The Versatile Bean
By Eleanore Lewis
Young snap beans to eat fresh from the
garden. Colorful green, purple and yellow beans. Bush beans that grow on
compact stems and pole beans that clamber up tepees and trellises. Few
vegetables are as varied as beans, as easy to grow and as versatile in the
kitchen. Add nutrients to the equation and you have a truly bountiful crop,
worthy of space in your garden.
Beans contain fiber and a lot of protein, including
the essential amino acid lysine. (Most grains lack lysine; combine them with
beans, however, and they form a complete protein.) They also provide folacin
(folic acid) and some minerals. All together, beans are a healthful vegetable
and they taste delicious.
What’s in a Name?
There are basically three types of beans: snap,
green shelling, and dry shell. Snap beans are named after the sound they
make when pods are broken. They “snap.” We grow snap beans to eat the pods
fresh (or frozen); green shelling beans, such as limas, to eat the young,
green seeds inside the pods fresh (or frozen); and dry shell beans for the
mature seeds, which dry in the pods on the vine before being shelled.
All beans belong to the legume family (Leguminocae),
as do peas and some favorite flowers, such as lupine, sweet pea, and
baptisia. Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, which makes
that nutrient readily available to plants.
Botanically, most of our edible beans are in
the genus Phaseolus (pronounced phase-olus). Snap beans, French
(sometimes called European or filet) beans, romano and wax beans are P.
vulgaris. The genus name is from the Latin for kidney bean; the species
name translates simply as “common.” French beans are bush-type beans that
produce very narrow, sometimes pencil-thin, pods. Romano beans, a favorite
from Italy, are thicker and flatter than other snap beans. Wax beans have
yellow pods, which look rather waxy – but they don’t taste like wax! Bush
snap beans take 45 to 55 days to bear a crop, depending on the variety; pole
snap beans begin to bear in 60 to 70 days.
Lima beans are P. lunatus; lunatus
means crescent-shaped, which limas are in a plump sort of way; they are
often called butter beans in the south. Lima beans require slightly warmer
temperatures than snap beans to germinate well. Bush limas take 70 to 80
days to produce a crop; pole limas need 80 to 95 days.
Other beans we grow to use in ornamental
plantings. Old-fashioned and pretty scarlet runner beans, P. coccineus,
are edible when the pods are young but are planted more for their attractive
red flowers than their beans. Blue hyacinth beans, Dolichos lablab
(also called Lablab purpureus) produce striking, deep lilac-blue
flowers followed by maroon bean pods, which are edible but not the reason to
grow the plants; they make a beautiful and fast-growing cover for all kinds
of fences, trellises and arbors.
Bush versus Pole
Some gardeners like bush beans better than pole
beans because bush beans produce a lot of pods in a short time frame; they
do, however, take up more space in the garden than pole beans. Bush beans
rarely have trouble with pests and diseases, simply because they are not in
the garden long enough to be bothered. The bush bean’s shorter life span
gives gardeners a chance to dig up the dead stalks and plant a different
crop or a succession crop of beans.
Gardeners who prefer pole beans like the way
they make great use of vertical space by climbing up trellises or tepees, a
bonus in small gardens. Their longer presence in the garden does make them
prey for pests and diseases, which can disfigure the foliage toward the end
of the season. They also take more time to begin producing than bush beans,
but they continue to bear slowly throughout the summer, which is
advantageous if you do not want to eat beans every other day or bother to
replant a crop.
Some gardeners think that bush beans taste
better than pole beans, but just as many prefer the flavor of pole beans –
definitely an individual choice!
How to Grow Great Beans
Beans are warm-season vegetables. If you plant
before the soil has warmed up in late spring, the seeds may rot before
germinating. Wait until all danger of frost has passed and soil and night
temperatures remain at 55 degrees F (12 C) or higher – that may mean April
in southern zones and as late as June in colder northern regions. Because
they take longer to mature and prefer even warmer soil, lima beans may not
have enough frost-free days for gardeners in the far north, unless you try
starting them indoors. If you do, sow them in individual biodegradable pots
about four weeks before setting them out in the garden; beans do not adapt
well to transplanting.
Beans prefer a light, well-drained soil with a
ph of 6.0 to 6.8. Prepare the soil before sowing: Dig to a depth of six to
eight inches and incorporate organic matter, such as compost or dried
Sow beans 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep. You do not
need to sow very thickly because bean seeds germinate well.
Sow one to two bush bean seeds every three
inches. A traditional method for sowing is to set up double rows, 18 to 24
inches apart. If you plant in single rows, allow 18 inches between rows.
Bush beans also grow well in wide rows: Sow seeds in a three-foot wide by
four-foot or longer bed. Although bush beans need no support, harvesting is
easier if you set twigs or brushy prunings within the planting. Spread
compost down the middle of the rows after you sow to give the plants a boost
Plan to extend the harvest of bush beans by
making repeated sowings every two to three weeks until two months before the
average first fall frost in your area.
Put pole beans on trellises or tepees on the
north side of the vegetable garden, so the plants do not block the sun from
other crops. Sow six to eight seeds in a circle around each pole of a tepee,
one pole bean seed every three inches along a trellis.
Spread compost in
a broad circle around a tepee after sowing for extra nourishment for the
Beans germinate in six to ten days. When the
plants have two sets of true leaves, thin snap beans to stand two to three
inches apart, limas three to four inches apart.
