Kids Eat the Darndest Things, by Jane Young

By Jim Janke | Apr 01, 2013

No, this is not a story about a little kid biting into a caterpillar. It’s about a whole room full of little kids blissfully eating a really healthy vegetable that most of them have not seen at home. It’s edamame, pronounced “edda-mom-may,” with the accent on “mom.”

This scene takes place at the Junaluska Elementary School each year when the multi-age class celebrates the bounty from their school garden. Adult volunteers cook and the kids eat, sampling every green thing that grew in the garden from spring till fall. Their unanimous favorite is edamame, hands down.

A green soybean that grows much like ordinary bush beans, edamame is the perfect finger food for kids. You boil or steam the pods for five minutes, drain, and cool enough to handle. Then squeeze the pod so that the bean pops right into your mouth. Nutty tasting and slightly sweet, these beans are high in protein and fiber but low in calories.

Frozen edamame, both in the pods and already shelled, can be found in local supermarkets. But even beginning gardeners with a small vegetable plot can grow their own; it’s no harder than growing bush beans. And surplus from the summer garden freezes beautifully for satisfying, mid-winter snacks. Here is what you need to know for a successful crop.

Edamame likes full sun and average garden soil with plenty of compost worked in to assure good drainage. Any fertilizer used should be relatively low in nitrogen, that is, higher in phosphorous and potassium than nitrogen. Excess nitrogen for this plant results in too much foliage and too little pod set. Although a soil test won’t tell you how much nitrogen is in the soil, it will tell you if your soil is low in phosphorous and potassium.

Wait to plant the seeds until temperatures are in the 60s or above, and the danger of frost has passed. If the soil temperature is below 60 degrees, the seeds will not germinate. Sow the seeds one-half to one inch deep, 2 to 4 inches apart. Be sure to keep the soil moist but not soggy. With enough warmth, the seeds should start sprouting up in 8 to 10 days. Most varieties will grow to under 30 inches tall and don’t require staking.

Edamame is not subject to much insect damage. But the sprouts emerging from the ground make tasty treats for birds. Last summer the resident bird population around the school garden got almost every seedling while we were not looking. This year we will place a floating row cover over the bed at planting time and leave it there until the seedlings are several inches tall.

Mulch around the plants (chopped leaves work well) to conserve moisture. Beans are shallow-rooted and may need frequent watering in hot weather, particularly while in bloom. Avoid getting water on the leaves unless it is early in the day and leaves can dry off before nighttime.

Expect to harvest 70 to 90 days from planting, depending on the variety. Unlike ordinary bush beans, edamame has a short harvest period. That is, most of the pods ripen at about the same time. So it’s important to keep an eye on them as their maturity approaches. Harvest when the pods are plump with the beans almost touching each other inside the pod. The pods should be barely beginning to lose their bright green color. Once they start turning yellow, the beans become starchy and lose their sweet, nutty flavor.

Wash the pods to remove any soil, drain well, and store in the refrigerator up to 4 or 5 days. To cook, steam or boil them covered with lightly salted water until the pods are easy to pop open, about 5 minutes. To freeze, blanch the pods in boiling water for 3 minutes, chill in ice water, drain, and package for freezing. For a healthy winter snack, drop frozen pods into boiling water, cooking for 2 or 3 minutes. The beans should squeeze out of the pods easily. Remember, only the beans are edible, not the pods.

Experienced gardeners have learned another little trick for planting beans and peas of any kind. Because they are legumes, these plants can produce their own nitrogen and deposit it in the soil. Coating the seed at planting time with an “inoculant” helps ensure that this process happens, particularly in soil where legumes have not grown before. Inoculant is available in small packets from reputable seed dealers. Its use typically increases bean production.

Jane Young is an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer in Haywood County. For more information call the Haywood County Extension Center at 828-456-3575. © 2013 NC State University.