How To Grow Lentils In The UK. Lentils Are Grown Commercially In the UK & Gardens Can Achieve Similar Yields. They Germinate Easily, Need Little Attention, So Are They Worth Growing? In this Article I Explain The Issues And Give An Answer To The Biggest Problem.
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Commercial crops of lentils (Lens culinaris) have been grown in France for a long time and area available in our shops as Puy Lentils. They grow in the volcanic soils around Puy and have protected status (Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)in France as “Lentille verte du Puy”.
And it might surprise many Brits to discover that we also grow lentils commercially in this country. Not many, but they are grown here. And if farmers can grow them, why can’t gardeners?
Well, they can.
But first let’s discover some more about how farmers grow them and see what we can learn from them.
Commercial Lentil Crops In the UK
In 2017 a range of organic and non-organic lentils were grown on six farms in Suffolk, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Hertfordshire and Sussex.
Here’s a link to a BBC video on the harvest that year.
Since then cropping has continued, with various varieties being trialled, including the variety grown in Puy.
Many people believe that the UK is too far north for growing lentils. After all the second biggest producer of lentils is India.
But by far the largest lentil producer is Canada where the crop has been grown since the 1970s. And Canada’s yield per hectare is double that of India.
Plus lentils are grown in Sweden, not known for its hot weather! A lot of research has been carried out in Sweden including interplanting the crop with oats. One problem with lentils is that they are low growing and “lodge” (lie flat after bad weather) which makes them hard to harvest with machinery. The oats give them support.
Lentils are either green or brown / orange.
Why Grow Lentils?
Dry lentils are approx 25% protein. And when cooked, having absorbed water, are still 10% protein.
Protein is expensive. Lentils produce it very economically.
And of course it is a vegetable crop, so loved by those that prefer not to eat meat.
What Exactly Is a Lentil?
Before growing them it is worth thinking about what sort of crop a lentil is.
The good news is that they are a legume. So they are capable of fixing nitrogen. That means they contribute to soil fertility. Some growers have considered them as a green manure crop. This sounds a good idea but I’ve yet to see any trials indicating how successful it can be.
Lentils are low growing sprawling bushy plants around 40-50cm high, that produce a small blue, pea-like flower followed by numerous pods containing one or two lentils. They are cold tolerant and some varieties are able to stand a slight frost if at the right growth stage. But they are not I crop I classify as being reliable in frost.
History of Lentils in the UK
I’m told that lentils used to be a staple foodstuffs for English peasants and were grown here. But I can find no evidence to support this.
What I have found is an article in the Irish Times that suggests that lentils were taken to Ireland by the Normans .. or perhaps the Vikings or early Christian settlers! It’s a vague reference at best and I can again find no evidence to support it. However, if it were true than its likely that lentils would have also been taken to England by the same group.
What is clear is that the crop is now being grown commercially in England.
How To Sow and Grow Lentils
If sown outdoors the best method would appear to be sowing in rows at about 30cm (1ft) apart at a rate of 10g per square yard/metre (I know that the two measures are not quite the same but this is a rough guide only).
Sow deep enough that the seed can be covered with around 10mm (1/4 inch) of soil covers them.
The sowing date should be in April or early May depending on your local conditions.
It would be possible to grow lentils in modules but with low yields it means a lot of hassle for little potential yield .. and I like to make gardening as easy as possible. If I were to use modules I would multi-seed them.
Planting density to aim for commercially is around 140-180 plants per square metre. That’s quite dense but necessary to get yield. However, if sown denser the risk of fungal disease increases.
Provided your soil contains the right nitrogen fixing bacteria your plants should soon be fixing nitrogen. Will you have the right bacteria? Well the species needed is Rhizobium leguminosarium, which also colonise some vetches and broad beans. So with luck this will happen with your crop.
For more on R. leguminosarium see Rashid 2014
By sowing in rows it will be possible to hoe any weeds from between the rows. If grown No Dig the weed burden should be lower and can be pulled by hand when at the seedling stage.
When Do Lentils Get Harvested?
The actual date will vary from area to area and depend on many factors including planting date and temperature. So forget looking for actual dates and study the crop.
When I grew cereals we had a very simple test. We would take an ear of corn that looked about ready (it would have become golden yellow and have dried out a lot), and we would rub the ear between our palms to remove the seed. It should look plump and be quite hard when bitten into. If the texture was doughy, it wasn’t yet ripe. If we thought it ready we would then use a moisture meter to make absolutely sure. We wanted below 16% moisture or it would go mouldy when stored.
All cereals farmers do this before harvest.
Lentils can be treated in much the same way. Shuck some from the pods. Are they dry? Do thy look like the ones you buy? Do the have the same “bite” to them?
This will give you an idea of their readiness, and given time and experience you’ll be able to tell quite easily.
Harvesting Lentils In UK Gardens
Each lentil normally has just one or two lentils in it. So harvest is potentially very laborious. And you can expect 1000- 2000 pods per square metre when sown at the above plant density.
As for yield, I’ve not seen figures for the UK but in Canada The five-year average yield is 1,711 kg/ha (1,527 lb./ac.), with a bushel weight of red lentil is 60 pounds.
In garden terms that is 1.7kg per square metre. But home grown crops could be higher to lower.
So harvesting by hand is next to impossible if you have any number of plants. And you’ll need a lot to harvest a few kilo of lentils!
So here’s my practical suggestion for harvesting the crop on a garden scale. When the crop is a day or two from being ready, cut the stems at ground level. Using a hedge trimmer will speed the process. Now place the cut crop in a warm airy place on top of a sheet of some description. The idea is that they will ripen and shed their lentils. To encourage ripening it would be good if this was done in a greenhouse or polytunnel where the warmth would help with drying the crop. If in a shed it would be best if there were a good airflow to help with drying.
Theshing the crop can also be tried. Beat the dried plants with a stick or flail and the lentils should separate easier.
What, with luck you’ll be left with is a mix of lentils and chaff (debris) on the sheet. Gather this together and try winnowing the chaff from the crop. Depending on how light or heavy the chaff is some separation would take place. Sieving is another way to separate the debris from the edible crop.
The reality is that a combination of the above will be necessary to clean the crop. it’s going to be trial and error.
Once the dried lentils have been harvested and retrieved they can be stored in a dry container until needed for cooking.
Where To Buy Lentil Seed
If growing lentils as microgreens shop bought seed might be ok. But you will need to test a pinch of seed first as it might have been heat treated to kill insects and bacteria! Shop bought seeds are also likely to have been grown overseas (unless bought from the one UK producer mentioned above). Many overseas grown crops are not adapted to our climate and may not do well.
Therefore search and buy from UK based seed companies that grow their own seed or, more likely, source their crop from France where conditions are more like ours.
How To Cook Lentils
Lentils need cooking. Uncooked lentils can cause stomach upsets.
There are countless recipes for cooking lentils, from dahls (aka daal, dhal or dal) to stews and soups.
My preference is to sweat some onions off; add chillis, add spices such as cumin, fenugreek, cardamon etc …. its a personal choice, just add what you like; add lentils (that have been soaked in cold water overnight); finally add a stock and simmer until the lentils are soft and have absorbed the liquid.
There are more recipes in this book from my bookshop.
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