Cheers heard for the humble soybean

Two years ago I was given a few soybeans to try out in my garden. I sowed them about June 1 and we ate them sometime in September. At that stage the beans were still green in the shell so there was no need to presoak them before boiling.

We liked them and planned to grow more, but I was away when planting time arrived last season. The garden was pretty well filled up with other crops, in any event.

I don't plan to miss out this year, however. Since that previous planting I have gained still more respect for the dynamic little bean. Not only have my wife and I begun to enjoy tofu and tempeh (products of the soybean), but I have just been reading "The Soybean Book" by Phyllis Hobson (Burlington, Vt.: Garden Way Publishing. $5.95). It has told me a good deal in an interesting and often entertaining way.

While truffles and the famed morel mushroom get the rave notices from gourmets, nutritionists are shouting loudest and longest about the soybean, a staple in many parts of China since before the Egyptian pyramids were built. Here are just some of the pluses of this pea-sized little bean:

* It's a high-value food that can take the place of meat in your diet more completely than any other vegetable. For the record, two pounds of soy flour boasts the protein equivalent of 5 pounds of boneless beef, 15 quarts of milk, 6 dozen eggs, or 4 pounds of cheese.

* It is the most versatile bean around and can be served in the fresh green stage, dried, whole, or sprouted, and can readily be converted into milk or cheese -- even an aromatic beverage that makes a great coffee substitute.

* Almost flavorless in itself, it has a chameleonlike capacity to take on the color and flavor of the foods around it. In powdered form (soy flour), it has an impressive ability to absorb and hold moisture, which is why many of the sausages you buy remain so pleasantly juicy after cooking.

* It also grows very readily which, from the gardener's point of view, might be the best of all its assets. Moreover, a little land goes a long way. An acre of land given over to the production of cattle for human consumption, will feed a man for 250 days. That same acre given over to producing the soybean provides the meat equivalent for one person for 2,200 days.

Translated into home-garden terms, a bed of soybeans can go a long way toward feeding a family. But why bother when the beans can be bought so inexpensively (principally from natural food stores)? Because growing your own soybeans provides beans in the still dele ctable green stage.

What you cannot manage to eat fresh you can leave to dry so nothing goes to waste.

If you plant soybeans in good garden soil that has been manured or composted for a previous crop, there will be no need to add fertilizer. In the absence of an organic-rich soil, add one-half pound of general fertilizer, such as 5-10-10, to every 10 square feet of garden.

In the acid soils of the East you might need a light application of ground limestone or wood ash to bring the pH up to between 6 and 7, the range preferred by most garden vegetables. Except for isolated areas west of the Mississippi, the soils are naturally sweet enough.

Like all good legumes, the soybean will enrich the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it in the soil as an available plant food. It does this with the help of bacteria strains that are naturally available in the soil.

It would help if you inoculated the seed prior to sowing. Legume inoculant is available in seed stores. Caution: the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that suit garden peas cannot work effectively with soybeans. Read the fine print carefully and see if soybeans are mentioned on the packet.

Once you have grown soybean crops in the soil for a couple of seasons, the bacteria population will have built up enough so that further inoculations are unnecessary.

Plant the seeds between 1 and 1 1/2 inches deep, 3 inches apart, in rows 18 inches apart, allowing for a path every third row. For those who prefer bed or wide-row planting, sow seeds 6 to 8 inches apart in every direction.

Sow after all danger of frost has passed. If the soil is warm, the seedlings will be up in about 5 days. Cooler soil will delay germination up to 12 days.

You will enjoy seeing the fuzzy little pods form and develop. When they are nicely plump but still green pick them for serving fresh or freezing. What you don't need immediately, leave on the vines to dry.

Remember, not every variety of soybean is suited to eating fresh. Ask your seed merchant for the garden variety. Some mail-order sources for home-garden varieties are: W. Atlee Burpee Company, Warminster, Pa. 18974; Farmer Seed Company, Faribault, Minn. 55021; Henry Field Seed & Nursery, Shenandoah, Iowa 51602; Joseph Harris Company, Rochester, N.Y. 14624; Johnny's Selected Seeds, Albion, Maine, 04910; J. W. Jung Seed Company, Randolph, Wis. 53956; and Thompson & Morgan, Somerda le, N.J. 08083.

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