Lentils are considered to be one of the most nutrient-dense foods available. They come packed with dietary fiber and protein, and many people believe that they are a superfood. Growing lentils dates back to ancient times, and it was one of the first crops to be domesticated.
In common religions like Judaism, lentils are very popular to use as a “mourning” food because the rounded shape reflects the circle of life. In India, people practice growing lentils and use them as a staple food source in curries or used as a thickener in vegetarian stews. In Italy, you’ll find lentils used in a traditional sausage feast on New Years.
But, is growing lentils hard? Are they easy to harvest, and how do they grow in different planting zones? Let’s dive into this topic below.
Lentils are a great addition to many dishes, and they blend seamlessly with stews, curries, and soups as a thickening agent that is very nutritious.
Quick Overview for Growing Lentils
|Botanical Name:||Lens culinaris|
|Common Name(s):||Adas, lentil plant, Messer, Mercimek, masoor, and heramame|
|Flower Coloring:||Pale blue, white, or light purple|
|Hardiness Zones:||5 to 11|
|Mature Size:||12 to 20 inches tall and 18 to 24 inches between rows|
|Native Area(s):||Rome, Greece, and Egypt|
|Soil pH:||6.0 to 6.5|
|Soil Type:||Well-drained, sandy loam, fertile|
|Sun Exposure:||Full sun|
Lentil General Facts
The lentil plant comes with many different names associated with it. The term “lentil” references the word “lens”, that references the shape and botanical name. The legumes look like small lenses. In Ethiopia, you’ll hear them referred to as Messer. Turkey calls them Mercimek, and red dhal or Masser is the term you’ll hear in India. The Arabic term is adas, and the Japanese call them Heramame.
These crops grow annually and fall into the Fabaceae family. The pods have edible seeds, and each pod has a minimum of two seeds that you can split if you desire. The vine is very slender, and it has erect, hairy, branching stems. The vines will produce smaller flowers in white, but you can also find them in shades of pink, purple, and blue.
Each raceme has one to four flowers, and the leaves have an alternative arrangement to them. Each leaf has four to seven leaflets that have an oval shape, and the pods are between 0.1 and 0.3 inches long at full maturity. The seeds come in green, black, yellow, or orangish-red, and it won’t come back year after year as it’s an annual plant. It can get roughly 20 inches high before it flowers or fruits.
Lentils are a very affordable, easy ingredient that you can add to any meal to help fill it out, and they’re also very healthy. A single cup of lentils has roughly 230 calories, 1 gram of fat, 18 grams of protein, and 16 grams of fiber. When you add it to your diet, it can:
- Energy – Lentils give you a slow-burning, steady energy source due to their makeup that contains complex carbohydrates and fiber.
- Fiber – Lentils come packed with insoluble and soluble fiber. Foods that have a high soluble fiber content can help stabilize your blood sugar and reduce your cholesterol levels. Any food that has a high insoluble fiber content is great for digestion and helps prevent constipation.
- Folate – A cup of cooked lentils gives you 90% of the daily recommended folate intake. It’s a B vitamin that helps build new cells in your body.
- Heart Health – The mix of folic acid, fiber, and potassium in lentils makes them a very heart-healthy food.
- Protein – Protein works to keep you feeling full and gives you the energy you need to power through the day. 26% of the calories in lentils come from protein.
- Vitamins and Minerals – Lentils have a high vitamin and mineral content. The magnesium it contains helps your body transport oxygen and nutrients by improving your blood flow. Iron also helps move oxygen in your body.
Since lentils are so nutritious, it’s no surprise that many people take the time to grow them in their gardens to dry and store until they want to beef up their recipes.
Planting Lentils – Step by Step
Planting and growing lentils is easier than you may think. They’re a great crop to add to your traditional or container garden, and you’ll get a rewarding harvest. Below, we’ll outline everything you need to know about growing this heart-healthy crop.
