Growing Ancient Legumes
By Nan Fischer
In the culinary world, chickpeas are often ground into flour; cooked, mashed, and spiced as hummus; or mashed, spiced, and fried as falafel. They’re also used whole in soups, stews, curries, and as a garnish. Cumin, ginger, garlic, cayenne, turmeric, and coriander traditionally accompany chickpeas in these dishes.
Photo by Getty Images/Savany
Once my daughters grew up and moved out, I had the opportunity to make my garden my own and fill it with vegetables I love. My garden has undergone many transformations since, as I’ve experimented each season with new crops. I’ve grown foods I’d never heard of before, and I’ve tried to tackle some favorites that seemed too challenging to grow years before.
For the last two gardening seasons, I’ve undertaken growing chickpeas in my garden. I’d never looked into chickpeas as a crop because I thought they needed a long, hot growing season. Living at a 7,000-foot elevation in the Rocky Mountains, I feel blessed if I get 90 frost-free growing days. I’ve been making hummus and falafel for years with canned chickpeas, but growing my own chickpeas always seemed unthinkable.
At a spring seed swap, I received a small envelope of chickpeas that’d grown outside of Mexico City at an elevation of 7,500 feet, in a climate very similar to the mountains of New Mexico. Finally, here was my opportunity to experiment in the garden! I took the seeds home and researched chickpeas, eager to start planting. My trials with chickpeas took me through various highs and lows, and taught me a great deal about the ancient legumes.
The Traveling Chickpea
Chickpeas (Cicer arietinum) are one of the earliest cultivated vegetables. Ancient agriculturalists domesticated the chickpea with other West Asian Neolithic crops — wheat, barley, peas, and lentils — about 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. In parts of Syria and Turkey, there’s evidence of cultivation dating back to 7,500 B.C. The species appeared in Greece and Italy by 3,000 B.C., and in India by 2,000 B.C.
Photo by Getty Images/yogesh_more
There are two cultivated varieties of chickpea. The large tan seed commonly used in falafel and hummus is the kabuli chickpea. Though agriculturalists are unsure, they believe it originated in Kabul, Afghanistan, for which it’s named. Desi chickpeas, the second cultivated variety, don’t resemble the common chickpea consumers recognize. Desi chickpeas are much smaller than the kabuli chickpea, and are dark-green or black in color. Though not considered the typical chickpea, they’re actually genetically closer to the wild progenitor of all cultivated chickpeas, C. reticulatum.
The wild progenitor, C. reticulatum, is difficult to domesticate, even with modern breeding technologies. Many factors limit its domestication: Chickpeas aren’t genetically diverse; each plant has very few seeds; the distribution range is narrow; and seeds need to be vernalized, or exposed to cold during germination, for optimal growth. Farmers are working to breed out these negative attributes for future generations. Despite these challenges, chickpeas have one positive characteristic working for them: the seeds are easy to collect because they aren’t immediately scattered upon ripening.
One Bean, Infinite Benefits
Chickpeas are one of the most produced pulse crops in the world, along with soybeans, common dried beans, and peas. They’re naturally high in fiber and protein, and low in fat, making them a staple in vegetarian and vegan diets. Just 1 cup of chickpeas has 35 grams of fiber, and 39 grams of protein.
Ancient peoples believed that eating chickpeas increased menstruation, breast milk production, and semen quality. In traditional medicines, healers used the acids present in the stems, leaves, and green pods as an aphrodisiac. An article published in the British Journal of Nutrition reports that chickpeas may help improve a myriad of health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity. Furthermore, a 2016 study found that replacing animal-based proteins with plant-based proteins may extend the average human lifespan, especially for those with existing health conditions.
Sprouted chickpeas on a wet burlap, used for the preparation of healthy food, rich in protein and vitamins
Photo by Getty Images/13-Smile
Chickpeas remain a staple in India and the Middle East due to their array of nutritious preparations. They’re commonly eaten as a snack in various forms, whether that’s green, roasted and spiced, or preserved in syrup. People in India treat fresh chickpea sprouts and leaves as a vegetable, eating them raw or cooked. Livestock munch on the remaining stalks, pods, and leaves.
The Founders of Falafel
Now considered Israel’s national dish, falafel is commonly served in pita bread with tahini, lettuce, tomatoes, and pickles. Because falafel has been served this way in America and Europe by Jewish immigrants, Americans and Europeans often associate the food with Israel. However, falafel actually originated in Arab cultures.
In Arab countries, falafel was traditionally made with fava beans, which is still the case in Egypt. However, chickpeas have replaced fava beans as the key ingredient for falafel in the majority of Middle Eastern countries. Culturally, Arabs serve falafel with tahini or hummus for dipping.
Though fava beans are still the standard in Egypt, my Egyptian friend, Ola Kamel, admits that using chickpeas brings new life to an old, traditional recipe.
