
Red lentils have red cotyledons—the seed leaf within the embryo of a seed. "They are usually sold decorticated (seed coat removed) and split," says McGee. "Seed size can vary from very small to medium large."
Another popular variety, green lentils have a green seed coat and yellow cotyledons. "They can be small, medium, or large in size," says McGee. "They are typically sold whole."
Common Problems With Lentils
As with any crop, there are a few common issues you'll run into when growing and caring for lentils.
The most common issue you'll run into with growing lentils is aphids—small sap-sucking insects that spread diseases. "Catch them early for best control," says Warne. To treat aphids, rub the leaves with a water and dish-soap mixture or an insecticidal spray recommended to you by your local garden center. "Controlling aphids helps two ways—reduces plant virus infections and protects the plant from damage from feeding," says Warne.
There are several plant viruses that can reduce the yield of your lentil plants and they're are typically spread by aphids. "Lentils prefer less humid environments due to pressure from foliar fungal pathogens found in warm, humid environments," says Warne. "Foliar pathogens include powdery mildew (control with sulfur or fungicides), sclerotinia white mold (control with fungicides), and stemphylium blight (control with fungicides)."
Another way to prevent disease is by obtaining your seeds from a reputable source. You should also lengthen your crop rotation cycles, so the same crop is not planted in the same area or pot more than once every three years.