When and Where To Plant Your Lentils
Lentils will grow the strongest from early spring into the hot summer months. Sow the seeds indoors in the early spring months, roughly a week or two before the last frost. Transplant them outside in your garden. If you’re going to start them directly in your garden beds, you want to wait to plant them until after the final frost. The soil should be around 68°F to ensure successful germination with the seeds, and this usually happens within 10 days.
Lentils are commonly planted in containers and garden beds. However, you have to protect the young crops from the wind and frost. Pick a location that has full sun but is protected from high winds. This crop will grow as branching vines, and they need a decent amount of space since they have a spreading habit. The plants will need a low trellis for support and to encourage air circulation.
How To Plant Lentils
To plant your lentils, you have to inoculate the seeds with a natural bacteria called Rhizobium leguminosarum. This bacteria will work to bind the new roots and absorb nitrogen from the air to transfer it to the plant’s root system and the soil to help the plants grow vigorously. Because of this process, lentils are wonderful for adding nitrogen in your garden.
You should inoculate the seeds on the day you seed them. Get the seeds damp and roll them in powdered inoculant to ensure they’re all coated. Once you coat them, sow them directly in the ground or in starter pots. It’s usually a good practice to sow them an inch deep, and you want to thin the seedlings to five-inches apart as they emerge. If you’re planning on having several rows, you want to space them at least 18-inches apart when you’re growing lentils. Germination will take roughly 10 days as long as the soil temperature stays around 68°F.
Any plants you start in containers should also get thinned out to leave only the strongest seedlings behind at least five inches apart. Transplant them to the same depth outside after the frost recedes.
Growing Lentils – General Care Guidelines
When you start growing lentils, they do need a few specific things to ensure they establish well. The following will outline everything you need to know.
A lot of plants are nitrogen-dependent, but lentils follow the standards set by peas, beans, and various legumes. They need nitrogen the most right after germination, and the inoculant you roll the seeds in can give them up to 80% of the nitrogen they need to grow and thrive. Due to this fact, any fertilizer you use should have more phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen. Phosphorus is a high need to ensure strong root development, and potassium is essential to ensure pod development and flowering.
When growing lentils, you want to start out with a soil that is very rich with organic materials. This should give them a nitrogen boost early on. As the plants start to develop, you can apply a low nitrogen (N), high potassium and phosphorus (K and P) granular fertilizer. One of two applications of this type of fertilizer should be enough for the whole season. You want to use organic sources over crystallized ones as lentils are very sensitive to types of salts and it can burn the roots very quickly.
One other nutrient you need for growing lentils is sulfur. A small dose mixed with your first feeding can enable the seedlings to take in more potassium and phosphorus. If your soil is more on the alkaline side, you may not need to mix sulfur into your fertilizer as it may already be present.
It’s easiest to propagate your lentils using seeds. It’s very rare that you’d use any other method because these are annuals that grow very well from seed. The seeds should get planted an inch deep after you inoculate them as we outlined above. If you choose to skip the inoculation step, you can, but you’ll need to increase the nitrogen content in the fertilizer. It’s best to inoculate the seeds before you plant them.
Pruning and Training
When you’re growing lentils, you usually won’t have to prune this plant. However, there are a few exceptions to the rule. If you have pest-damaged or diseased portions of the plant, you want to remove them to prevent further damage from pests or disease spread. If the foliage is tightly packed, pruning them can increase the air circulation.
You do need to train them to grow on a trellis, and this can reduce your need to prune them to open the plant up. They will climb up on their own, but using plant ties cna help secure the plant’s stem to the trellis and give it a little extra support.
Sun and Temperature
Ideally, growing lentils requires a full sun location. You want a minimum of eight hours of bright sunlight every day to encourage healthy development. They should get started when the spring weather is cooler but the soil is warm. They can start indoors during temperature, cooler weather, but they do best when it gets warmer out. They’re extremely sensitive to frost, and they’ll get damaged if the temperature dips below 50°F.
Lentils tolerate hot weather well, but you can end up with a slightly smaller harvest if the temperature climbs too high. Any temperatures over 90°F for extended periods can reduce your harvest size noticeably.
