Why and How to Grow Pulses in Your Garden

From dry beans to chickpeas and lentils, oftentimes home growers do not consider the potential to grow their own pulses.

Tuscan soup
Grow your own soup, including the beans. © eleonora galli / Getty Images

Pulses are the dried edible seeds of plants in the legume family. While around the world they make up a great proportion of the food eaten, oftentimes home gardeners do not consider the potential to grow their own.

A range of different legumes – green beans, climbing beans, and peas, for example – are commonly grown at home. But few gardeners take the time and effort to move beyond legumes eaten green and fresh, to consider the pulses that can come from these plants. If pulses are grown, they are all too often grown as animal feed, when we really should be eating them ourselves.

Examples of Pulses

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) covers 11 types of pulses: dry beans, dry broad beans (fava), dry peas, chickpeas, cowpeas, pigeon peas, lentils, Bambara beans, vetches, lupins, and pulses nes.

Why Grow Pulses?

There are a range of reasons to grow legumes for pulses in your garden. Here are just some of the reasons why it can be a great idea:

  • Incorporating nitrogen fixing plants like legumes in annual and perennial planting schemes eliminates any need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. This is important because nitrogen fertilizers are a major contributor to climate change and environmental pollution.
  • Nitrogen fixing legumes can benefit crops following them in rotation, and potentially also other crops grown close by. So they help you maximise yield from your growing areas and use far fewer inputs to maintain productivity.
  • Everything in a successful, sustainable growing system comes back to the soil. And nitrogen fixing legumes help to keep the soil healthy. They produce a number of different compounds which feed soil microbes and keep the soil ecosystem functioning as it should.

Of course, we can obtain all of these benefits by simply growing nitrogen fixers for fresh green beans, peas, and so on. But there are further reasons to consider allowing these plants to grow on and seeds to mature so that beans and peas can be dried for later use.

  • Pulses are an excellent source of plant-based protein. Reducing our meat and dairy consumption is an important way to reduce our individual carbon footprints and our negative impact on the wider world.
  • Eating pulses (and growing pulses) is a water-wise choice. Many pulse crops are adapted to drier environments and well-suited to arid areas. Some, like lentils and peas, extract water from a shallower depth, leaving more water in the ground for crops that follow. On average, it takes just 43 gallons of water to produce one pound of pulses. While it takes 1,857 gallons on average to produce just one pound of beef.
  • Choosing to grow legumes for pulses can also make it easier for us to eat produce from our gardens year-round – not just over the summer months. Dried beans, peas, etc. are easily preserved and stored for later use.
  • Eating pulses is not just good for the planet, it is good for you too. They are a low-fat protein source, high in important nutrients, and a good source of dietary fiber.

When you grow your own pulses at home, you also avoid the need to purchase pulses that have been grown far away. This, of course, reduces food miles and the carbon footprint of what you eat.

The pretty foliage and flowers of lentil plants (Lens culinaris).
The pretty foliage and flowers of lentil plants (Lens culinaris).

ChriKo / Wikimedia Commons

How to Grow Legumes for Pulses in Your Garden

If you have decided to grow pulses, the first thing will be choosing which ones to plant. This will depend on where you live and the climate and conditions in your area. Here are some excellent choices to consider.

Pulses for an Annual Garden

  • Vicia faba (fava beans) – USDA zones 4 through 8
  • Phaseolus vulgaris (common beans: navy, kidney, cannellini, pinto, black, butter, and more) – USDA zones 2 through 11
  • Pisum sativum (choose cultivars for soups or drying) – All USDA zones at the right times and in the right places
  • Glycine max (soya bean) – USDA zones 7 through 10
  • Lupinus mutabilis (pearl lupin) – USDA zones 8 through 11
  • Phaseolus coccinus (runner beans) – USDA zones 1 through 12
  • Phaseolus lunatus (lima beans) – USDA zones 10 through 12

Pulses for a Perennial Garden

For a perennial garden, some more options for protein-rich seeds include:

  • Caragana arborescens (Siberian pea tree) – USDA zones 2 through 7
  • Desmanthus illinoensis (Prairie mimosa) – USDA zones 4 through 8
  • Medicago sativa (Alfalfa). Seeds can be ground and used along with wheat to make a protein-rich bread – USDA zones 4 through 8
  • Glycine max x Glycine tomentella (perennial soya bean – developed at University of Illinois) – USDA zones 7 through 10
  • Lentils – USDA zones 7 through 12
  • Chickpeas/garbanzo beans - growing chickpeas is possible where temperatures stay between 50 and 85 F for at least 3 months
  • Pigeon peas – USDA zones 10 through 12

Most gardeners will begin by growing familiar legumes, and simply leave these for the seeds to mature before drying them and using them as pulses. This is just a small step from growing fava beans, green beans, peas etc. to eat fresh. And does not require a major change to gardening practices. They can be used in the same ways, with companion planting and crop rotation – but will remain in your garden for longer than when you are growing these plants for vegetable crops.

Black bean plant with purple flower
Black bean plant.

hiphoto40 / Getty Images

But if you are feeling more experimental, you could consider trying out more unusual perennial options – perhaps as part of a forest garden or other perennial planting scheme. You can always start out small, then grow more pulses next year depending on how things have worked out where you live.

Leave pods on legumes to fully mature, harvesting only when they are brown and dry. Shell them, and spread them out to dry further, before processing them or placing them into airtight containers for storage.