Ready to grow your own bush beans or climbing beans? Beans are one of the oldest cultivated foods on the planet. Some type of bean — or bean relative — is native to every continent except Antarctica (and in all fairness to beans, what grows there anyway?) It’s not difficult to grasp why people all over the world began cultivating them — they are very adaptable, fast-growing, relatively easy to store for long periods and loaded with nutrition that’s hard or impossible to get reliably elsewhere.
Another great thing about beans is that they produce their own fertilizer. Beans are a legume, and have symbiotic bacterial colonies that change nitrogen in the air to solid forms in the ground. Now, this doesn’t mean they can grow with nothing added, but it does help save on fossil fuel-based nitrogen fertilizers.
Health Benefits of Beans
Beans are one of the healthiest foods you can consume. Most of them have a number of positive benefits:
- Beans are loaded with protein your body needs. Baby limas have eight grams per 1/4 cup.
- They’re an excellent source of “good” carbohydrates.
- With fiber galore, beans aid the digestion process, keeping bowel functions working well — one serving of pinto beans has halfof your daily fiber needs!
- A great source of iron and calcium, beans make an ideal meal choice for those suffering from anemia or osteoporosis.
- Beans are the number one food on the United States Department of Agriculture’s list of 20 high-antioxidant sources of common foods.
- Because beans slow the rise in blood sugar after a meal, they make a great choice for diabetics.
Planting and Culture
Beans grow either as a bush (bush variety) or a vine (climbing variety). The climbing variety will need a pole or some sort of support structure to cling to (stakes, twine, fences), while the bush variety doesn’t usually require any support.
One thing you’ll need to know about bean culture is that some bean varieties will need a bacterial inoculant to grow properly. Most beans can get this bacterial normally from your soil, but sometimes they cannot. Many bean seed packs come pre-inoculated. Once an inoculant is established in your garden, you often do not need to repurchase it year after year. Different beans will need different types of inoculants and you can usually get these from seed catalogs, farm stores and garden centers. If you can’t find any, talk to a local extension agent.
The information below should serve as a planting guide for all types of beans except where noted.
Most beans hate cold weather, so you’ll want to wait until all danger of frost has passed. For most warm-season beans, you’ll want to plant 1-2 weeks after the last freeze in your area and when the soil is over 60° degrees Fahrenheit. Planting beans in cold soil will only make them rot.
Preferred growing conditions
Beans prefer a soil with ample phosphorous and calcium. Most beans grow best in a slightly acidic to near-neutral soil. Soil that’s too alkaline locks up the phosphorus they need; soil that’s too acidic prevents beans from getting the calcium they need.
Beans of all types do best with full, unfiltered sun. The climbing types may be a little more shade-tolerant, but they’ll still need more than 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow properly.
Mist bean seeds prior to planting with a biostimulant solution to increase germination, such as seaweed or Great Big Plants liquid compost. This gives the seeds some nutrition as well as a better opportunity to break out of their coating. Think of it as baby food for seeds.
Planting instructions will vary depending on whether you’re planting a bush variety or climbing variety of bean:
- Bush beans – Most bush bean seeds should be planted about 2-3 inches apart in slightly raised rows at least 18 inches apart. You’ll need to thin these to about 3-6 inches apart after germination. Lima bush types are bigger plants and need to be about 6 inches from each other. Dry type bush beans can also be planted in blocks instead of rows, but this method should only be used in dry climates to avoid fungal disease.
- Climbing beans – These beans need much more personal space, and should be planted 8-10 inches apart in slightly raised rows with climbing support. Depending on the variety of climbing bean grown, some will need to be thinned dramatically, by up to 36 inches apart. They can also be planted on small hills no more than 6 inches high and spaced about 3 feet apart. Climbing beans can also be planted near a structure such as a fence, or even a row of corn – if you’re using the Three Sisters method of companion planting.
It’s important to maintain adequate air circulation between plants — especially in climates where excess moisture may promote the rampant spread of several types of common bean diseases.
