Legumes are a versatile family of podded plants including green beans, dry beans, garden peas and field peas. Legumes are useful in pasture, field and garden management because their unique physiology fixes nitrogen in the soil, reducing or eliminating the need for nitrogen fertilizers. Grown in the garden, legumes yield healthy, delicious produce from the first spring peas to beans for winter baking and soups.
Have your soil tested with a home test kit or by your local extension office. Decrease the acidity of soil by adding lime if it tests lower than pH 6.0, as legumes prefer an alkaline soil. Add compost to the soil to increase general nutrient and micronutrient availability, and loosen the soil to a depth of 6 inches.
Plant garden peas as early as the ground can be worked in spring without causing undue compaction to the soil. Hoe a 2-inch-deep trench in the garden about 8 inches wide. Plant a row of garden peas, snow peas or snap peas down each edge of the trench. Erect fencing or trellis vertically down the middle of the trench, then cover the peas over and water lightly. Place additional rows at a distance of 3-foot centers.
Plant field peas in late spring, and beans after the garden soil has warmed--about 1 to 2 weeks after average last frost date. Trench bush beans in rows in the same method used for planting garden peas.
Tie three or more poles together with garden twine to make a teepee shape. Place over prepared soil, and plant five pole beans around the base of each pole at a depth of 2 inches. Place additional teepees at a distance of 3-foot centers.
Mulch around the base of legume plants in the garden with compost or straw after they have developed their first set of true leaves. Cultivate lightly between rows for weed control and to keep the soil loose, then mulch this area as well.
Keep legumes evenly but lightly watered. Harvest snow peas when the pods are just beginning to show signs of pea development, and harvest garden peas when the pods are plump but still bright green. Pick green beans frequently, at the thin "pencil" stage for the most delicious fresh flavor or when slightly thicker for canning and freezing.
Top dress dry bean varieties in midsummer to ensure adequate nutrients to complete their longer growing season. Allow soup bean varieties to dry completely on the plants before harvesting for shelling or threshing.
Cut legume plants off at ground level leaving the root system in the ground, or turn in the whole plant after harvest, to maximize the nitrogen-fixing benefits of legumes to your garden or fields.