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Before one can rationally discuss cultivars or gardening details, one has to address the remarkably broad spectrum of what is traditionally lumped together as "beans". Beans fall into many different classes, and the matter is complicated by the fact that the culinary classes do not necessarily align with the biological ones, nor the gardening types with either of the other two.
Even just from the gardener's perspective, beans can be classed in several ways: pole beans versus bush beans, cool-weather beans versus warm-weather beans, and fresh versus shelling versus drying beans. Let's look at those classes one by one.
Pole versus bush is mainly a matter of the particular cultivar's growth habit, and it is common for there to be both a pole version and a bush version of the same bean kind, as any seedsman's catalogue will amply illustrate; but that is not to say that the growth height of the plant is the whole of the matter. As one source says:
Bush beans were bred for commercial harvesting which is exactly opposite what a family garden is designed for. Bush beans can be mechanically harvested and they produce their crop all at once allowing maximum yield in that one-time mechanical picking. Pole beans, on the other hand, are much easier to pick by hand since you can stand up rather than stoop over, and they are much easier to see among the leaves than bush beans. Pole beans produce continuously from the time they first start producing until the first frost--not good for commercial operations, but exactly what you want for fresh beans for the table (generally you pick them every 3 or 4 days). Pole beans are generally regarded as having a superior taste to bush beans. Now, if you are planting beans with the sole purpose of canning them, it may be that the traits desired for commercially grown beans would be exactly what you want. For the most part though, pole beans are far superior to bush beans.
Even a State Extension Service, writing for commercial bean growers, says Trellised [pole] beans are easy to harvest, less liable to disease and produce more attractive fruit compared to bush beans. But, they go on to add, Unfortunately, pole beans often command little more in price than bush beans to make up for the additional costs of trellising and hand harvesting. We could easily pile up lots more such quotations; but, more to the point, we have never, ever seen or heard of anyone claiming the opposite--that bush beans were in any way superior in any way meaningful to a home gardener, to pole beans. 'Nuff said, then, on that.
(There is also a type usually called "half-runner" beans, which is sort of half-way between pole and bush--think of it as a bush bean that wanted to be a pole bean when it grew up but couldn't quite make it. These are most conveniently just thought of as unusually short pole beans, because that's pretty much how you have to deal with them when growing.)
Most beans are warmth-loving crops (though not necessarily heat-loving), but there are exceptions. One is that most useful sort called "fava beans" (or occasionally "faba beans"); favas sneer at cold, even frost, and are a northern bean-lover's best friend--indeed, they dislike heat. (Notice that the whole biological bean class has recently been renamed to Fabaceae.) Chick peas (garbanzos) also get along well in cool weather.
In trying to estimate bean-plant suitability for a short-season climate, take some care in reading the seedsmen's "days to harvest" datum. For most vegetables, including beans grown for eating fresh, that datum means pretty much what it says (though you need to know if they're measuring from initial seeding or from transplanting to outdoors after growing seedlings under shelter--for beans, rarely transplanted, it'll be from seeding). But if you want shelly or drying beans, have a care: if the catalogue says "65 days", that'll be to fresh, green use; for drying, add probably a month more, with the shelly stage somewhwre in between. On the other hand, if the catalogue says "100 days", that's probably to the final dry stage. Why seedsmen need to be so vague surpasseth all understanding, but it's rare to see clear "growth days" data. You have to use some sense and have some idea of typical bean growth times (and also remember that what grows in X days in Alabama will likely take nontrivially longer in Maine or Washington State).
And as to fresh versus shell versus dry, why that is really just a matter of at what point in the bean plant's growth the beans are harvested. Though many kinds have been bred mainly for one specific use, and are rarely if ever seen in another, many kinds are commonly grown for two or even all three uses. Shell beans, or "shellies" (also called "horticultural" beans), are rarely seen at retail; "shellies" are beans picked when large enough that the whole pod is no longer edible--as it is for green or "snap" beans--but well before they get to the large, drying stage. Many consider them a fabulous treat. Also note that they need not be a transient pleasure, as they can readily be frozen in the shell stage. (For that matter, so could limas picked before the dry stage.)
(Note that not all beans do equally well as all types: many used for shelly or dry use do not make good fresh eating, owing to their having thick or chewy pods.)
One good resource, linked farther below, remarks that "Over 14,000 species of the Fabaceae family (formerly called Leguminosae) exist--but only some 20 are actually grown in any quantity as a human food." Listed below are the categories, not all of which are common in the U.S., and many of which are not of direct interest to gardeners in our area--but it's interesting to see the wonderful diversity. (Keep in mind that one species can have a huge number of cultivars--"races"--within it.)
To make sure you're confused, let's note that, though correct scientific names are given, this is not a strictly biological breakdown--these things are what are generically called "pulses", a term relating more to their use than their biology, and some of them are really peas, not beans (but--hold on now--some of those called "peas" are really beans). Ready?