I learned everything I know about growing chickpeas through trial and error. I’d grown beans and peas for years, so I figured that growing another legume must be similar. My first year growing chickpeas, I did research to find out how to avoid frost damage when seeding the plants. I thought chickpeas were heat lovers, so I was surprised to learn that you direct sow them two weeks before the last frost. Besides that, I treated them the same as I do my other legumes; I added a couple of inches of compost into the soil and let them grow.
I planted my seeds 6 inches apart in rows set 18 inches apart. We had normal rainfall, so I didn’t worry about watering. Only half of my seeds germinated. As the surviving seeds started to push through the soil, I fed them with organic liquid fertilizer to boost flowering and produce more seed. The fertilizer caused most of the plants to turn a sickly yellow color. After that, I left the bed alone and just observed. I only harvested a half-pint of seed from eight less-than-beautiful plants that first season.
Photo by Getty Images/lesichkadesign
After learning from my first trial, I changed a few factors the following year. I chose a warmer spot to plant my chickpeas and added more compost to the soil before planting. I’d noticed that chickpea plants don’t take up much space, so I planted seeds every 3 inches in rows set 1 foot apart. With these changes, germination rose to 60 percent, with 20 seeds sprouting. Though it wasn’t much progress, I was closer to successfully growing chickpeas.
My third year, heat and drought dominated the summer. It was hard to keep anything alive and thriving. I planted the chickpeas next to a bed of lentils, both experiments in drought tolerance. The lentils needed much more water than the chickpeas, which need very little water to thrive and produce. I didn’t fertilize midseason, and my chickpea plants were much happier for it. They remained a fresh, healthy green color until they naturally dried out and yellowed as they produced seed.
This season, I’m going to continue experimenting with chickpeas. I plan to give the seed a cold treatment first. If there’s enough seed, I’d like to do a germination test. I’ll also tackle growing black desi chickpeas, which I received at another seed swap.
In just a few seasons, I learned that chickpeas don’t need much attention to produce an abundant harvest. The key to a full, healthy crop of chickpeas is following a short list of cardinal rules:
- Plant in full sun two weeks before the last frost. Chickpeas grow during long, cool tropical winters. If the temperature gets too high, their flowers drop.
- Plant seeds close together because mature plants support each other.
- Amend the bed with compost, but don’t make the soil too rich. Don’t fertilize the plants throughout the season.
- Overwatering the chickpea plants — or having overly soggy soil — will quickly kill the crop.
Fighting Deadly Diseases
Chickpea plants are susceptible to leaf hoppers, bean beetles, and mites. It’s easy to dispose of many of these pests, but others may carry diseases with them, making their presence a larger threat to your garden. For example, infected aphids spread bean mosaic virus as they feed on chickpea leaves, causing the plants to yellow and wilt. Wet soil and overhead watering also invite diseases into your garden. Excess moisture causes blights and anthracnose.
To reduce the chance of disease and pests, clean up debris as soon as possible, keeping the area around your plants clear of any possible infections. If a plant becomes infected, immediately remove it and throw it away. Don’t compost diseased plants, as this allows the disease to spread back into your garden. Prune your plants as needed, making sure there’s sufficient air circulation among the plants. Lastly, practice a 3-year crop rotation, to reduce the incidence of disease and pests.
After being so intimidated, chickpeas turned out to be the lowest maintenance crop I’ve ever grown. I greatly enjoyed experimenting with my plants and watching them grow stronger through each trial. See for yourself how readily you can grow this legume with a rich history, flavor, and benefits, right outside your back door.
Photo by Getty Images/Wiktory
Ola’s Egyptian Chickpea Hummus
- 2-1/2 cups chickpeas
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons tahini
- 1 medium lemon, juiced
- Salt to taste
- 1 teaspoon cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon chili pepper or cayenne pepper
- 6 to 8 garlic cloves, chopped
- In a large bowl, thoroughly rinse chickpeas and drain.
- Add all ingredients to food processor and process until the mixture has a creamy consistency.
Note: You can add extra olive oil or lemon juice to adjust the consistency and flavor of the hummus. If it becomes too thin, you can add more chickpeas.
Photo by Getty Images/kcline
Ola’s Creamy Egyptian Falafel
- 1 cup dried chickpeas
- 1/2 cup onion, chopped
- 6 to 8 garlic cloves, chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
- 1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- 1 to 2 teaspoons salt
- 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
- 2 tablespoons flour
- 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- Oil, for frying
- In a large bowl, soak chickpeas in water overnight, then drain.
- Add all ingredients, except frying oil, to food processor and process. Let mixture sit for 10 minutes.
- Heat oil on stove. Shape falafel mixture into semi-rounded biscuits. Deep fry until golden brown; the outside should have a slight crunch, while the inside remains soft but cooked. Drain on paper towels. Allow the falafel to cool a bit, and then serve.
Nan Fischer is the founder of the Taos Seed Exchange in New Mexico, a free community service for home gardeners to swap seeds. She holds her associate degree in horticulture, and likes to experiment in the garden and the kitchen.
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