If you already grow a range of fruits, vegetables and herbs, you might like to expand into growing pulses in your polytunnel. You may be surprised by just how many different pulses it is possible to grow here in our climate.
If you are interested in living more healthily and sustainably, then eating more pulses is a great way to go. It can allow you to live in a more ethical and environmentally conscious way. Growing pulses yourself can be an even greener choice. It is essential if you want to be self-sufficient and have a full and healthy vegan or vegetarian diet.
Why Start Growing Pulses in Your Polytunnel?
Pulses are an important part of a healthy diet. There are many reasons to grow and eat them, covered in this article on the topic. To summarize:
- Eating pulses can help you cut meat consumption and reduce your negative impact.
- Pulses are an eco-friendly protein source which can help cut greenhouse gases.
- They help maintain and improve the soil when used in interplanting and crop rotation.
- They can be more water-wise choices than other protein sources.
- Pulses are also great for our health, and can help keep us at a healthy weight. They also reduce our risks of a number of diseases and chronic health problems.
But why, specifically, should we grow them in our own polytunnels? Eating more pulses in general is a good idea – but growing your own (or sourcing them locally right here in the UK) is even better.
Most of the pulses we tend to eat on a regular basis here in the UK are imported. Commonly eaten pulses include:
- Navy beans (used to make typical tinned baked beans).
- Chickpeas (used to make hummus and in other recipes).
- Lentils (often used in curries, soups and other favourite world-cuisine dishes).
Of course, importing these crops means that they come with a carbon cost associated with transportation. The more we can eat local, seasonal produce, the more we can cut our carbon footprints and reduce our negative impact on planet and people.
Growing Pulses in Your Polytunnel
Here are some options to consider if you want to start growing pulses in your polytunnel:
Winter Field Bean
Winter field beans are the same species as the fava bean or broad bean that is grown primarily for culinary use. However, field beans show better cold tolerance and are more vigorous. They are a different variety which produces smaller beans. They are often grown as a green manure, to protect soil over winter and chop and drop before flowering. But you can grow some on and eat them too.
Though the beans of field beans are smaller than broad or fava beans, more pods are generally produced per plant. They can be harvested while young and green, but could also be left to dry for use as a pulse.
Spring Sown Broad Bean
Broad beans are, of course, a familiar garden crop. They are often harvested while young and green, but, again, can also be left longer and dried as a pulse. Sowing broad beans in your polytunnel, either in autumn or very early in spring, can give you longer for the beans to fully mature for use as a pulse.
The dried field beans or broad beans can be stored in sealed containers, then soaked and used in a wide range of recipes. They can be a great, more eco-friendly, locally grown alternative to the navy beans usually used to make baked beans.
Other beans can also be grown which produce dry beans, rather than being eaten in the green. Drying or shelling beans in a range of different varieties can also be grown successfully here in the UK – especially when you have a polytunnel to grow them in.
Try, for example:
- Jacob’s Cattle Gold (Bush bean)
- French bean Borlotto Lingua Di Fuoco
- A range of ‘Haricot’ French bean varieties – e.g. ‘Blue Lake’ etc..
- Czar Runner Beans (not just for the green pods but also for beans like butter beans for drying)
- Greek Gigantes (a runner bean specifically bred for its large, buttery seeds).
- Fagiolo di Spagna (Phaseolus lunatus) (Butter beans)
Many French beans and runner beans can be left to mature to harvest the seeds rather than the pods. But remember, when you leave them to mature they will stop producing more pods when not harvested regularly.
You can find plenty of amazing heritage bean varieties at beansandherbs.co.uk.
As well as growing a range of peas to eat as traditional green garden peas, mange tout or sugar snap varieties, you should also consider growing some ‘soup peas’ to use dried.
While you can dry a wide range of different pea varieties for use as a pulse, it is best to opt for varietals that have been specifically bred for the purpose.
Some examples of pulse peas for the UK are:
- Boddington’s soup pea
- Latvian soup pea
- Roveja Semi-dwarf soup pea
- Raatviksaart soup pea.
- Maro (marrowfat peas – for ‘mushy peas’)
- Kabuki (marrowfat peas)
- Yellow field peas (P. sativum subsp. Arvense (L.) Asch)
Carlin peas (AKA Pigeon peas, Cajanus cajanwas) are a great UK alternative for chickpeas or puy lentils. These are not widely available in the UK, but are produced commercially by Hodmedods. They produce ‘Red Fox’ and ‘Black Badger’ carlin peas for the British market. And it is possible to get your hands on some seeds from a heritage seed catalogue.
Lentils have been grown relatively successfully in southern parts of the UK for the past few years, and chickpeas have now also been grown in the UK for the first time. But as a polytunnel grower, the above options are usually the best pulses to grow.
Remember, grow heritage varieties and you can save some of your seeds to sow the following year. Over time, this could allow you to become self-sufficient and perhaps even meet all your protein needs in your own property.
Tips for Growing Pulses
If you want to be self-sufficient in pulses then one important thing to remember is that different varieties can easily cross. Peas self-pollinate, and so those seeds tend to stay relatively pure. But Broad beans, French beans and runner beans tend to cross-pollinate and so can be more challenging to keep pure. It is best, therefore, to grow only one variety in a polytunnel if you want to continue to grow the same variety the following year.
For certain French beans and other more tender bean varieties, polytunnel growing can be ideal. But you may need to provide a little extra protection from frost for longer season varieties, that may not quite be ready to harvest for dry beans towards the end of the growing season. It is also important not to start more tender beans too early, as they can suffer if there is a late frost.
Drying Your Pulses
When you are growing peas and beans for drying, you will leave the pods on your plants to fully mature until September or October. You will not harvest until the pods are brown and dry, and the seeds are coming loose and rattling inside. Cut off the dried pods from the plants, and bring them indoors.
Shell the peas or beans, removing them from their pods. Spread them out on trays or plates and leave them in a well-ventilated place, out of direct sunlight, for a month or so to completely dry. Give them a shake to turn them and move them around a little every now and then.
When the pulses are fully dry, they will be shrunken slightly, and will be lighter. When they are fully dry, they can be packed away by around early December. Store some separately for seed and seal the rest into airtight containers. Keep them in a dry, cool (but not frosty) place. With the right storage, your seeds should remain viable for at least the next two years.
Growing your own pulses can be an incredibly useful and satisfying thing to do. Do you already grow pulses in your polytunnel? Share your tips, experiences and suggestions in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.