Many of those varieties--in history, originally used solely as dried beans--are now grown also for use fresh, as what used to be called stringbeans and which agribusiness now urgently prefers that we call snap beans (or green beans). Indeed, many gardeners who grow, say, Kentucky Wonder snap beans scarcely realize that they can let the beans go on growing and end up with excellent dried beans.
Many ethnic grocers carry them all, and they can also be mail-ordered; it's hard to cook Indian without them.
(Because the following discussion is so rambling--having to cover so many bean types and sub-types--there is a summary list at the end of it, so don't despair!)
Within each of the general categories above there are numerous--sometimes seemingly countless--numbers of cultivars, and aficionados will argue heatedly over the merits of the Santa Maria Pinquito versus the King City Pink, or about the "ideal" Boston baked-beans bean.
Here are the results of our cultivar research, organized in what seemed to us, we hope rightly, the least-confusing scheme.
Dry beans are one of those things that we consider a luxury for the home gardener, by which we mean that you really have to have a lot of spare space and time to justify growing them. That is because it is possible to purchase dried beans, even organically grown ones, of almost any particular type wanted, at not-unreasonable prices. Beans grown for drying do not meet the criteria for why we grow things ourselves (pick at optimum eating point - they're dried; healthfulness - you can easily get pesticide-free or even organically grown dried beans; variety selection - you can find for sale dried beans you have never even heard of).
We suggest that anyone thinking of spending garden space on beans for drying think long and hard about it, and do some homework on the internet to see what's available at retail. That said, here are some further thoughts on drying-type beans.
All other lists notwithstanding, we personally, by our tastes and experience, distinguish just these main classes of dried bean: "common", kidney, black, garbanzo, lima/butterbean, lentil, fava, and "exotic" (meaning types little-used in the U.S. and about which we know little or nothing, like pigeon peas).
Once upon a time not so long ago (as the 1885 Vilmorin guide shows) all Phaseolus vulgaris beans were called "kidney beans", simply to distinguish them from the favas that had for many centuries been the only bean known in Europe, but nowadays the name refers to a limited set of closely related cultivars (two sets, really: "light-red" and "dark-red" kidney beans).
Kidney and black beans are technically part of the "plain bean" category, but we feel they are different enough that we distinguish them; all the rest of P. vulgaris runs together in our minds (and on our palates). We strongly suspect that lots of people who assert cultivar qualities could not actually tell, in a three-corner blindfold test, the difference between Great Northerns, Swedish Browns, and King City Pinks; if you reliably can, good for you. We can't, and we especially can't when they are used as anything other than a simple bowl of beans. So what we would want of "common" drying beans if we were both willing and able to grow drying beans is kidneys (a lot), blacks (a decent amount), and some third generic "bean" (a modest amount).
(A "three-corner" test is one in which there are two samples of thing X and one of thing Y, and the subject has to tell reliably which all three are to pass the test; it is much more reliable an indicator of real, perceptible differences than a simple X-versus-Y tasting, and is common in beverage tasting.)
Pole beans, for all their many advantages (for the home gardener) over bush beans have this one drawback: their growth is a little slower, and their season thus a bit longer. For fresh or even shelly beans that's not a major problem, but for drying beans it is. Despite frequently seeing claims that this or that pole bean has "reliably" produced dry beans in this or that far-north climate, our own experience is that our season is just a bit too short for anything other than occasional success, and limited success at best: the bean plants grow and spread, then, just as they start to set pods here comes the first early frost. But because it might well be either our micro-climate (we're in a "coulee", a slightly depressed frost pocket) or simply our ineptitude, we will devote a few words to promising cultivars, even though we ourselves are giving up on dry pole beans for now.
The types of beans suitable for drying that are readily found as pole beans are "common", of countless types; limas of both types (true and butterbean); and, of course, the aptly named runner beans.
There are, as we said, seemingly innumerable cultivars of "common" pole beans suitable for dry use, each with its advocates. On the assumption--and it's only that--that most or all of them are not really very different in culinary value, the chief desideratum becomes earliness. Regrettably, those most praised for earliness tend to be among the least-readily available, the Indian Woman type being an example (not to be confused with the more common bush bean of, confusingly, the same name). Of the readily available types, the old standard Blue Lake, though usually thought of in connection with fresh-green production, also makes a good dry bean and is at least relatively early. Most pole beans are about 90 to 100 days in getting to the dry-bean stage. If you can't find Indian Woman pole and think Blue Lake too plebian, you can amuse yourself for hours on end combing through the many posted remarks on each of the hundreds or thousands of other pole dry-bean types. (The Seed Savers Exchange annual yearbook--you must be a member to get it, but it's well worth it--is an excellent source of reasonably unbiased information.)
