The All-American Vegetable

For inexpensive, easy-to-grow nutrition, look no further than the humble bean.

December 22, 2010

While beans may not possess the glamour of fresh summer tomatoes or the elusive flavor of dead-ripe melons, they are the real workhorses of any successful kitchen garden. Those that evolved here in the New World—green beans, limas, and runner beans, among others—are the most dependable and adaptable beans for American gardeners. They reward us with extraordinary payloads of high-protein food. Like other legumes, beans give back nitrogen to the soil, which is important for keeping this key plant nutrient in balance, especially in gardens where space is limited. Because beans bloom during the hottest part of the summer when many other plants take a rest, their flowers play an important role in attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects. Furthermore, the dead bean plants make excellent fall compost.

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For many people turning to home gardening to make ends meet, beans are one of those basic food crops that help cut grocery bills. Some varieties are grown for their tender pods, harvested before the seeds inside begin to swell; other beans are shelled, the pods discarded, and the seeds eaten either fresh or dried. During the snowy days of winter, dried beans provide a vast array of recipe possibilities from bread and cassoulets to hearty salads and soups. And don’t forget refried beans and all those zesty dishes that Latino cooks prepare with this ancient vegetable.

Of course, there are plenty of garden legumes from other parts of the world: chickpeas, lentils, mung beans, rice beans, and the like. I have grown all of them and can speak from experience about one glaring downside: You need to plant a lot of lentils or chickpeas in order to harvest a bushel of seeds. For these crops, you need to think in terms of a small field, which is fine if you are interested in commercial-scale production but impractical in a small backyard garden.

Native Americans grew beans because the input was minimal yet the harvest was plentiful, not to mention that they could grow them among the hills of corn, using the cornstalks as support for the twining vines. Native peoples planted many types of beans to meet various dietary needs, such as grinding for flour or cooking to form pastes incorporated into dumplings. It is helpful to keep these original uses in mind when growing heirloom varieties, because not all heirloom beans cook the same way as modern hybrids that were developed for tender pods.

Common garden beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are divided into two basic groups: pole beans and bush beans. Among heirloom varieties is a third group called semi-pole, which form low bushes but also send out runners at the top that require some kind of support. The nutritional value of pole beans and bush beans is generally the same, although some pole beans produce larger, meatier beans than the common bush varieties. Bush beans are nothing more than dwarf selections of pole beans, whose long vines are closer in growth habit to their wild ancestors. Bush beans generally ripen earlier than pole beans, so they are ideal for short-season areas. Commercial growers favor them for this reason and because the bush types are more easily machine harvested. For an extended steady harvest, plant successive rows of bush beans at one-week intervals.

Some of the early bean books, such as Georg von Martens’s Gartenbohnen (Garden Beans, 1869) and U. P. Hedrick’s Beans of New York (1931), tried to sort out the bean story and categorize beans by seed shapes, seed colors, pod shapes, pod colors, and a host of other physical characteristics that were artificial, having been induced by humans through breeding rather than through genetic affinities. The result was a veritable Tower of Babel of bean names, especially among the landraces developed by country people, who simply gave them local monikers. In other cases, commercial varieties gained multiple names. For example, ‘Landreth’s Stringless Bush’, a popular variety introduced in 1885 by the Landreth Seed Company, is identical to the ‘Kiva Bush’ grown widely by Indians in the Southwest. The Pueblo peoples still use this bean in religious rituals. In spite of their sometimes-confusing names, I prefer to grow heirloom varieties because I am attracted by their stories (a useful hook in getting kids interested in kitchen gardening). Furthermore, the range of flavors in the old heirlooms simply cannot be beaten.

Another category of beans, one that traces its ancestry to South America, is the limas (Phaseolus lunatus). As a child, I hated lima beans because of their dry, mushy texture. But my mother cooked with canned limas—an unfair introduction to this type of bean. When I discovered ‘Dr. Martin’, a monstrous heirloom developed in the 1920s in Chester County, Pennsylvania, I was prepared for a disappointment. Instead, it turned into a lima bean epiphany.

In Peru, where ancient Andean farmers perfected lima beans, they were a food reserved for the Inca nobility. Growing the heirloom varieties revealed to me why this bean was once given such special status: Fresh, flavorful limas are indeed food for the gods. Did you know that you can pickle large white limas with hot peppers? Frozen succotash, move over! Like common garden beans, limas are grouped as either vining or bush varieties. They have one drawback: They grow best in regions with consistently warm nights (above 70°F), so trying to grow them in New England or the Upper Midwest is almost pointless.

A third category of beans commonly grown in gardens is the runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus). Unlike limas, runner beans are relatively cold-tolerant—so much so that they are popular garden beans in England. Runner beans are definitely climbers, and because they have such an abundance of flowers, they are often grown as ornamentals on fences. There are red-, white-, and pink-flowering varieties, all of which produce large seeds that can be harvested as fresh shelling beans or as dry beans. Runner beans can be planted earlier than other beans—about the same time as corn—so they are the first to produce, a good thing to know when planning a succession of crops.