Beans, like other plants, require at least one
inch of water weekly, either from rain, a garden hose or a drip-irrigation
system. Water early in the day, so the leaves of the plants dry before
nightfall. Avoid working around or harvesting beans when they are wet to
prevent the spread of disease.
Beans do not need extra fertilizing as long as
you enriched the soil before planting.
Harvest snap beans when the pods are young –
about four to five inches long (depending on the variety) – and the seeds
within the pod are just beginning to swell. Snap the pod in half and then
snap or cut the ends off, if desired, before cooking. Harvest lima beans
when seeds are full size (the pods look pudgy) but before pods begin to
yellow; shell before cooking.
When you harvest, don’t yank the pods from the
stems because the stems may break; instead, hold the spray of beans near the
stem-end in one hand and gently pull each bean off with the other. Keep
beans harvested or plants will stop producing.
Growing Beans in Containers
Bush and even pole beans grow well in
containers, outdoors or indoors, so you do not need garden space to harvest
these nutritious vegetables.
To grow outdoors, select a large container,
such as a half-barrel or a 12- to 24-inch diameter planter. For pole beans,
set up a tepee made with bamboo poles or tomato stakes in a half-barrel. Sow
beans at the same depth you do in the ground – one inch deep – and allow
basically the same spacing between plants. Think in terms of the
“square-foot gardening” method: Figure on nine plants per 12-inch container.
With pole beans, sow three to four seeds around each pole.
Mulch the soil surface with a layer of compost,
dried manure, or decorative wood chips. Water when the soil dries to a depth
of two to three inches, depending on the size of the pot. Large containers
cut down on the frequency of watering; the soil in small pots dries out
quickly in the heat of summer. Fertilize once a month.
You can also grow beans indoors. Grow pole
beans on a trellis in a planter or window box in front of a south-facing
window. Make a living, green curtain: Attach monofilament fishing line in a
crisscross pattern from a window box to the top of the window frame and
train the beans up as they grow.
Select the sunniest window in the house. Water
when the soil in the container dries to a depth of two inches. Fertilize
once a month with a water-soluble fertilizer. Because most beans can
self-pollinate, they produce pods without the help of breezes or bees, but
you may want to brush your hand along the flowers occasionally just to be
Kids and Beans
A lot of children don’t like beans (or any
vegetable for that matter!). Attract them with a planting of their own,
using the psychology that if they grow it they may actually want to eat it.
Let very young children (three to six or seven
years old) discover how seeds work. In a glass jar filled with soil, sow a
few bean seeds, pressing them against the glass so they show; moisten the
soil. As the seeds germinate, the children will clearly see the roots and
shoots begin to form as the two halves of the seeds split apart. The
germinated seeds may not grow if you plant them outdoors because beans do
not take to transplanting, so treat this as a fun experiment.
A note of caution: To avoid the disappointment
of some seeds not germinating, do not use dried shell beans from the store;
they have been dried for food consumption and undoubtedly will not
Set up a bean tent: Sow pole bean seeds around
a tepee, leaving an opening between two of the poles. As the beans grow,
they form a cool, dark tent where kids can hold secret meetings.
Because bean seeds are so large, they are easy
for even the youngest child to handle. Set aside a space in your garden for
the children to grow their own. No matter how inexactly they sow the seeds –
even simply pushing the seeds into the soil to the depth of their first
finger – the beans will grow, although you may want to help when the time
comes for thinning. Try bush snap beans for a first-time planting; they
mature faster than pole and lima beans.
Pests and Diseases
Modern bean varieties are resistant to many of
the diseases that can infest a planting. Prevention is usually easier than a
cure. With beans (and many other plants), avoid working around them while
leaves are wet, thoroughly clean up garden refuse at season’s end and rotate
crops from year to year.
Anthracnose, caused by a fungus, creates dark
brown, red or black spots and a pinkish mold on pods or seeds. To prevent,
avoid working around wet plants; remove affected plants; rotate crops from
year to year.
Bean mosaic virus produces deformed pods and
mottled leaves; the leaves wrinkle and curl under. To prevent its spread,
control aphids, which carry it from one plant to another, and remove any
Bean rust affects the undersides of leaves,
with orange-brown blisters; leaves yellow and drop. To prevent, clean up the
garden at the end of the season; avoid working around wet plants; dust
leaves with lime.
Mexican bean beetle, a problem in the eastern
United States and some parts of the southwest, resembles the beneficial
ladybug, but it has 16 black spots and no white marking between the head and
body. Round, yellow eggs, pale yellow larvae and adults usually remain on
the undersides of leaves where the latter two forms feed until they
skeletonize the leaves. In very hot and dry conditions, nature controls the
beetles. Handpick all stages off leaves. Cover bush beans with row covers
(pole beans are hard to cover). Interplant potatoes and beans; each repels
the other’s favored pest.
Japanese beetle, mainly a problem in the east
but spreading westward, spends its grub stage underground, often under
lawns. The beetles skeletonize leaves. Rainy, cool weather deters them.
Handpick from leaves or knock them off into a jar of soapy water. Plant
white geraniums among the beans –” an element in the leaves will poison the
beetles that munch on them. Set out traps; use with caution, however,
because the traps themselves may attract the beetles from neighboring yards.
Cover bush beans with row covers.
This article was contributed by the
National Garden Bureau. Here is a
recipe for a casserole using beans.