Limas and their close cousins butterbeans are readily available as pole beans. Lima beans are the only vegetable on our lists that is not, as any cultivar whatever, carried by any of what we consider regional or "like-climate" seedsmen, which has obvious implications. Consensus seems to be that for pole limas, the "larger-seeded" (or "potato") limas, such as King of the Garden, are significantly later, and thus harder to grow in the north, than the "small-seeded" limas, such as Sieva; many, including us, prefer the taste of the larger-seeded, but they just don't thrive up here. Classification of lima beans is a bit spotty, but broadly they subdivide into the Lunatus group, the large-seeded types, and the Sieva group, the small-seeded types.
The leading cultivar candidates for short-season pole limas are the Sieva types:
Many other supposedly similar types can be found discused here and there, but consensus seems to be that of this type the Sievas are the most successful and best-tasting.
By repute, these make good but not truly excellent dry beans. They are best grown, it seems, for shellies, because they produce better during cool weather than most beans, and so are available when other types would not be. We discuss them as shellies farther below.
As we said above, several wonderful bean types--kidneys, blacks, and garbanzos--are available (to the home gardener, anyway) only in bush form; in other cases, the pole types of a given sort may just take too long for a short-season area. If you insist on growing bush drying beans, and have the space and time, here are some thoughts.
If you want a "common" bush bean for drying, try the variety Indian Woman Yellow (the bush variety, not the like-named pole variety), said to be very early and excellent for short-season areas, and not hard to find; or perhaps the classic New England variety Jacob's Cattle, also fairly early.
If your climate does not favor pole beans (but consider the Sievas), and you insist on growing limas for dry storage, the early bush types (small-seeded "baby lima" types) often recommended include Henderson's, Jackson Wonder, Early Thorogreen, and Cangreen (some think those last two are the same, others disagree); slightly later but large-seeded and generally held excellent is Fordhook 242 (sometimes tricky to grow).
Keep in mind that some credible sources hold that white runner beans (see farther below) are effectively indistinguishable from true limas, and runners are a very great deal easier to grow in our climates. To the wise, but a word suffices . . . .
Though you would never know it from typical home-garden seed catalogues, there are numerous cultivars of red kidney beans, most known only to commercial growers. Kidney cultivars are traditionally divided into two sub-types: dark red and light red; don't let the descriptions fool you, though, because the "light red" is the fairly darkish sort you usually find at retail as "kidney beans" (dark reds are really dark). It appears that the "light red" types mature rather earlier than the "dark red" types; less than an hour from us is a region (Moses Lake) where dry beans are extensively grown, and light-red types dominate in the kidney-bean category. The cultivar commonly used is the California Early Light Red Kidney (sometimes written as just CELRK, or called just "California Early"), said to mature in 90 days or less hereabouts (but where home gardeners might find seed is another question altogether). Another possibility is Cimarron, which is said to be about 2 days later than CELRK. (The standard dark-red kidney cultivar is Montcalm, but it is acknowledged to be unsuitable for growing except in long-season regions.)
Again: the difficulty is locating seed for home-gardening use. Most home-supply seedsmen just sell "kidney beans" or "red kidney beans"; if they even distinguish between light and dark red, it's a triumph of labelling. If you want to try these, good hunting. (Cornell U. did list them in its 2005 tabulation of recommended types for home gardeners, but they've been wrong before about availability.) For CELRK, a commercial supplier is the Kelly Bean Company; whether they would deal with home gardeners we have not inquired about, but have doubts. (But maybe they could say whose retail-packaged beans are of that type, and one could try growing them out.)
(And--another deep, dark secret--yes, Virginia, there are vining red-kidney bean cultivars--with elegant names like H9659-39 and I9566-32-1-2-1--though apparently none is available to home gardeners, save perhaps through individual offers via SSE.)
For those special black beans prized in soups and other specialty dishes, the cultivar is the Black Turtle (some selections are called things like Midnight Black Turtle); especially for a bush bean, it's an awfully late grower, taking perhaps 100 days--which is somewhat past the margin hereabouts (and in some areas much more), but it's close to unique in its earthy, mushroomy flavor. (It might work grown as a shell bean rather than a dry bean--and shellies can readily be frozen.)
Of the Black Coco variety sometimes mentioned, one academic source noted that "These beans are not traditional for Central America and may be considered undesirable for traditional black-bean recipes." Now you know. And of Black Valentine, the same source noted "This cultivar was somewhat tough-textured with poor flavor." If you must have black beans, stick with the Black Turtle type, if you can successfully bring it in.
While the terms "garbanzo" and "chickpea" are often used as if identical, they are not: "chick pea" is the larger class, encompassing so-called "desi" (small peas, thick and irregular in shape, can range in color from light tan to black) and "kabuli" (larger, rounder, colors range from white to a pale-cream) types; it is the kabuli type that is commonly meant by "garbanzo" (or its equivalent in other languages, such as ceci in Italian).
