Know Before You Grow: Beans

Green beans

An ancient crop found on every continent except Antarctica, the bean is a staple of the human diet in all cultures. Packed with fiber and protein (including the vital amino acid lysine), it is also an excellent source of vitamins A, B, and C; folic acid; iron; calcium; and phosphorus. Eaten with certain grains, such as corn, it makes a complete protein. Some varieties of bean can be eaten fresh, while others can be stored for many months. Doubtless the bean is responsible for the survival of countless peoples during the (at least) 9 thousand years it has been cultivated as a food crop.

How fortunate, then, that the bean should be both delicious and easy to grow. You don't need a lot of garden space for beans—they even thrive in containers—and few plants are easier to grow. If you've got sunshine and soil, we've got a great bean just waiting for you.

Choosing a Bean Variety

There are as many types of beans as there are gardeners to grow them. Grown almost everywhere in the world, beans are amazingly various, with some 4,000 varieties currently available. Beans grow in two ways: vining, which we call pole beans; and mounding, which we call bush beans. That said, let's quickly narrow the selection by categorizing beans into their 3 main groups:

Snap or String—These are young beans intended to be eaten "pod and all" when fresh, or to be frozen or canned when young and tender. The pods are succulent and flavorful, making them a popular home garden choice. These "green beans" can come in colors like green, gold, purple, or red, and the pods can be range from long and thin to stout or flat. Bush snap beans mature in about 45 to 55 days. Pole snaps take 60 to 70 days.

Green/Shelling —Also intended to be eaten when young (that's what "green" means; it doesn't indicate the color of the pods), green or shelling beans are grown for the tender young seeds inside the pods. Limas (butter beans) are a popular green/shelling bean. Bush green/shelling beans harvest in 70 to 80 days; pole green/shelling beans are ready in 80 to 95 days.

Dry—Dry or hard-shelled beans are meant to be eaten after the seeds inside the pod have dried out, though many varieties can be picked young for fresh eating, too. Ideal for long-term storage, dry varieties were the beans of choice in home gardens until the early 20th century, when advances in storage methods and improved varieties of snap and green beans made fresh beans more readily available and much more tasty. And dry beans can be eaten young at about 90 to 100 days, but will take more weeks to dry completely in the pod for harvesting as "dry" or storage beans.

When to Start Bean Seeds

Direct-sow beans outdoors in spring and early summer when the soil has warmed up and night temperatures remain above 55°F.

If you live in a short growing season or prefer to begin the seeds indoors, sow them in large peat pots no more than 4 weeks before you plan to transplant them. Beans prefer not to be disturbed after sowing, so transplant can be chancy.

How to Start Bean Seeds

General information for all types of beans
Beans need full sun and deep, rich, well-drained soil to grow their best. As soon as the soil is workable in spring, dig down about 8 inches in the areas you are planning to sow your beans. Work a good amount of rich compost, manure, or other organic matter into the soil. If you are planting pole beans, consider their position in relation to the rest of the vegetable garden. When the beans get tall, they will cast shade for several feet, so plan accordingly: prepare the soil on the northern end of the veggie patch to avoid shading other plants, or farther south if some shade is desired for neighboring plants.

Sow beans about 1 to 1½ inches deep. Sprinkle inoculant as you plant, to increase the nitrogen-fixing ability of the bean plants.

Expect high germination rates from your beans. You should see the first sprouts in about 6 to 10 days.

Bush beans: Space beans about 3 inches apart in single or double rows 18 to 24 inches apart. For a continuous season of bush beans, do not plant all the beans at once. Make successive plantings every 3 weeks up to 2 months before your first anticipated fall frost.

Pole beans: Space 6 to 8 beans evenly around the base of the pole or other support. If growing the beans up a trellis, space them 3 inches apart. If growing the beans up a freestanding fence, space them 3 inches apart along both sides of the fence.

Special Considerations

Beans are open-pollinated plants, not hybrids. They are self-pollinating, and technically can be cross-pollinated, but this is very rare. The standard advice is to separate different types of beans by physical space or natural barriers (such as high walls or tall, dense plants), but gardeners constantly report growing many different beans side by side with no apparent cross-pollination.

If you want to can or freeze your bean crop, consider growing varieties that harvest all at once. Snap bush beans, because of their shorter crop time, are an excellent choice.

Consider growing a Three Sisters planting of corn, pole beans, and squash. This Native American technique is one of the best examples of companion planting for mutual benefits. Not only do each of the 3 plants help the others grow their best, but the beans and the corn, if eaten together, form a complete protein! And nothing looks quite as exciting in the vegetable garden as a Three Sisters display.

Harvest fresh beans before you can see the bulge of a developing bean through the green pod. At that stage, the bean is over-mature, the pod is tough, and the beans are best eaten as a shelled bean.

Store unwashed fresh beans in plastic bags in the vegetable crisper of the refrigerator for a few days. Washing the beans before storage causes them to decay quickly. Instead, wash them just before serving or cooking.

Harvest dry beans when the pods are completely brown and dried out, but before the pods have split open. The seeds inside should be hard.

Many edible bean varieties are so lovely you may wish you had them in the flower garden, and several types of beans are now grown primarily for their ornamental effect.

Growing Tips for Beans

  • Beans are a very easy and successful crop, but to make the most of them, follow three simple rules:

    • Never work with the plants in wet weather
    • Keep the garden free of debris all season long and especially after harvest
    • Don't grow beans in exactly the same spot year after year
  • Make sure your beans get about an inch of water a week. They do not need to be fertilized, but a layer of compost on top of the soil (and mulched in) a few weeks after planting can be beneficial.
  • Beans can be grown quite easily in containers. Sow and space the beans just as you would for the garden.
  • After harvesting your beans, chop up the plants and plough them back into the soil. As nitrogen fixers, they enrich garden soil tremendously.

Pests and Problems to Watch For

  • Spotted, wrinkled, or curled-under foliage are signs of Common Bean Mosaic Virus (CBM), and may lead to deformed pods. CBM is caused by aphids, which should be treated immediately with insecticidal soap. Pull up any plant showing signs of CBM, and do not plow it under or add it to the compost pile. Your best defense against CBM may be to choose resistant varieties, of which there are many. CMB-resistant snap beans include Festina, Soleil, Bash, Jade, and the superb "resistant to everything" Masai. Green/shelling varieties include Smeraldo.
  • Tiny holes in the leaves of young bean plants signal the presence of Bean Leaf Beetles. They are a danger only early in the season; later they may nibble a pod here and there, but they won't do much damage. Control them fast by pulling them off by hand and then covering the entire row (if growing bush beans) with a row cover. If you know that bean leaf beetles are a problem in your growing area, try interplanting your beans with potatoes, which will fight off the beetle (while the beans return the favor by repelling potato pests).
  • Black, brown, or red spots on the pods are the calling card of Anthracnose, a fungal disease. Prevention is the only remedy here: be sure not to cultivate your beans in wet weather, clean any debris from the bean growing area promptly, and rotate crops from year to year.

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