Planting beans is simple. Most gardeners sow the seeds directly in the garden when the soil is warm enough to plant tomatoes. Another option is to start seeds about a month before the average last-frost date in a greenhouse in small individual pots. Move them outside once the soil warms. Contrary to conventional wisdom, they transplant easily, and by forcing them indoors, you can avoid plant loss from catbirds and crows, which relish the germinating beans in open ground.

Once established, thin bush bean seedlings to about 6 inches apart; keep them well watered during dry periods. Pole beans need support, and there are several techniques for dealing with this issue, from elaborate bamboo frameworks or tepees to strings anchored to a clothesline. Tall wire towers are my preference for trellising beans, because they are less likely to blow over during a gusty summer thunderstorm.

Bean pests? The most notorious is the Mexican bean beetle, a yellow, dark-speckled vegetarian cousin of the lady beetle that can do a lot of damage if allowed to run unchecked. This destructive pest originated in southern Mexico and first appeared in the West in the 1860s. By the 1920s, it had spread into the eastern United States. The beetle was unknown in colonial times, which is why the Indians could grow their beans to such perfection. Insecticidal soap will decimate the larvae (little yellow caterpillar-like crawlers found on the leaves). Mash the eggs when you see them—they can be found on the undersides of leaves. If you keep ahead of the beetles, as I have in my garden, the population eventually crashes. Last year, I saw no beetles in my garden, but this may have had something to do with the severity of the previous winter, which may have killed off hibernating adults.

If you have never grown beans before, begin with easy short-season hybrid beans, especially bush types (see “Recommended Beans,” opposite). Once you get the hang of it, move on to more challenging varieties—then keep going until you’ve experienced the humble bean’s huge range of colors, textures, and flavors.

Drying Legumes The technique for drying beans is the same for both food and future seed stock. The process is relatively straightforward: Allow the beans to ripen on the plants until the pods are dry and brittle. This encourages the beans to draw all the remaining nutrients from the plants, thus increasing both nutritional value and rates of germination. Once the bean pods are dry, harvest them and spread them in wooden trays or shallow boxes. Allow them to continue drying in a cool room with good air circulation for 1 to 2 weeks.

When the pods are thoroughly dry and brittle, remove the beans by rolling the pods in your hands or crushing them with your fingers. Once the beans are separated from their pods, sort through the seeds and discard any that are shriveled or off-color; these will neither germinate nor cook well.

Select only the most perfect beans for seed stock and store them in airtight jars in a cool, dark closet. Label and date the seed; it will remain viable for up to 5 years. Beans reserved for food can also be stored in airtight jars. If moths appear to be a problem, both seed and food stock can be stored in the freezer. Freezing does not hurt seed stock, but once thawed, the beans must be planted, because refreezing will greatly reduce germination. Freezing will extend the viability of beans to as long as 10 years.

If fall weather proves cool and rainy while the beans are drying on the vines, or if a hard frost is looming, pull up the vines by the roots, tie them in bundles, and hang them upside down from the ceiling of a garage or shed until the pods are dry. Most should ripen properly. Any beans that are green and not fully developed can be separated from the rest at shelling. Immature shelled beans can be cooked like peas or added to fall pickles.

Recommended Beans
Names of bean varieties, especially heirlooms, can be imprecise. The pole lima ‘Florida Speckled Butter’, for example, may be sold as ‘Florida Speckled’ or ‘Florida Butter Speckled’.

Bush Beans
‘Blue Lake’. Round green pods.
‘Cherokee’. Round yellow pods; earliest of yellow bush beans.
‘Contender’. Round green pods; earliest of green bush beans.
‘Dixie Butterpea Speckled’. Bush lima with speckled red seeds.
‘Dixie Butterpea White’. Bush lima with pure white beans.
‘Dragon Tongue’. Wax bean with purple-streaked flat pods.
‘Harvester’. Round green pods.
‘Henderson Bush’. An heirloom bush lima.
‘Provider’. Straight, round green pods; heavy producer.
‘Romano’ and ‘Romano Gold’. Flat green or yellow pods.
‘Royal Burgundy’. Round purple pods.

Pole Beans
‘Blue Lake Stringless’. Long, round green pods; sparse foliage allows for easier picking.
‘Christmas’. Large-seeded lima with red speckles and streaks.
‘Florida Speckled Butter’. Lima with black speckles on white seeds.
‘Fortex’. French-type green bean with long, narrow, round pods.
‘Kentucky Wonder’. Round green pods; an old favorite.
‘Kentucky Wonder Wax’. Heirloom variety with round yellow pods.
‘King of the Garden’. Lima bean with heavy-bearing vines. Freezes well.
‘Painted Lady’. Runner bean with colored red-and-white flowers; tan seeds with brown streaks. Attractive to hummingbirds.
‘Rattlesnake’. Round green pods with purple streaks.
Scarlet runner bean. Long, narrow, flat pods with black-and-purple mottled seeds. Red flowers are attractive to hummingbirds.
‘Vermont Cranberry’. Red speckled pods; white seeds with red flecks. Heirloom variety, used as a dry bean.
‘Willow Leaf’. Highly productive heirloom lima with small white seeds.