A layer of mulch to prevent the soil from crusting and to preserve moisture is very beneficial for all bean types. This also helps prevent soil-borne disease from spreading to the leaves. Most organic materials will work well for mulching, but avoid most grass mulches, especially Bermuda grass. These can contain herbicide contamination — unless you know where it came from and know it’s safe, avoid these types of mulches.
Maturation and replanting
Maturation will take about two months, give or take a few weeks depending on the variety of bean and the weather. To keep a good supply of fresh beans coming in, you can plant more beans every 2-3 weeks after your initial planting. If there is space, replant another row next to the earlier planting, taking care not to overcrowd. Good spacing between plants and rows will reduce the spread of diseases.
Once beans start to mature in the pod, the plants usually stop growing new flowers — that means no more beans. The older bean plants will start to wind down their production about the time the next group starts producing. You’ll want to remove the unproductive plants after they start to die by cutting them off at the base. Repeat this cycle until about two months from the expected fall frost date.
Most beans are rather drought-tolerant, requiring minimal supplemental water in many areas of the country. You will have to determine how much water your beans need based on your local climate and soil type.
In order to know what type of fertilizer to apply, you’ll need to know what type of soil you have, which will likely require a soil test. (Contact your local extension agent or garden center for information about soil testing.) Beans in general prefer fertilizers with a high phosphate content and a lower nitrogen content. A 1-1-1 or 1-2-1 ratio generally works well for most beans. Beans respond very well to rock phosphate-type fertilizers as they contain slow-release phosphorous and trace minerals that beans need to fix their own nitrogen.
Snap beans must be harvested before their pods begin to harden and become tough. You can usually snap them off the plant, although sometimes a pair of scissors or a knife will work better. Harvesting dry beans is rather straightforward. Allow the pods to fully mature on the plant or pick, shell and then dry, depending on the bean variety you’re growing.
Green snap beans can be stored in several ways. If you plan to eat your beans fresh, you can simply place them in the refrigerator for up to several weeks. If longer storage is needed, they can be blanched and refrigerated or frozen. Canning is also an option if you have large quantities of beans.
When storing dry beans, allow them to completely dry out in a sunny spot before storing them in a closed container – the slightest moisture can cause them to mold. If you do not plan on completely drying them out, you can also shell and then can or freeze dry beans for future use.
Now that you know all the reasons you should eat plenty of beans, let’s take look at the bean varieties and how to grow them successfully. Beans come in two basic edible types:
- Snap or green beans
- Dry or shell beans
Snap – Snap beans, also called stringless or green beans, are the beans most people think of when talking about fresh beans. These are so tender, juicy and crispy that you’ll be tempted to consume them straight from the vine. Snap beans lack the strong, fibrous growths that many dry beans contain within their pod, making them infinitely easier to eat fresh.
Some popular varieties of these include Kentucky Wonder, Blue Lake, Kentucky Blue, and the French “haricort vert” varieties.
Dry or Shell – The beans in this category dry in their pods and can be harvested and stored for cooking much later. They must be shelled, then refrigerated, frozen or allowed to dry, depending on the bean type.
Favorites in this category include pintos, cowpeas, black-eyed peas, field peas, purple hulls, cream peas, and southern peas. Note that the “pea” varieties mentioned are actually beans.
Many dishes such as refried beans, a popular Mexican food dish, or black beans, popular in Cuban cooking, are made from dried beans. Unlike the juicy snap beans, eating these beans from the vine is not recommended — unless you need a good flossing. Most dry beans have strong, fibrous pods which prevent them from being eaten fresh.
You can find most dried bean varieties in local grocery stores. Different types of dried beans require different preparations, but many dried beans must be rinsed, soaked and cooked very well. See dangerous beans.
Other Types of Beans
Lima beans are named after the city of Lima, Peru, which used to be a major shipping point for their distribution. Limas require very warm soil temperatures to germinate (about 70° or higher), so wait until about April in the south — or even June farther north — to plant these beans. Limas come in both pole “climbing” and bush type, so make sure you have the right type for your garden situation.
