This season if you are growing your own lettuce, squash, carrots and other vegetables in your backyard garden, be sure to also plant a few varieties of beans. Growing your own protein and have nutritionally well-balanced meals entirely from your edible garden is easy with legumes.

Legumes not only feed and sustain us, they also feed the earth by their near-magical ability to fix nitrogen into the soil, (in partnership with bacteria). The diverse legume family includes beans, peas, lima and fava beans, and also clovers, which are invaluable cover crops and often used as green manure.

Red Clover is part of the legume family and a valuable cover crop

I became fascinated with growing legumes due to their variety and power-packed nutritional content, including protein, iron, vitamins, and many minerals. Just one cup of lentils can provide you with about 16 grams of protein.

It’s no wonder that for millennia legumes have nourished entire civilizations and provided a nutritionally sound alternative to eating meat when it was scarce, or not a part of the diet. The origins of different types can be traced back to the Old World, such as garbanzos and fava beans; while other legumes, like runner beans, originally came from the New World.

A Bean for Every Season

It is very satisfying to plant beans and take advantage of their diversity and versatility: harvest the pods to eat as green beans, or shell the fresh beans for a special seasonal dish, then let some dry in the pod for eating over the winter and for next year’s seed stock.

You’ll also have a choice of seasons in which to plant: some legumes are cool weather crops, such as favas, peas, runner beans, while others like the heat; this allows you to rotate your planting according to the time of year. Beans are good companions to plant next to other vegetables; they are not heavy feeders, due to their nitrogen fixing properties.

Bamboo poles make a sturdy trellis for pole beans

A Legume for Every Garden

Legumes come in a diversity of plant forms: to save space, plant pole beans and climbing peas to cover a trellis, fence or a “teepee’ made of long poles (some types grow 10-12 feet high). Bush beans can be grown in containers or tucked among other vegetables. Bush-type green beans are fun for children to plant and they enjoy picking them fresh and eating them on the spot. Ditto for sugar snap peas, my personal favorite to munch on while I’m puttering around the garden beds.

The varieties of heirloom beans and peas are plentiful, and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding some that you enjoy growing and eating. It is more likely you’ll end up as I did, looking for spare corners of the garden and empty containers, just be able to fit in just a few more different kinds.

Next in this series: Suggestions for growing some interesting varieties and how to save the seeds.

Photos: Urban Artichoke