Growing chickpeas in this region can be done--in fact, the next-door Palouse region is one of the world's leading production areas--but it absolutely, positively requires a cultivar that is strongly resistent to ascochyta blight, a very serious foliar disease of chickpeas, which is rampant in the northern-tier States and Canada; the chickpea cultivars Sierra (possibly the best), Dylan, Evans, and Dwelly seem the current leaders--but none, so far as we know, available to home gardeners, and neither, again so far as we know, are any of the few other ascochyta-resistant types. So, unless you are sure you reside outside the blight regions, garbanzos for the home garden are--for now, anyway--right out. (Oh, and by the way, if you do venture to grow garbanzos, the inoculant you buy for peas and most beans won't work--you need a kind especially for chickpeas.)
(Have a care about so-called "Kabuli black" garbanzos: we are not sure about these, and information is scant, but what we think we know is this: while they are apparently more or less blight-resistant, they are almost certainly--despite the name--a "desi" chickpea type rather than a true kabuli garbanzo; but Black Kabuli is often marketed as cold-winter garbanzos, with no distinction whatever made. Whether they would make a satisfactory garbanzo substitute is a matter of personal taste; we have had no opportunity to sample them culinarily.) The descriptions at the link say "Growing conditions similar to peas but need warmth and longer growing season. Good taste, long cooking, high yield but tedious to shell." We've grown garbanzos in a warmer climate where it was easy, and we still wouldn't bother again: buy them dried or canned.
We remarked earlier that the fava is the bean-loving northern gardener's best friend, and so it is. Like peas, these buggers will stick up sprouts right through a layer of snow (though that is not the recommended procedure!--we only know from discarded old seed that volunteered). We grow, and will continue to grow, lots of these. They make a substitute for limas, not exactly in taste (good, but different) but certainly in culinary function. You can scarcely grow too many of these: what you grow, you will eat, in a myriad of recipes.
Americans are largely ignorant of favas, to the extent that named cultivars beyond the old standard Windsor are hard to find here (and "Windsor" is obviously a semi-generic name, as there are several "Windsor" types), whereas with the English or the Italians (among many others) fava cultivars are as discussed as, say, corn cultivars are here (Thompson & Morgan UK carry a dozen varieties). On the large scale, favas divide into two classes: Windsor types and "longpod" types. But when one does find any discussion of the relative merits of cultivars, there is no consistency; one writer says "Longpods are hardier, crop earlier, and give a higher yield; Windsor varieties give the best flavour, but lower yields", while another says "Old variety "Windsor" is bitter and not that good". What's a chap to do? We have used quasi-generic Windsor seed to excellent results for some seasons, and see little reason to fardoodle around with alternates till many, many more significant other matters are resolved, but experimenters might want to try one or another variant, perhaps Witkiem (or Witkiem Manita).
Warning! Some persons, especially those of Mediterranean descent, may unknowingly harbor a susceptibility known as favism--to such persons, fava beans can be literally deadly. The condition is not common, but if you have never eaten favas and have Mediterranean parentage, it is worth asking your doctor about the matter before trying any.
Why would a nontrivial fraction of a population that depends heavily on a given foodstuff have a potentially fatal reaction to it? No one is sure, but one theory is that the genes responsible for favism confer a compensating benefit: a materially greater resistance to malaria, a chronic grief in ancient times in the fava-eating regions. Sickle-cell anemia is a parallel genetic condition.
We find that freezing favas right after harvest produces a fine result, so we can enjoy them throughout the year (we suppose that they can be dried, but this works well and is very easy). The very common claim that favas need to be individually peeled before cooking we find untrue; it is a nicety but scarcely a necessity--remarks that the skin is tough and inedible are quite off the wall.
What many Americans casually call "shellies" have a long and, one might say, noble history in the world. The famous French "flageolet" beans mentioned farther above, and the equally famed Italian Borlotti and Cannellini beans--all are "shellies" (yet another common designation is "horticultural beans").
Pretty much any bean can be grown and harvested as a shellie; besides the cosmopolitan types just mentioned, plain old Jacob's Cattle and Cranberry beans are commonly used as shellies. Still, centuries of plant breeding focussed on developing cultivars expressly for the purpose suggest that it would be best to choose an explicitly "horticultural" cultivar for shellies: it's sometimes hard to harvest and to shell beans at that stage of development, but the cultivars developed for the purpose are easier to handle.
Though most commonly grown "horticultural" (shell) beans are bush, there are still plenty of pole types around. One kind has to be the delightful Italian class called "borlotti" beans, but there are numerous varities within that class; curiously the "old American" classic, the pole cranberry bean, is actually a borlotti type (these go by many names--borlotti, cranberry, tongue of fire, dragon tongue, and more, most names coming from the typical, and beautiful, bright red-purple coloring of the pods). Note, incidentally, that Borlotti and cousins are sometimes called "Romano", but are very different from the flat green bean usually called "Romano" (yes, it's all very confusing, and needlessly so). If you want to try a pole shellie, pretty much any pole cultivar that can get to the shellie stage is worth trying; almost every one has ardent advocates. The key criterion would seem to be earliness; one candidate many report liking is Jeminez (also as Jimenez), said to be prolific as well as tasty and fairly early (note that this is--more or less--a "Romano" type bean of the flat-pod sort). Another candidate is Kwintus (formerly, and sometimes still, known as Early Riser), also a "Romano" type.
