Edamame (saying "eat 'em Mommy" will do) is not a Latin botanical term. It's the Japanese name for these soybeans, which can be eaten just briefly cooked or are processed into soymilk, tofu, and other products common in Asian cuisine. In a gardening context, they may be called edible soy beans or vegetable soybeans. Vegetable soybean seems most logical to me.That name tells you that these fresh soybeans can be used as a dinner vegetable, substituting for green beans or peas. (Other soybeans used for livestock, biodiesel and industrial uses are called field or grain soybeans. They don't taste as good fresh.) Edamame beans have lots of protein and all those weirdly named obscure nutritional elements (isoflavones? oligosaccharides?) that get soyfoods so much attention these days. One fun way to eat edamame is by snacking on them right out of the pods. A nutritious, easily grown and prepared snack food sounded like a very good addition to my garden AND kitchen repertoires.

The pods in this picture are in focus, just very fuzzy!

The dumb thing was,

I knew next to nothing about edamame when I decided to plant them. Oh, I had read a few articles about them in "foodie" publications. Edamame sounded like a Japanese equivalent of a favorite American snack, roasted peanuts in the shell. (Leave it to the healthy-eating Japanese to favor a green vegetable as happy-hour fare.) And I'd also read my share of advertising copy and nutrition notes touting the dietary benefits of all things "soy". In my typical impulsive fashion, I decided I would order seeds, and plant and cultivate edamame, rather than look for a bag of them at the grocery store and have a taste test.

I didn't do research before buying my seeds.

After all, the seed hybridizers and vendors have already invested heavily in offering cultivars that will satisfy lots of gardeners. How far wrong could I go? I picked up the catalog on the top of my stack, (my favorite, Pinetree Garden Seeds), and found edamame in its Asian Vegetable section. The basic planting intructions were simple, and familiar to anyone who's grown bush beans: Sow in warm soil, an inch and a half deep, three to four inches apart, harvest in about 75 days. I chose the 'Envy' variety, although 'Beer Friend' sounded just as good. 'Envy' grew beautifully for me. Each seedling from the small packet turning into an erect, bush-bean like plant. Familiar pea type blossoms were followed by surprising fuzzy pods, each plumped by two or three beans. I left all the pods on the plants until growth slowed and I figured I had all the beans I was likely to get. My dozen or so plants gave me about four cups of pods.

But I DO finish my research before giving advice.

Every seed source I've looked at is offering vegetable soybeans this year, though most only show one or two cultivars. Want to be a glutton for indecisiveness punishment? Go to the Kitazawa Seed Company's website. Kitazawa's page only hints at the extent to which edamame have been hybridized. Some have green beans, others are tan or black. Edamame, like bush beans, are planted when the soil has warmed. Kitazawa advises that cool night temperatures are needed for good growth. (Maryland, where I garden, is not known for cool nights in summer, but neither is it tropical.) Most soybean varieties available to home gardeners mature in 70 to 85 days. You may use an inoculant on edamame just as you can with other beans and peas to help ensure good growth. You may also wish to plant rows "in succession," waiting about three weeks after one planting before sowing another row. Vegetable soybeans should be harvested just before they are completely filled out and the pods begin to yellow, but how is one to know that's "just about" to happen?

Not just dumb; I'm lucky too!

Lucky enough to pick edamame at just the right time, apparently. I had enough foresight (dumb luck) to wait until the pods seemed good and full but still a fresh green color. I stripped all the pods from the plants and dumped them in a good sized pot of boiling salted water. Five minutes later I drained them and spread them out to cool. The moment of truth--did I really want to try to strip the beans out by slipping the very fuzzy pods between my teeth? I took the slightly more dainty route, squeezed the beans out into my hand and then sampled. They were surprisingly savory; I tasted some of the salt, a pea-like vegetableness and a definite hint of peaNUTty goodness. Every pod that I tried was just right, with never a tough, starchy bean. I can easily see edamame as a nice new accent for the (yawn) celery/carrot/broccoli veggie plate. Melissa's Great Book of Produce has a recipe for "Soybean Greek Salad" that I plan to try next.

In the spirit of complete analysis, (and because I need some new pods for a picture above,) I bought frozen bagged edamame later. It does seem that my garden fresh beans were better tasting than the frozen ones. As it is with a tomato, your home grown version really does taste better!

What have I learned about Edamame?

Edamame seem as easy to grow as bush beans. They're as easy to prepare as green peas. They're as snack--worthy as peanuts. I predict edamame will stay in the catalogs and gardens of America for some time.

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Cathy Thomas, Melissa's Great Book of Produce, Hoboken, John Wiley and Sons, 2006. A beautiful book that lists dozens and dozens of familiar and obscure (to Western shoppers) fruits and vegetables. Many color photos accompany the desciptions which include buying and storing tips, prep and use, nutritional info and recipes.Great book to help you expand your eating or food gardening horizons.