Sowing and cultivating lentils is an age-old agricultural practice. This plant is a classic grain legume that has always been a staple in human diets. In fact, some studies and fossil records suggest it might be the oldest legume ever cultivated by humans. Rich in exceptional nutritional qualities, lentils were primarily consumed by the less affluent classes because they were readily available and affordable. In recent years, there has been a renewed appreciation for this plant, which can be easily cultivated even in a domestic setting.
This legume thrives even in poor soils, enriching them, and requires very little care.
Let’s explore in this article how to cultivate lentils in your home garden. But before we dive in, let’s get to know this small legume a bit better.
Lentils: Botanical Classification and Plant Origin
The lentil, scientifically known as Lens culinaris, is an herbaceous plant with an annual life cycle from the Leguminosae (or Fabaceae) family. Other leguminous plants we’ve discussed include broad beans, peas, and chickpeas. These are also quite easy to plant in a home garden.
The origin of the lentil plant is entirely Middle Eastern, as it originated in a region spanning the present-day states of Syria and Iraq. From there, it spread throughout the Mediterranean basin, becoming part of the diets of the Greeks and Romans, for example.
Characteristics of the Lentil Plant
The lentil plant doesn’t reach great heights. Typically, it’s rather short and doesn’t exceed 30-40 cm. It has a semi-prostrate growth habit and is highly branched and delicate.
The root system is fibrous and doesn’t extend to great depths. It also develops numerous small, elongated root nodules.
The leaves are light green, alternating along the stems, and pinnately compound. Typically, they consist of 10-14 pairs of leaflets, ending with a simple or bifid tendril.
The flowers are small and usually white, with pink or blue veins at most. They are borne in the axils of the leaves and bloom in spring-summer, from May to July.
The lentil plant has an indeterminate growth pattern. Therefore, it’s possible to find both flowers (at the top) and mature fruits (at the bottom) on the plant at the same time.
The fruit is the legume, contained within a small, flat, and rather short pod. Each pod contains only two lentils. These lentils are round and slightly convex. Depending on the variety, they come in different sizes, ranging from 2 to 8 mm in diameter.
Improving the Soil
One of the characteristics of legumes is their ability to improve the soil. Lentils, as mentioned earlier, develop root nodules as a result of a symbiotic relationship with bacteria from the Rhizobium genus. These bacteria fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil, transforming it into forms (nitrate and ammonium) easily assimilated by plants. This means that the soil will have an excellent supply of nitrogen for subsequent crops. For this reason, in crop rotations, the cultivation of lentils is considered beneficial for different soil types. For instance, if you have an olive grove, an orchard, or a small vineyard, sowing lentils in the fall is an excellent way to provide green manure.
Varieties of Lentils
Based on the size and weight of the seeds, lentils can be divided into two groups:
- Small-seeded, with lentils less than 6 mm in diameter and weighing less than 40 mg
- Large-seeded, with lentils larger than 6 mm in diameter and weighing more than 40 mg
The color also varies depending on the variety, ranging from pale shades (light green, blond, pink) to darker shades (dark green, brown, violet). On the global market, large-seeded varieties are more common, but in our country, small-seeded varieties are highly appreciated. The most prized Italian varieties correspond to local ecotypes:
- Lentil of Castelluccio di Norcia
- Santo Stefano di Sessanio
As you can see, typical varieties are mainly located in Central and Southern Italy. It’s in these regions that this cultivation is more widespread.
Lentils: Then and Now
In the past, lentils were considered a humble crop. This was true not only because of their low commercial value, relegating them to consumption by less affluent social classes but also because of their minimal cultivation requirements in terms of soil and climate. This cultivar, in fact, thrives in disadvantaged areas with arid climates and challenging soils. Today, the perception of this legume has changed. It is usually grown in areas where typical varieties, often found in high-altitude plateaus, originate. In these locations, the lentil plant can produce a far-from-humble product. Italian lentil productions are highly regarded worldwide for their quality. They are flavorful, nutritious, and easy to cook.
Modern tradition associates lentils with prosperity and money because of their coin-like shape. For this reason, they are eaten during the New Year’s Eve dinner as a symbol of prosperity for the coming year.
When it comes to soil, the ideal choice for lentil cultivation is low-fertility soil, preferably with a sandy texture. However, lentils can also grow in clayey or loamy soils, as long as there is no waterlogging. Excessive moisture can harm the quality of the final product. Even too much organic matter, i.e, very fertile soil, can pose problems for this cultivation. Lentils, in fact, thrive in conditions that are challenging for other crops. Consequently, this plant requires no fertilization or irrigation. To have good soil, all you need to do is perform reasonably deep cultivation. You can achieve this through subsoiling, followed by proper refinement, which is necessary for correct sowing.
The best time to sow lentils is in the fall, during October and November. This is especially true in central and southern regions. However, in wetter and colder areas, you can plant lentils starting from March to April. In such cases, select varieties with a shorter growth cycle.
Lentils are sown in regular rows, in small plots that accommodate 5-6 seeds each. Space each plot 15 cm apart along the row. Maintain a distance of 40-50 cm between rows. Plant the seeds at a shallow depth, approximately 1-2 cm. Some people opt for broadcast seeding, covering an entire area. This method can have advantages in terms of overall yield but may entail disadvantages in terms of subsequent crop care.
Cultivation Care: Weed Management
Lentil cultivation requires minimal and straightforward care. The most important aspect is weed management, as weeds can pose a serious problem for this legume. In the initial stages of growth, the plant is slow to establish and has limited smothering power. Regular manual weeding is the most commonly used control method for this cultivar. We advise against using mulching during the winter months because, as we’ve seen, excessive moisture is detrimental to the plant. For spring plantings, a light layer of straw can be applied. If, however, you don’t like frequent manual weeding, you can use another technique: hilling. This involves lightly cultivating the soil between the rows without going too deep and then piling some soil around the base of the plant. Hilling is recommended at the beginning of spring.
Lentils are typically harvested in late spring if sown in the fall, and in early summer if sown in the spring. It’s best to uproot the entire plant when it begins to dry out, and the pods are sufficiently firm and swollen. In the past, in rural areas, plants were uprooted and left on the ground to dry. After drying, they were threshed to obtain the lentils. Today, it’s preferable to dry the plants not on the ground but in protected areas to avoid pest attacks.
Pests and Diseases
Lentils are a fairly hardy species that aren’t prone to cryptogamic diseases and pests. Among the potential issues, watch out for rot, which is caused by waterlogging. As for pests, in spring, you might encounter attacks by aphids. These can be easily controlled on this cultivar using natural macerations like nettle (which you can make at home or purchase ready-made) and garlic. Another potentially harmful insect is the pea leaf weevil (Sitona lineatus), a small beetle closely related to the vine weevil that feeds on the roots and leaves of the plant. Stored lentils, on the other hand, can be attacked by weevils, especially Bruchus ervi and Callosobruchus chinensis. To prevent these types of infestations, pay close attention to the cleanliness of the areas where you store food.