Courtesy Seed Savers Exchange
Heirloom bean varietals include Jacob's Cattle (top), Lina Sisco's Bird Egg (middle) and Ireland Creek Annie (bottom).
Beans never seem to cultivate the gardening paparazzi spotlight status bequeathed to crops like heirloom tomatoes or the sexy summer strawberry. It’s time to shed the dear beans flatulence-quip-inducing reputation, and champion all its perks—from culinary prowess to its abundance of radiant heirloom varietals. Beans truly serve as the miracle addition to your garden and plate.
Choosing Bean Varietals
With hundreds of heirloom bean varietals out there, you’ll have a bountiful selection to choose from. Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit based in Decorah, Iowa, is dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds and offers more than 35 bean varietals in its catalog.
“The various varietals of dry beans are both beautiful and varied in how they grow and taste,” says Tom Wahlberg, Seed Savers Exchange’s seed-house manager. “Beans are largely self-pollinating, a unique feature that enables you to not be too concerned about what your neighbors might be growing around you.”
“Discovering heirloom beans was a revelation for me and opened up a whole new world of flavor possibilities, and I had no idea that beans could be so beautiful,” adds farmer Molly Breslin, of Breslin Farms, an organic bean and grain farm she operates with her father in Ottawa, Ill. Breslin recommends letting the beauty and fun of beans spark interest in what you grow. “The prettier, the better, as far as I’m concerned,” she says.
“Beyond the culinary uses, many heirloom beans come complete with rich histories and iconic stories that are inspiring to preserve and are especially engaging for gardening with kids,” says Jess Babcock, who evaluates and directs new products at Seed Savers Exchange. The Cherokee Trail heirloom bean, for example, was carried by members of the Cherokee nation along the Trail of Tears during the infamous deadly winter march from the Smoky Mountains to Oklahoma in 1838. Other heirloom bean varieties include Jacob’s Cattle, Calypso, Ireland Creek Annie, Kenearly Yellow Eye, Lina Sisco’s Bird Egg and Tiger’s Eye.
Bean Growing Requirements
“When choosing which beans to grow, the first thing to take into account is what kind of space you have available,” Breslin says. Large, flat, open gardens lend themselves to bush beans that need more room to spread. “Bush beans generally grow anywhere from 6 to 18 inches high and bush out, usually holding themselves upright. Smaller spaces, container gardens or gardens with fences are perfect places for pole beans that climb and need trellising.”
A warm-season plant, most beans can be direct-seeded after the danger of frost has passed. They grow quickly and do not need to be started as transplants. Avoid planting in soggy soil as this makes the seeds more susceptible to rot.
Spacing requirements will vary based on bean type, with bush beans needing the most space, typically planted 3 to 6 inches apart in rows at least 2 feet apart. If you’re looking to harvest some of the earlier, tender beans for eating fresh, consider successive plantings of bush beans every two weeks to ensure a continuous summer harvest with plenty left for drying. Pole beans produce heavily but take longer to mature, so they’re generally planted just once at the beginning of the garden season. For pole beans, set the poles or other forms of support into the ground as soon as seedlings sprout.
Get creative with your trellis design to beautify the garden: Lean the poles together in a teepee-trellis design, leaving a small opening for children to crawl into and hide. When the plants fill out, kids will love this secret hideaway, and it can be a fun educational tool to connect children with their food source.
You’ll need to keep the soil around your bean plants evenly moist, but keep the plants themselves from getting wet while watering to avoid fungal diseases. “Avoid touching the plant when the leaves are wet as the moisture will make them more susceptible to disease transfer,” Wahlberg says. If lack of rain forces you to water, use drip irrigation rather than overhead watering to get water to the plant roots and keep the leaves dry. A thick layer of mulch helps keep moisture in and also discourages common pests, such as the Mexican bean beetle, by preventing the beetles from laying eggs close to the plant.
For shell-bean varietals, you can harvest the whole bean early in the season when it’s still soft and tender to eat fresh, shell and all. For the dry bean, harvest when the plant is completely brown and dry and you can hear the beans starting to rattle inside the pod—ideally before the first frost. Strip the pod off by hand. “Avoid moisture at all costs during this harvest phase,” Babcock advises. “If you see a rainy, wet front coming, [it’s] best to pull the plants and let them fully dry in an open, indoor area, like a garage, to avoid water damage.”
“Most heirloom bean varietals are not suited for mechanical harvesting methods, so I pick all mine by hand,” says Paula Forman, of Encore Farms in St. Paul, Minn., who specializes in heirloom bean crops and sells directly to chefs. “I thresh by hand all winter long using leather gloves. It’s a great indoor activity while sitting in front of the TV and catching up on my movie list.”
For a larger crop, the University of Minnesota Extension recommends putting the pods inside a clean burlap sack and threshing it by whacking the bag with a stick or allowing a small child to dance on the sack.
Store dried beans in a sealed jar in a dark place at room temperature. It’s best to eat them within 12 months, but beans can be kept longer when packed and sealed in No. 10 cans or Mylar-type bags. Many folks like to have a stash on hand for an emergency food supply.
When saving beans for next year’s seed, select seeds from the pods of your healthiest plants. “For example, if you have a drought one summer and three plants did exceptionally better than the rest of your beans, save those seeds as that is the stronger plant,” Wahlberg says.
About the Author: Lisa Kivirist is the co-author of Farmstead Chef (New Society Publishers, 2011), ECOpreneuring (New Society Publishers, 2008) and Rural Renaissance (New Society Publishers, 2009) and runs Inn Serendipity Bed-and-Breakfast with her family on their Wisconsin Farm completely powered by the sun and wind.
This article excerpt originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of Hobby Farm Home.