There is some debate as to whether planting lima beans “right side up”– with the eye of the bean facing downward — in heavy soil is necessary for good germination. If you have a small area, I recommend making the extra effort to plant them this way. However, if you are planning on growing a lima bean bonanza over a very large area, just plant extra beans.
Unlike many other types of beans, limas can be eaten fresh young and dried for storage when mature. Harvest limas for fresh eating when they are fully grown but still green. Once the lima pods turn white, they are considered mature and too hard for fresh eating. However, the dried, white beans can be stored for cooking much later by canning or freezing them in plastic bags.
Hot, dry climates are best for the maturation of dried limas. Climates with high humidity may leave you with molded pods full of useless fungus where there used to be beans. You can grow limas in more humid climates, just don’t count on a bumper harvest in the Pacific Northwest. In an annoying twist, limas sometimes refuse to set pods if the weather is dry and hot with little humidity during the blooming phase. Picky little critters — kind of remind me of teenaged children — but at least the lima beans actually amount to something!
Cherokee trail of tears
This bean was carried not just by the Cherokee Indians, but by many members of the eastern Native American tribes on their forced exile to western reservations. This climbing, rather drought-tolerant variety produces dry beans similar to black beans. This bean was used in a variation of the “Three Sisters” cultivation method developed by Native Americans.
These beans are native to the Southwestern United States and may have been in cultivation for well over a thousand years. They are similar to a pinto bean, pink in color, and can be cooked in much the same way.
Soybeans are a marvel of human engineering and the natural world working together. They provide all of the essential amino acids people need. They can grow in just about any soil type and climates as varied as dry desert to temperate to monsoon. There are so many soybean types and species — as well as new types created almost everyday — that no one has a complete count of them all!
Soybeans were even used in the 1930s by Ford motor company to produce the plastic parts in Ford vehicles.
There is a debate among the medical community regarding whether soybeans present health concerns to some. It is thought that some components of soy, such as the soy isoflavones daidzein and genistein, are related to a chemical that seems to mimic estrogen. Most people who eat soybeans in moderation won’t need to worry about these, but you might want to consult your health care professional for concerns.
Soybeans require a different culture than most other beans and are not covered in this article.
Broad Beans and Fava Beans
These beans are more adaptable to cool weather than most beans, so they’re often grown in cooler parts of the country or during fall in the south. They come from a different background than other beans. Their cultivation dates back to the prehistory of the old world — Eurasia/Africa. Even today, they remain much more popular in Asia and Europe than in the Americas.
Common Bean Diseases
This fungal disease looks like spidery veins growing in the plant’s foliage, but then turns it brown. This can be fatal to your beans, but it can be eliminated with it with lime/sulfur spray or Bordeaux mix. It’s best to buy varieties that are adapted to the climate in your area or are resistant to the disease, such as Tendergreen.
This fungus attacks the leaves and the stems of the plant. It appears in the form of small rust-like flakes on your plants. This can be deadly to your plants, but only if the infection is allowed to become severe. If your plant is attacked, spray or dust the infected stems lightly with sulfur, garlic or a recommended fungicide — preferably organic. Dispose of any heavily infected plants.
A common problem in wet or humid climates, this looks like a white powder growing on the plant. It can be easily controlled by applying a sprinkling of sulfur to the leaves. Application will vary by the type of sulfur you purchase, so read the label carefully. Baking soda or potassium bicarbonate can also provide good control and it’s much easier for people with sulfur allergies or sensitive skin to handle. Garlic sprays can kill it as well.
This viral disease can be recognized by the manner in which it discolors foliage and forms distorted, twisted growth. It is rather difficult to control and would be best to simply plant bean varieties that are known to be resistant to this viral disease.
Important notes about pest and disease control products –
Citrus sprays mixed according to manufacturers directions, are great at controlling various pests, like the Mexican been beetle. You need to be sure the oils you use are natural and not a synthetic solvent scented and sold as “orange oil.”
Don’t apply soap sprays too heavily or on hot days as it can burn the foliage.
This natural insecticide was recommended for years as a control for Mexican bean beetles, but we recommend against its use as it has now been linked to various neurological disorders.