As a general rule, lentils aren’t picky about the type of soil you plant them in. However, they don’t do well if the soil is waterlogged. You’ll need a well-draining soil that has a high organic matter content. They like neutral to slightly alkaline soil with a pH range of 6 to 7, and you should make a point to work a lot of compost into the soil to encourage healthy growth.
Water and Humidity
The minimum goal for water for growing lentils is an inch a week. In hotter weather, you’ll water them more frequently. The best time to water is early in the morning, and this allows any damp leaves to dry out during the warmer temperatures during the day. You want to water at the soil level if you can instead of soaking the foliage. As the pods dry, stop watering the plants. This lets the pods dry out and starts to weaken the plant itself, and this makes the harvest easier.
Growing lentils can have issues with a range of diseases, and most of them are more common in humid weather. For these plants, keeping the humidity levels around 30% or 40% is the goal, and many parts of the world wait until it’s the dry season to try and grow this plant.
Harvesting and Storing Your Lentils
Now that you’ve put in all of this time raising the seeds to form strong vines, what do you do next? It’s now time to harvest and store your crop to use later, especially if you have a bigger harvest.
How you actually harvest your lentil plants is very simple. Once the pods start to dry out, you want to stop watering the plants. Allow the plants to dry out too, and then pull the vines out and pluck the pods. The vines can then go into your compost pile to break down. You’ll need to remove the seeds from the poods and spread them out in a single layer on a try in a dry, cool location to encourage them to dry out.
Once your lentils dry, storing them is very easy. All you have to do is put them in an airtight container in a dark space. You can add a food-safe desiccant packet to the container to help pull out any moisture that can still be present. If you keep them totally dry, lentils can last for a long time, but they’re usually best if you eat them within a year of harvesting them.
The Four Main Lentil Varieties
Did you know that there are four main lentil varieties you can choose from when you’re growing lentils? There are brown, green, red or yellow, and specialty We’ll touch on all of them below to give you a good idea on which ones you want to add to your garden.
1. Brown Lentils
Brown lentils are the most common ones you can get when you’re growing lentils. If you buy any bag of them in the grocery store and they’re labeled “lentils” without a description, you’re most likely getting brown ones. The color range for this variety is dark black to khaki brown, and you get a very earthy, mild flavor.
This variety is one that holds a shape very nicely when you cook it, so many people like to add it to casseroles, warm salads, stews, or soups. They also work very well in veggie burgers or vegetarian meatloaf.
Get a medium pot and combine a cup of brown dry lentils with 2 ½ to 3 cups of water. Bring it all to a boil and allow it to simmer ro 30 to 45 minutes. If you want to use them in a stew or soup, add them to the pot when there is roughly 40 minutes of cooking time left.
Green lentils are very close to brown lentils, but you’ll get a slightly peppery and more robust flavor. They also come in several sizes. Green lentils can be anything from a green slate coloring with hints of black and blue to spotted or pale green.
Just like brown lentils, green ones also keep their shape very well when you cook them. When you combine this characteristic with their flavor, you get an ideal additive for side dishes or salads.
Add 2 ½ cups of water and a cup of lentils into a pan. Bring it all to a boil before reducing the heat and simmering for 35 to 45 minutes until they’re tender. To get a tastier end product, you can add herbs to the water.
Red and Yellow Lentils
These lentils range from red and orange to a golden yellow. One variety is also sold as being split, and this allows them to get processed into smaller bits. They have a slightly nutty and sweet flavor, and they’re very commonly added to Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine, and they’re what makes Indian dhal a classic dish.
Since they have a split nature, growing lentils in this variety and trying to cook with them will make them disintegrate. So, they work well as a thickening agent in stews or soups, or you can add them to casseroles.
Split lentils tend to cook quickly in roughly 15 to 30 minutes. When you want to use them in a stew or soup, all you have to do is add them to the pot with 15 to 30 minutes of cooking time left. When you cook them by themselves, bring 1 cup of lentils and 1 ½ cups of water to a boil and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until tender.