The shellie stage may in general be an answer for specialty beans that cannot quite reach the truly "dry" stage in our climate--black beans, possibly kidney beans, and whatever else of this description suits your taste. Shellies were once immensely popular, but nowadays almost no one even seems to know there is a stage between "green beans" and dried beans. Probably that's because if you don't grow your own, they're hard (read "almost impossible") to come by. And, again, they do freeze well.
The Italian white-kidney type commonly called Cannellini, while it is a shellie, deserves mention on its own. It does not seem available in anything but bush form, so that's how we would grow it (did we decide to grow it--the same argument, easy commercial sourcing of satisfactory varieties, applies); while no kitchen is complete without a generous supply of this bean (especially good in soups and stews, but excellent anywhere, even just as itself), there's litle justification for growing it oneself (especially as there seem no real named cultivars beyond the designation "cannelini").
Beware something called a "pole cannellini" or "runner cannellini"; it may be a good eating bean in itself (very lima-like), but it is not any sort of true cannellini, rather just just what its name says: a white runner bean (see Runner beans, farther below).
Soy beans are essential nutrition in many parts of the world, but are not inherently great eating (though some new types are said to be comparable to many common beans--but we'll wait for more reports before jumping in). But we think everyone who can should at least try a little of one of the edamame types; these can be consumed as a green vegetable, typically in stir frys, but their most interesting use--lightly cooked, out of the pod--is, in Japan, as a snack with beer, much as Americans eat peanuts. These are not just any old soys, but are types bred for this special use. A WSU report summarizing five years of trialling (in Lewis County, southwest Washington State) said:
Some varieties never produced pods before frost, but other were clear winners. Lucky Lion, Sapporo Midori, and White Lion matured early and developed the most and plumpest pods. Two American varieties, Butterbean . . . and Envy also performed well, with Envy maturing earlier.
The type Envy is commonly available, and is what we would use had we the space (though a type named, charmingly, Beer Friend sounds good, too.) Several types were reviewed by The National Garden Bureau, and the information is helpful. Much depends on which types are reasonably available from the seedsmen, something that varies annually.
We intend to train a few runner beans--scarlet, white, and mixed-color--up a garden-entranceway trellis. We scarcely need them for more beans, but they are simply gorgeous as sheer decoration--yet they yield, especially in relatively cool weather, what are reputed to be first-class eating beans. Talk about your basic no-brainer . . . .
One reads: "Runner beans are different from common beans in a second way. They are perennials not annuals. Frosts will kill back the foliage to the ground in late Autumn or Winter but the plants will grow back from the root tubers the following spring. This is why they are sometimes called 'Seven Year Beans.'" That, we suppose, depends on one's exact climate, but we're certainly going to try it out. But if we do, up here, have to re-plant annually, that's no great loss. (Some sources say the beans should be moved every three or four years, but it's unclear why.)
In North America, only a few named types are offered; in the U.K., they take this bean much more seriously: a Royal Horticultural Society Trial had 48 cultivar listings. Indeed, if you are serious about runners (and remember, they are perennials good for many years), you'll probably have to buy seed from the North American arm of one or another of the British seed houses.
In the seedsmen's catalogues, each type is--as always--the best. There does, though, seem to be a definite feeling that the all-white types produce a distinct and, most feel, better bean than the colored types; some say they are essentially indistinguishable from true lima beans. Also, whites are said to produce better in hot weather. We haven't tried these yet ourselves, but the obvious plan would be to grow a good few vines of a white type for the food, and perhaps mix in some colored types for the look (they are often grown as pure ornamental plants) with some beans from them as a bonus.
Of white types, the RHS-awarded choices include White Emergo-Snowy, Emergo Stringless, White Lady, and White Achievement. Some American types apparently not submitted to the RHS include Czar and Grammy Tilley. We have no crietria for selecting between any of those. And there seems no point in fooling with any "half-runner" types; go for the gold.
Of the colored types, the choices are many, but the best (based on those Royal Horticultural Society tests) seem to be the charmingly multi-colored St. George (an improved version of the old standard Painted Lady) and several red types also not commonly found in this country; of those (ten--follow the link to see them), the type Lady Di is about the only one sometimes seen in North American seed catalogues.
Note! If you want to save seed, grow only one type (or keep the types separated by a lot), as these cross-breed with the greatest of ease.