This is a great organic control for many bean fungal diseases, such as rust that can really make a dent in your bean crop. However, be careful using sulfur as misuse can be bad for you and the plants. Do not apply during high temperatures as it may burn foliage. It’s also rather harsh on the skin, and many people are allergic to sulfur. Don’t go overboard with the application of sulfur, adding too much will shock the soil and prevent your plants from growing properly.
As a final note on sulfur, never add it to — or apply it after you have recently used — hydrated lime, never.
Hydrated lime is something most people probably won’t use in your garden, unless you have a very acidic soil or use an organic pesticide made with the hydrated lime. Mixing these two can form hydrogen sulfide — a very dangerous compound. You don’t want that to happen! If you have applied hydrated lime and need to apply sulfur, just water in the lime really well and wait a few days to prevent this dangerous gas from forming.
Common Bean Pests
These little guys will probably visit your beans. Several types exist that attack both below and above ground. They fly in from everywhere and are born pregnant, so you might want to start control soon or you will be having lots of fatherless aphids looking for a free meal. Luckily, they are probably one of the easiest to control. Seaweed sprays alone are often enough to dislodge them. The seaweed also seems to attract ladybugs to the yard, which like to chow down on aphids.
If seaweed doesn’t do the trick, try a soap product such as Organic Insecticidal Soap or an organic control like Bug-a-Tak Organic Insecticide.
Cutworms and other Destructive Caterpillars
These can be easily controlled with a BT (Bacillus thuringiensis) application of Dipel dust or Thuricide spray. You can also control these critters naturally with the release of parasitic wasps.
Mexican bean beetle
These ravagers look like harmless orange ladybugs with black spots (about 16 spots), until they strip your leaves down to its skeleton! They live just about everywhere a bean is, or can be, grown. These little terrors come in cycles. If you can figure out the time of arrival in your area, you may be able to avoid them, but don‘t count on it. You will have to talk to a local expert or an extension agent to figure this out. They seem to especially enjoy soybeans, so planting soybeans near other beans as a trap crop can help you reduce the spraying to the soybeans when the beetles attack. Pyrethrum can also control the beetles, as can Citrus, Orange or Neem oil. Parasitic wasps may be affective at controlling them.
These tiny red mites mottle foliage and young growth. They’re almost always associated with water- or temperature-stressed plants. You can usually control these by maintaining good moisture levels in the soil. If they get a little out of hand, seaweed or soap sprays (see above) will usually eradicate them.
Chances are you’ll need a microscope to see these pests. Unfortunately their damage is easily visible. Control can be achieved with products that contain crab or shrimp meal, which have large quantities of an enzyme that digests chitin, which, happily, these critters are made of. Orange peel, ground and applied to the surface, or tilled in between rows, can also provide control, although this is best done as a pre-treatment before planting.
Rabbits and other rodents
For rabbits in the city, we recommend catch and release traps and fences to exclude the furry terrors. Attracting birds of prey is another way to control rodents of all kinds, but if you use this method, you’ll want to keep your cats and small dogs inside. Shake Away Organic Rodent Repellent, Shot Gun Repels-All Animal Repellent Granules, and Garden Guard Pest Repellent (a cement block infused with rodent repelling scents) are also great environmentally friendly ways to keep destructive rodents away from your bean garden.
Strange Stuff About Beans
Okay, so they aren’t going to grow out and strangle you in your sleep — although they do grow very fast — but there are a few beans that are commonly consumed that, if not prepared right, can really hurt you!
Some beans are rather poisonous if not cooked. Yes, poisonous. Kidney beans, both white and red, (not green beans obviously, or we would have a lot of sick people) contain a compound called Lectin Phytohaemagglutinin- yeah I can’t pronounce it either — that stops you from digesting things correctly, causing severe digestive upset and severe cramps! Make certain you use the correct type of beans when making sprouts, please.
Photo courtesy of sashafatcat at Flickr.com.
Also, Fava beans (vicia spp.) contain chemicals that can react with MAO inhibitors! Don’t eat these beans if you’re taking MAO inhibitor drugs. Broad or Fava beans can also cause a dangerous condition known as Favisim. This condition is common among Mediterranean and African ethnic groups, sometimes affecting as much as 15% of the population.
