I’ve written lots of posts about beans on this blog, about growing, harvesting, tasting and cooking them. With the renewed interest in growing dry beans in home vegetable gardens, I thought it would be useful to return to posts I’ve written on growing beans and see if there are any tips to share this year as bean planting time approaches. If you already have bean seeds to plant, I hope these posts offer helpful information. If you don’t have bean seeds for this year because seed companies have delayed order deliveries or simply sold out of beans, keep these ideas in mind for next year. As one of my old-timer neighbors always told me, “one of the best things about gardening is that there is always next year.”
A good place to start is a post titled “Beans,” a column that I wrote for the Islands Weekly in 2010 and include in my blog under the section Green Living Columns.
In it, I share my bean story and my experience with bean varieties and with planting, harvesting and eating beans. If you’re growing beans this year, read this post and try this planting tip: “Of all the tips I’ve gotten over the years, the one that yields the best bean germination is to set the bean seed in the ground so that the “eye” or “bellybutton,” technically the hilum, is facing down. Such precision planting is only for the fanatic home gardener, but it really does work. And cover the just planted seeds with Reemay so that robins won’t see the germinating seeds breaking the soil, think they are worms and methodically pull each one out.” This tip applies to planting bush and pole fresh beans too!
From this post, go to another included in the Green Living Columns, “Yes, You Can Grow Dried Beans on Lopez,” a profile of Lopezian Carol Noyes who is an even more serious bean fan than I am.
It describes her search for dried beans that will ripen on Lopez and what she found. Her recommendations after her 2010 research were King of the Early, Ireland Creek Annie and Yellow Indian Woman, all “good quality dried beans that are early.” For black beans she recommended Black Coco and Hopi Black and for a white bean, she recommended Drabo. If you’re looking to next year to start your bean garden, you’ll find that many of these and other short season varieties will be available then from local seed companies like Uprising, Adaptive and Territorial. Companies farther afield, like Seed Savers Exchange and Fedco, also offer short season varieties.
One of Carol’s and my main criteria for beans is flavor. Part of the great flavor of a dried bean comes from the freshness of beans you grow and harvest yourself. We agree that dried beans really are best eaten in the first year; when they get older, their flavor deteriorates. We also love shell beans, beans that are fully developed in the pod but haven’t reached the “dry” stage. Some years ago, we held a bean tasting to compare the many flavors of shell beans.
Using a flavor and texture form we’d made for the tasting, “we filled the flavor column with words like earthy, nutty, sweet, fresh, lima-like and the texture column with words like creamy, meaty, mealy, buttery, dry. The smaller beans tended to be milder in flavor and creamier in texture. The larger beans were more earthy, nutty and meaty. Lighter-colored beans tended to be milder while speckled and darker-colored beans were usually richer.” Dry beans also share this variety of flavor and texture. If you grow fresh beans this year and find that some pods fill with seeds before you get to harvest them, try shelling out these beans and cooking them. They can be delicious! Rattlesnake Pole bean, delicious as a fresh bean, is one that I often eat as a shell bean at the end of the season.
If you’re new to the idea of shell beans, check out the 2017 post “What is a Shell Bean?”
Dry beans make sense to most people, but shell beans often don’t; I address this confusion in detail this post. And if you grow beans this year, hoping they will dry, but they don’t, you’ll find yourself with shell beans. As Carol said, “I learned about them accidentally years ago when frost was threatening, the beans weren’t dry, and I ate some. Get the word out there! They are wonderful.” Shell beans are wonderful, and I make a point of growing both.
There is one more shell bean that I always grow in my kitchen garden, mainly because it is my husband’s favorite bean: favas.
“More than any other plant in my garden favas draw the “what’s that?” reaction from visitors as they point to the rangy, floppy-leafed plants with the shiny, spear-like pods protruding from the stems.” A raw fava bean has a sharp taste with an earthy, nutty undertone, tasty with olive oil and salty cheese. Cooked, the sharp taste mellows but the earthy, nutty flavor remains. Another reaction fava beans bring is “so much work!” It’s true that the process of shelling the bean from the pod and then blanching it, slipping the inner bean from the outer skin is a bit time-consuming, but the result is worth the effort.
I used to plant fava beans in late fall, and they would overwinter and start growing early in the spring. Then I found that I was encouraging pea weevils with this timetable, so I switched to planting them in May when the pea weevil cycle is mostly over. The planting plan is the same. The new timetable just makes the fava bean harvest later.
Finally, fresh green, yellow or purple beans are wonderful bean additions while we wait for shell and dry beans. I mostly grow pole beans, preferring their rich flavor and texture to the milder-flavored bush green beans. I also prefer their growth habit. Rather than producing all at once, the way many bush beans do, pole beans produce over a longer window as the vines climb higher and higher, making more blossoms and pods. Varieties I plant every year are Fortex, Gold of Bacau, Nor’easter, and Rattlesnake, left to right in this photo.
I space them 6-8 inches apart beneath strings on the bean supports and by the end of the season, I need a step-ladder to harvest them.
There is one bush green bean that I do grow because my friend Carol convinced me to try it: Maxibel.
It is very good, not quite as richly sweet as my favorite pole bean Fortex but certainly tasty, earlier and very prolific. Planted at the same time as Fortex, Maxibel produces about three weeks ahead of Fortex and is winding down as Fortex begins to produce.
May is the month to plant beans. I’ve planted mine and hope I’ll get good germination in this changeable weather we’re having. If you’ll be planting too, remember, keep that bean belly button pointing down!
Do you have problems with cross pollination when you plant different types?
Hi Mary, Thanks for asking. I have not had problems with cross pollination with different varieties of bush or pole beans, P. vulgaris. My experience is consistent Steve Solomon’s observation that “natural crosses among varieties are extremely rare.” (Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, 1989 edition, p. 223) That said, I have had cross pollination with Runner Beans, P. multifloris, Scarlet Runner and White Runner, for example. Once again, my experience is consistent with Steve Solomon’s observation: “Unlike P. vulgaris pole beans, runner beans have some tendency to cross-pollinate, so seed savers should grow only one variety. Some have white flowers, some have red.” (Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, 1989 edition, p. 226). Thanks for writing. I appreciate your question. Debby
This is an amazing primer on growing beans! For someone who doesn’t grow vegetables, I deeply appreciate those that do, and the expertise you have from years of growing, testing, and tasting, is always such a delight to read and makes me hungry! I immediately think about the food you make and serve and how beautiful it is on the vine and on the table. Love your blog!
Thank you, Kathy! As always, I love imagining you reading my posts and always appreciate your responses! Beans rule!
And even though I don’t grow vegetables myself, I pass along your blog to all the people I know who do! I suppose I’m somehow insuring that when I go to their houses for a meal I will get to enjoy their fresh veggies as well. Am I basically selfish???
All the years I’ve known you, the very last way I’d describe you is selfish! Thanks for sharing my blog!