Curiously, in the light of our love of dried and shell beans, green beans have never been a hit in our household. One of these seasons we will trial a few types, none of which is your basic, everyday "green bean", which we call, all the marketing efforts in the world notwithstanding, "stringbeans". (For those who do fancy the plain "green bean", Blue Lake is always at or near the top of most lists--so, too, is Kentucky Wonder, but it tends to some stringiness.)
Other than the "plain old" kind, our interests are focussed on three types (one a novelty). The kind that seems most likely, from past eating experience, to be a green bean we can like is some specimen of the Romano or "Italian" bean class--flat-podded beans with a distinctive, meaty texture and notably "beany" taste. We both liked them as kids, but the stuff one buys in supermarkets these days, fresh or frozen, is green mush (which is, of course, more or less true of a lot of store-bought vegetables). There are several popular favorites of this sort, all apparently with growing seasons suitable for this climate; among them (and mentioned as "shellies" up above) are Kwintus (formerly, and sometimes still, known as Early Riser or as Northeaster), and Jeminez (also as Jimenez), said to be prolific as well as tasty and fairly early.
Another kind of possible interest is the "filet" bean, a type that has to be picked when very thin; not a few sources say that filets are just so much better than ordinary green beans that they don't even bother with any other green bean type any more. There seem to be two especially choice types: Fortex and Emerite; both have their partisans; Ya pays yer money an' ya makes yer cherces.
The one other pole green-bean type we think worth attention--for those whose climate allows it (we aren't sure if ours does)--is the novelty (in this hemisphere) bean Vigna unguiculata sesquipedalis, called variously "yard-long", "asparagus bean", or "Chinese noodle bean". Theses are really warm-climate types, but it seems that even in our climate the pole type "Liana" might work ok. And yes, they can grow to as much as a yard long, though they are better picked younger, at a foot or two. The type in general is mighty tasty, as we know from our years in San Francisco, where Oriental vegetables are commonplace even in supermarkets. It's a bean--well, maybe it's not actually and strictly a bean (but you should be used to such niceties by now)--that grows rapidly under favorable conditions, and is harvested when still thin and not too long (much like filet beans), maybe half a yard; its virtue is a distinctive, nutty flavor that is--we think--very nice eating. We were easily able to grow it in central California; whether our season here would allow even the Liana to develop satisfactorily we have yet to determine.
After all those paragraphs, we summarize. Remember that not all of these are necessarily suitable for our conditions--we include here varieties for those with slightly longer growing seasons; the cultivars marked with a colored mark (§) are marginal or unlikely in our exact location (pretty much any bean grown for drying) but are otherwise worthy. Remember also that it is our opinion that growing drying beans of any kind is only for those with lots of available garden space and time on their hands.
Beans, beans, beans . . . there's no end to the possibilities.
Here, we must revert to the gardener's view of beans. In that view, there really is not a lot of difference between types excepting favas, which are a whole separate issue. But we do direct-seed all beans: beans do not want or need transplanting.
Beans, like a very great number of garden vegetables, can generally be grown with success in containers--often in containers smaller than one might think. For bush types, that's not a big deal, but when one can grow several pole-type beans in a single 5-gallon container, it is worth considering, especially for the space-challenged. We ourselves are not space-challenged in our garden, but we are pest-challenged--voles, to be exact. This year, we are going to grow quite a few types of things, including pole beans, in containers, in the hope that that will keep the critters from devouring the seeds before they can even break ground. A container-growing expert has said "I use a pot that's about 12" deep, and about 14" in diameter: this will hold several pole bean plants." Another note from the same source suggests that instead of the usual twine or other thin material used to guide pole beans' growth, something thicker--perhaps closet poles--at least an inch in diameter, brings better bean productivity--"produces a more concentrated growth pattern, with the full length of the vine condensed by the wide circles and the beans themselves bunched up thickly together, which is what you want when your space is limited."
Favas are cool-weather crops--one treats them very much like peas: get them in "as soon as the ground can be worked" (an old formula)--though if you want to be modern, the soil temperature (measure with a good soil thermometer) should be 40° F. or a little over. Surprisingly, though favas prefer and grow best in cool temperatures, they can withstand up to, it is said, 85°; one source says that their optimum growth range is 70° to 80°, so hereabouts we'd like them out by no later than the end of June. Since favas are listed at 75 days to maturity, we thus don't have to rush to get them in the ground: the thermometer is more accurate than the calendar, but April 1st is a plausible target.
All the other bean kinds have very similar requirements. Wait till the soil is warm--cold or damp soil can rot bean seed--but the air temperatures not yet really hot. The generally quoted rule is that the soil temperature should reliably be 60° F. or more before beans are planted. (That's average daytime soil temperature.) If you have riased beds, or are trying container growing, chances are that your soil will heat faster than actual ground.
