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Velvet Bean

Velvet bean is a bean plant that grows as a vine.  Most farmers know it as a food crop especially in tough times. They also know it as a vine that replenishes soil nutrients. When the land is low in fertility, a farmer can scatter velvet bean seeds across the land and leave it for a year. However, around the world, many countries are integrating the use of velvet bean with conservation agriculture. Farmers are now planting velvet bean with the corn and allowing it to fix nitrogen and mulch down to provide valuable organic matter for the following crop. The trick is simply to plant the bean, 1 seed per square meter, about 2-3 weeks after the corn to allow the corn to get a head start. The velvet bean then begins to grow and fix nitrogen in the soil that the corn can use. after 2 months its started to grow up the corn stalk but not dominate it. Soon after harvest the velvet bean will smother the field, including all the weeds. If left, it will die off and provide valuable mulch cover for the following crop. If double cropping in the year, cut the stalk of the velvet bean vine. This can be hard work but if everything is done in rows it can be easier and more cost effective than weeding.


Velvet bean, known as 'Lehe' in Timor-Leste, was widely used before Indonesian times but in many areas the seed was lost and the practice of using Lehe with corn crops declined.  Seeds of Life conducted research on Lehe at Betano on the south coast as well as in Viqueque and Loes on the north coast.  The yield for corn grown with Lehe was shown to be consistently more than double the yield of corn grown without Lehe. Also, if the land was not ploughed, the Lehe mulch on the ground resulted in almost no weeding required for the plot. 


The other great result for using Lehe is that it can save crops in periods of low rainfall. During the 2015-2016 El Nino, FAO in Timor-Leste found that fields of corn with Lehe survived right alongside other fields where the corn died. So Lehe improves farmer resilience and food security by increasing crop yields, improving soil condition and soil moisture. 

If you want the full benefits of organic matter from Lehe for the following year then it is important to have a good, strong fence to keep out the animals which love to munch up all the nutritious leaves!

New corn germinated in thick mulch from the previous year's velvet bean grown on the field - no need to carry it in!

A farmers field planted without needing to burn or clean the organic matter from the previous year. Note the lines and the plant spacing (2 seeds per hole, 35cm apart, rows 70cm apart). Lehe can now be planted about 1 plant per square meter in the rows - eg after every 3rd plant.

Lehe vine beginning to grow up the corn plant. Notice that the corn is getting close to harvest so that the Lehe is not competing with the corn.

The Lehe vine nows smothers the harvested field providing valuable organic matter for the following crop. Worms,bugs and bacteria will later break down the organic matter and leave castings and aerate the soil. The mulch cover can also significantly reduce weeding for the following year.

The Basic Facts ...
  1. Plant the corn in rows - 2 seeds per hole, 35cm apart, rows 70cm apart. (Aiming for about 5 plants per square meter)

  2. After 2-3 weeks, weed the field

  3. Straight after the first weed, plant the velvet bean in the rows, about 1 seed per metre (after every 3rd plant/hole). Increase plant density if soil has low fertility.

  4. After harvest allow the velvet bean to smother the field.

  5. Do not clear, slash or burn the field. Leave the velvet bean mulch for the following crop

  6. For double cropping on the south coast and eastern plateau (Agro-ecological zones 5 & 6), the velvet bean stem can be cut 2-4 weeks before planting and the plant will mulch down.

  7. Plant the following crop straight into the mulch from the velvet bean. Ploughing is not necessary every year.


Other considerations:

  • to benefit from the mulch cover, the field needs to be fenced well to stop grazing animals that are often left to roam free after the main harvest.

  • low fertility soils that are highly acidic (pH 5.5 or lower) or low in phosphorus may result in low the velvet bean being not so vigorous. Plant the vine closer and it may take a few seasons to build back fertility.

  • this vine is more suitable for hotter climates below 1000m altitude (AEZ 1, 2, 4, 6). It is unlikely to grow well around Maubisse and Hato-Builico.

  • Most farmers are reluctant to try this new technique so they need some encouragement. Give them 1kg of seed which will cover 1000m2 (or 10% of a hectare) and ask them to try it out. If they like it,they can use the seed from that crop to plant out more field.

More info:

  • Contact the National Directorate of Research, Statistics and Geographic Information (DNPEIG) in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Dr Claudino Nabais, National Director, facilitated research with velvet bean in collaboration with FAO.

  • Contact FAO and ask for information about conservation agriculture. Reuben Flamarique is leading this work in 2016.

  • Contact AI-Com, the ACIAR research project into agriculture innovations for communities. Rob Williams (previously head of research in Seeds of Life) has lots of knowledge in this area.

Download the Lehe brochure in English or Tetun, print double sided A4, cut and fold:

Lehe Brochure English 1Mb

Lehe Brochure Tetun 1Mb

Seeds of Life Lehe notes in 2012 360kb 

Grab your pack of velvet bean now!

Give us a call or come and see us in Kadi Kapasidade to enquire about 1kg packs of seed with a brochure for $3.

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