Beans, beans, the musical fruit…
Everyone during their childhood has probably heard this particular musical number. (If you haven’t, we are glad to be the first site you visited after climbing out from under your rock.) Yes, beans give you gas, but why? The extra pressure comes from a type of complex sugar called oligosaccharide and found in the beans that people can’t digest on their own. Notice, I said “on their own” because a type of bacteria that lives in our big intestine just loves this sugar and happily digests it for you.
Unfortunately, the little critters don’t have a intestinal version of the EPA to regulate their emissions, so they leave the “disposal” up to you! Well, that’s real nice of them isn’t it? Luckily there are several over-the-counter products made just for this situation. They help you digest the stuff before it gets out of control. Also, thoroughly cooking beans will help with this problem. Epazote may also help, although this may be just fiction.
Mexican jumping bean
No this isn’t a bean, it’s a yucca seed that has a worm inside it. It “jumps” to get out of the hot sun and escape predators. Not edible, although who would eat it?
Tips on Cooking, Flavoring and Preparing Beans
Epazote (Chenopodium ambrosioides)
A strange plant related to spinach with a strong mustard flavor, epazote is supposed to help remove the “digestive issues” that some beans seem to give certain people. Add a little — a couple of leaves at first — to see if it works and to make sure the flavor is not too intense. Don’t add too much, or a new set of digestive problems could appear.
This seaweed based spice is used heavily in Japanese dishes. It is sometimes used to improve the flavor and digestibility of beans.
Bean sprouts are an excellent way to make beans do more for your health. Soy and mung beans are the types most commonly used for sprouts. They are higher in many necessary nutrients that are not present in the dried form. Yes, simply sprouting the bean causes all this to happen.
The beans, when sprouted, lose digestive enzyme inhibitors that prevent you from getting the full value of their nutritive value while activating the enzymes that help you digest food. (All that garbled nonsense just means the sprouts are better for you and give you less gas!). You should not try to sprout and eat certain types of beans, such as kidney beans as they can be dangerous.
Growing Black Beans
It seems like we forget about black beans. That is, when it comes to vegetable gardening. Plant beans in your garden. Sure! But do you remember to plant Black Turtle Beans, or do you automatically think about green snap beans?
Here’s more information on growing black beans! But, are you sick of eating black bean burritos? Is that possible? Serve chilled with tortilla chips, or even over lettuce. Now, imagine if those black beans and mint were grown in your little vegetable garden out back.
Scarlett Runner Beans
Scarlett Runner Beans are a big favorite in home vegetable gardens. Folks fall in love with the red blooms! Ok, so do hummingbirds. And to be honest, I get why they are a favorite. They really do bring a burst of color into a green garden, and look great climbing over a backyard fence. You can, also, see Scarlet Runner Beans used in a lot of edible landscaping.
These beans must be cooked, and are poisonous if not! See dangerous beans. The pod can be eaten early on, when it’s tender. Then they get a little tough, but you can just shell out the inside bean seed.
Scarlet Runner Beans are easy to grow, and they’ll do well in your vegetable garden or backyard. Make sure the soil has a neutral pH by for these guys, and that is doesn’t get too hot. Not like you can pop air conditioning on them, but you just won’t get as many beans when it’s hot. For the pH, just add some compost to the soil before planting and the bean plants should be fine.
Shell, Dried and Soup Beans
I keep mentioning shell beans, dried beans, or some call them soup beans, because they’re easy to forget about growing in our vegetable gardens. I know, I plant fresh green beans, and I tend to forget about growing soup beans. Most varieties of shell beans can be dried right on the vine. And in some ways, doesn’t that sound easier than managing the succession planting of fresh green beans?
Check out this article from Mother Earth News on growing shell beans. Beans covered in this article are: adzuki beans, black beans, garbanzo beans, fava beans, great northern beans, lima beans, pinto beans, red kidney beans, scarlet runner beans, and soybeans. So, don’t forget about these shell beans in your vegetable garden, or you’ll be missing out.
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