There are several specialty lentils to choose from when you’re buying or growing lentils, but Puy and Black Beluga are the two most common. Both are roughly a third of the size of green or brown lentils and they have an earthy, rich flavor.
Due to the soft texture, rich flavor, and stunning appearance, these lentils work well as a base for salads or with any kind of protein. They work well with fish or meat, or you can add them as a side dish or pour them into a warm or cold salad.
Combine a cup of lentils with 2 ¼ cups of water in a pot and bring it to a boil. Reduce the heat and summer 20 to 30 minutes or until they’re tender. Drain the water and use them however you like.
No matter if you want to put them in a soup or salad or as a main dish, lentils are a healthy and hearty addition. You can create a lentil-based dish without any recipes relatively easily following the lentils to water ratio to cook them. Adding a bay leaf, a quartered onion, or a bundle of herbs will flavor the lentils as they cook. You can serve them with a pan of roasted veggies and a piece of meat to get a complete meal.
Growing Lentils – Potential Problems
Lentils won’t compete with weeds well, and they can suffer when they’re very young if there is a lot of competition for nutrients. Keep the area free from weeds, and be very careful when you remove them when they’re close to your young plant’s slender stems because the roots can tangle.
Air circulation is also necessary, so when you’re growing lentils and training them to grow on the trellis, ensure that you have plenty of space around them. This lowers your chances of fungi-based diseases taking hold and spreading.
There are two forms of root rot that are common when you’re growing lentils, and they are Rhizoctonia root rot and Fusarium root rot. The soil borne fungi cause both types, and applying a biofungicide like MycoStop will work best against Fusarium and moderately so against Rhizoctonia. Inoculating your seeds with Rhizobium leguminosarum is a better way to protect against Rhizoctonia. In both cases, you want to avoid overwatering because this lowers the chances of the fungal causes developing.
Another common disease that happens during heavy spring rains and soggy soil is one called Ascochyta blight. This looks like a gray-colored patch on the leaves with a brown-colored ring. It can quickly spread to the pod and cause seed damage too. Remove any damaged plant material and treat it using a copper-based fungicide to reduce the spread. Make a point to water less.
White mold, cottony rot, or Sclerotinia stem rot is another issue that can plague you when you’re growing legumes. This forms a cotton-like, white mass of fungal spores on the stems of your plants. It’s very difficult to treat once it settles in, and many of the organic fungicides you get won’t work well. You can use beneficial bacteria and mycorrhizae as a soil supplement. You want to strip away any destroyed plants and monitor the infection.
There are several pests that can cause issues when you’re growing lentils, but most of the pests aren’t terribly destructive. However, you want to address them to reduce how many you have in the garden.
Thrips and aphids are sucking pests that appear on your lentils. If they’re able to, they pick out juicer targets, but they’ll work on the foliage on your vine leaves too. One aphid symptom is yellow specks forming on the leaves, and thrips commonly appear on the flowers. You can apply neem oil to all of the foliage, both the underside and the top, to reduce the population.
The wireworm is another issue you can run into, and they’re click beetle larvae that live in the soil and feast on organic matter. So, the plant roots are in danger. You can treat them by adding nematodes or using pyrethrin spray. Rotating your crops will also reduce the chances of them appearing.
Seedcorn maggots can easily burrow right into the lentil seeds and stop them from germinating. Planting more seeds than you need can help you avoid these problems, or you can start your legumes in pots and prevent it from happening.
Finally, another issue is the western tarnished plant bug or the Lygus bug. It will eat the fresh, undried pods and the foliage if you give it a chance. If you grow strawberries, they’ll most likely skip the lentils for them. Pyrethrin will help get rid of the adult bugs, but to cut them down when they’re in the wingless stage, you want to move the weeds away because they hatch here and travel to the plants.
You now know everything you have to do to successfully grow lentils. Our quick guide to growing lentils will help you get your plants off to a strong start so you have a bountiful harvest that you can store for up to a year.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.