Optimum bean-seed germination occurs at a soil temperature of 95° F., which is obviously preposterous hereabouts: beans are just one of those things we plant at a non-optimum soil temperature because we have no choice if we expect any crop at all. We can usually look for such soil temperatures in early to middle May, but years vary and a thermometer is a better guide than a calender, but a plausible target date is around June 1st.
With lima types, it's probably better to wait even a little longer, say for 65° soil temperatures. That's not likely to happen around here till June, which is why limas are a bit more of a challenge, pole limas being relatively long-season growers (though the Sieva types are better in that regard than most, being usually listed at 70 to 80 days). Just watch the temperature daily, starting in late spring, and pop the limas in as soon as it hits that 65° figure (but not before June 1st, to better avoid surprise freezes).
Keep in mind that many beans, especially pole types, have a long growing season, a further reason try to get them going by no later than early June--but also, for frost safety, no earlier. Again: the thermometer trumps the calendar--but keep those dates in mind. (See the discussion at Freeze-Related Data.)
Beans, peas, and that whole lot--the legumes--don't much like acid soils. A pH of around 6.8 is ideal, and a little higher is OK too, even up to 7.2; though these crops can tolerate quite a range, why not give them what they like?
Because legumes are nitrogen givers, don't make their plot too rich in nitrogen to begin with or your plants will put their energies into heavy vine growth, which will delay their maturity; but see that the potassium and potash content are strong. Beans (like peas) make a good follow crop in crop rotations to any really heavy feeders; we like to put them right after corn in the four-year scheme.
Our experimentation has showed that one can successfully plant favas more densely than many books suggest: 4-inch spacing produced plants just as vigorous and productive as the recommended 8-inch spacing. (We later found that John Seymour also suggests that spacing for deep-dug beds.) Plant the seeds about an inch deep. Use inoculant, as described below. Note that soybeans, if you are growing those, want a different, special kind of inoculant meant just for them.
All the non-fava bean kinds have very similar requirements. Some sources suggest soaking bean seeds before planting, but at least one expert source says explicitly to not soak them, as that may damage the seeds. (We agree, especially because we prefer seed that is not treated with any fungicides.)
In any event, space bean plants, bush or pole, about six inches apart (but more anon about poles). Plant the seeds about an inch deep.
Whether to apply inoculant (which helps beans get started on their nitrogen cycle) seems a no-brainer: it's cheap, and can only help. What we do is put a little inoculant powder in a fairly wide, shallow dish or holder, moisten it lightly, then roll each bean in it as we go to plant. Please note the two crucial adjectives there: a little and lightly: you'd be surprised how very little powder it takes to do even hundreds of beans; and you don't want a soup, just enough light mudding that the stuff will readily adhere to the beans.
Now, about pole beans: Some people like to grow these up sticks arranged in a sort of "tepee" pattern, tied together at the top. That's OK, but we like to train the vines up a lattice made of "range fence", fairly heavy-gauge wire mesh with about 6-inch squares; it normally comes in four-foot roles, so you should stretch two lengths, one above the other, for an 8-foot lattice, or you can partly overlap the roles if that's too high for you (but it may not be too high for your beans!).
Be aware that, while pole beans are natural climbers, they will not interweave themselves through horizontal wires: they need something more or less vertical to twine up. Also: If you don't plant the seeds directly under what they're to grow up, it is wise to run string or fish wire or something of the sort from a peg right by the plant to the pole or fence or whatever that the vine is supposed to climb. You can stake the peg as you plant, so you don't later have to disturb growing seedlings.
Beans are relatively low-fuss growers. Keep them well watered (but not soggy, especially in the spring) and watch them grow. If you are trying container growing, you may need to water more frequently than normal, in that a lot of roots in a small space drink a lot of water.
One source said to try to avoid watering runner beans during the daytime, or at least as late in the afternoon as possible. That is actually good advice for all crops: watering in the warmer parts of the day just lets the sun more or less literally steam the leaves. And in the later afternoon, the sun-warmed soil reduces the temperature shock to the plant roots. About two hours before sunset on a sunny day, or somewhat earlier on an overcast day, is about optimum. (Of course, if you use drip irrigation, you can run it any time of the day, though night watering is still unwise.)
With beans, of all kinds, knowing when to harvest is important. For beans grown as snap beans, harvest as often as possible, daily if you have time; look for pods that are about ready, and don't let any get really big or they'll be tough. Don't worry about picking small pods: the plant will give you bunches of new ones, so you're not losing anything by picking them small. Shellies also require careful attention--for real shellies, the pods have to be harvested when well-filled but still green. (And again: shellies can be frozen, so take them whenever they're ready, even if that's not what you want for dinner that evening.) Drying beans are much easier: just leave them on the vine till you're sure they're done growing--there's no harm in leaving them on too long.
It is a commonplace to say that fava beans should be individually peeled or skinned before use, but we, like others, have found that leaving the skin on--and removing it bean by bean is tedious work!--produces perfectly edible results. But it helps a lot to harvest the beans while they're still young and tender.
Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:
Dear me, Mr. Holmes. Dear me!
(Note from one Professor James Moriarty to one Mr. Sherlock Holmes.)
Well: here's some information from a 1994 FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization) document, attempting to set out working definitions.
DEFINITION AND CLASSIFICATION OF COMMODITIES
4. PULSES AND DERIVED PRODUCTS
The term "pulses" is limited to crops harvested solely for dry grain, thereby excluding crops harvested green for food (green peas, green beans, etc.) which are classified as vegetable crops. Also excluded are those crops used mainly for oil extraction (e.g. soy bean and groundnuts) and leguminous crops (e.g. seeds of clover and alfalfa) that are used exclusively for sowing purposes.
BEANS, DRY (Phaseolus spp.):
kidney, haricot bean (Ph. vulgaris)
lima, butter bean (Ph. lunatus)
adzuki bean (Ph. angularis)
mungo bean, golden, green gram (Ph. aureus)
black gram, urd (Ph. mungo)
scarlet runner bean (Ph. coccineus)
rice bean (Ph. calcaratus)
moth bean (Ph. aconitifolius)
tepary bean (Ph. acutifolius)
Only species of Phaseolus should be included, though several countries also include certain types of beans. Commonly classified as Vigna (angularis, mungo, radiata, aconitifolia). In the past, these species were also classified as Phaseolus.
BROAD BEANS, DRY (Vicia faba):
horse-bean (var. equina)
broad bean (var. major)
field bean (var. minor)
CHICK-PEAS = chickpea, Bengal gram, garbanzos (Cicer arietinum)
COW PEAS, DRY = cowpea, blackeye pea/bean (Vigna sinensis; Dolichos sinensis)
PIGEON PEAS = pigeon pea, cajan pea, Congo bean (Cajanus cajan)
LENTILS (Lens esculenta; Ervum lens)
All clear now?
The history of beans is actually several distinct histories, for different broad families of beans evolved separately in different parts of the world.
Cultivation of fava beans is so old that there is no known wild form of the bean; they've been found in some of the earliest known human settlements, and are referred to throughout recorded history. They have been used in Chinese cooking for at least 5,000 years. Quantities of fava beans have been found in Egyptian Twelfth-Dynasty (1991-1786 B.C.) tombs--although some writers have suggested that beans were not commonly cultivated in ancient Egypt (in the fifth century B.C., Herodotus remarked that Egyptians "never sow beans, and even if any happen to grow wild, they will not eat them, either raw or boiled").
The fava was the only bean known to Europe before expeditions to the New World.
Because there is little recorded history of pre-Columbian America, we have only sparse knowledge of the history of the botany (among other things) of this whole half of the world.
It is generally believed that the Americas were populated by Asiatic peoples who migrated over the Bering Sea (or across a land briedge then extant), then expanded ever south till they had filled the hemisphere. These peoples found and adapted a whole new botanical world. By the time Europeans reached the Americas, four bean types unknown outside the hemisphere were in cultivation (as listed well above, those were the "common" bean, limas, runner beans, and the tepary bean). The ancestors of those types were domesticated between 6,000 and 8,000 years ago in Central and South America: beans 2,500 years old have been preserved in graves in the Andes. (On their introduction to Europe, they at once largely displaced favas as the everyday sort of bean.)
So important were certain crops to the native American way of life that they acquired quasi-divine status; notable among these were "the three sisters"--corn (maize), squash, and beans--which were normally intercropped (and which form not only a balanced human nourishment but a balanced ecological growing unit).
Soybeans were one of the very fist crops domesticated by humans: they were know in the 11th century B.C. in the northern part of what is now China. By the first century A.D., soybeans had spread to central and southern China and to Korea. In the 7th century, soybeans made their way to Japan, and thence to Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Burma, Nepal, and northern India.
It wasn't till the 17th century that European visitors to the East became aware of this unfamiliar bean; but soybeans were being grown in Europe by the 18th century. In 1765, the first soybean plant hit North American soil; in 1770, Benjamin Franklin sent seeds from London to a botanist friend in North America. But despite soy's incredible nutritive value, it didn't become an important food crop until the 1920s; by World War I, though, soybeans had achieved value as a source of oil and of inexpensive, high-quality protein.
Numerous bean types either originated in Africa or reached significance there after being brough in from elsewhere by trade. Many of those were later introduced to the Americas as a consequence of the despicable slave trade. (A notable example is the class of beans now called, variously, cowpeas, crowder peas, Southern peas, black-eyed peas, and other things, a staple crop for both consumption and fodder in warm, humid areas.)
Epazote, a Latin-American herb (whose seed is widely available), is held--in folk wisdom--to help minimize what Julia Child has so charmingly called "the rooty-toot-toot" effect of eating beans (which is said to lessen the more one eats beans).
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