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(which includes a lot of vegetable species!)

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Some Sorting Out

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.

Gardeners’ Bean Categories

pole beans growing

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 a bean-plant’s 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 (also spelled “shellie”) 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 somewhere 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 “shellys” (also called ”horticultural” beans), are rarely seen at retail; “shellys” 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.)

Culinary Categories

assorted bean types

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?

  1. The Great Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). This comes in subclasses distinguished (by use, not biologically) by their color—

    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.

  2. Lima Beans (Phaseolus limensis) and Butter Beans (Phaseolus lunatus), the latter also called Sieva, Civet, or Seewee Beans. The two species are closely related and readily cross-breed; Limas are larger and more vigorous than Butterbeans, but are less heat-resistant; but the larger, thicker Lima pods are easier to shell. It is common for seed catalogues to confound the two species (referring to, for example, “Sieva lima beans”).

  3. Chickpeas (Cicer arientinum) - Ceci to the Italians, Garbanzos to the Spanish. The name is from old Roman, meaning “ram-like”, a reference to the seed’s resemblance to a ram’s head (curling horns and all). These grow well in cool weather, but are not highly productive.

  4. Fava/Faba Beans (Vicia faba major). From ancient Egypt, thence throughout the Mediterranean, and eventually all of Europe; throughout history, favas were the only bean known in Europe till some Phaseolus vulgaris types were brought from the New World. They require cool weather.

  5. Cow Peas (Vigna unguiculata), many other names as well. Arose in China, traveled the Silk Road to Arabia, whence to Africa, whence—via the slave trade—to the southern U.S.; medium-sized, cream-colored with a purple-y seam, smooth texture, thin skin, “subtle” flavor (like lentils, they do not require soaking before cooking). There are four basic subtypes:

    Though often thought of as a deep-south crop, with care, cow peas (and don’t let the name put you off them) can be grown in the far north.

  6. Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus), also known as Case Knife Bean. Very common, especially in England, flowers so extraordinarily beautiful (red, the most common; white; or parti-colored) that the plant is often grown solely as a decorative, but it yields beans of reputedly excellent eating quality; unlike most beans, it produces well in cool weather—though it stops setting in summer heat, it resumes in autumn (it can be a perennial in many climates).

  7. Lentils (Lens esculenta). A huge class worth an entry of its own; they are legumes, but not truly either beans or peas—really, a thing unto themselves (though more like peas)—known to have been harvested over eleven thousand years ago. They are an excellent crop for Eastern Washington, which is a national growing center for them.

  8. Dal/Dhal (Pisum stivum). Subclass of Indian pulses very much like what Americans call “split peas”, but said to be tastier and with a more nutty quality. They are really (as the Pisum genus declares) peas—we warned you. (But some of them may be lentils—there is a lot of cross-cultural/cross-linguistic confusion.) Indian cookery, arguably the world’s foremost, recognizes quite a number of dhals (spelt with and without the h, at whim); The Yogi Cookbook, ill-named but the best Indian cookbook we have ever seen, says there are five major dhals:

    Many ethnic grocers carry them all, and they can also be mail-ordered; it’s hard to cook Indian without them.

  9. Soybeans (Glycine max). Probable origin is Manchuria c. 3,000 B.C.; did not arrive in Europe till the 17th century, America till the 19th. Not an excellent culinary bean, but utterly invaluable as the only vegetable naturally containing all amino acids needed by humans, and hence capable of sustaining healthy life with few or no other protein sources in the diet. With such great value in it, human ingenuity has sought and found many ways to make it palatable, from tofu to edamame to miso; nowadays, “TSP” (“Textured Soy Protein”) more or less successfully emulates many meat products.

  10. Tepary Beans (Phaseolus acutifolius, var. latifolius). Although biologically a distinct type—one of the four sorts native to the Americas (common, lima, runner, tepary)—in cultivation and use, largely indistinguishable from common beans. Though these beans normally require long and hot summers, the type Mitla Black has been successfully grown in New England.

  11. Adzuki/Azuki Beans (Phaseolus angularis). Native to China and Japan; small, thick-skinned, reddish-brown, white-seamed bush beans, described as having a pleasantly nutty taste; their sweetness is always cited, and their most common use in the Orient is in desserts and other sweet preparations.

  12. Pigeon Peas (Cajanus cajan). Really a bean, name notwithstanding—cultivated by the ancient Egyptians; brought to Africa (where they’re still called Congo peas), thence by slaves to the New World, where they are used even today in many Caribbean dishes (and are often known as Googoo beans, especially in Jamaica).


Various dried beans

(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.

Drying Beans

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-Type Drying Beans

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 a feature not a bug, but for drying beans it’s the other way round. 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 very occasional success, and limited success at that: 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 have given up on all dry beans.

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.

“Common” 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, though you can amuse yourself for hours on end combing through the many posted remarks on each of the hundreds or thousands of pole dry-bean types. We did not and do not find the tedium of trying cull the best-tasting dry bean—if there is such a thing—worth the candle, so if you insist on growing some, rely on your favorite seedsmen for suggestions.


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 much 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, which are decently suited to short-season growth. The favorite seems to be the Carolina Sieva pole bean, usually listed as 80 days. (There is also a red version, Carolina Red Sieva, but it is quite rare.) Many other supposedly similar small-bean types can be found discused here and there, but consensus seems to be that of that type the Sievas are the most successful and best-tasting available to short-season growers. For ourselves, we prefer to just buy organic full-size limas.

Runner Beans

By repute, these make good but not truly excellent dry beans. They are best grown, it seems, for shellys, because they produce better during cool weather than most beans, and so are available when other types would not be. We discuss them as shellys farther below.

Bush-Type Drying Beans

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.

Common Beans

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, quite flavorsome, quite productive, and not too hard to find.

Lima Beans

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:

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…

Kidney Beans

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). 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. And even most of the bush-type kidneys are rather long-season; possibly the best choice for those who insist on doing it is the above-mentioned California Early Light Red, listed at 85 to 95 days; home-garden-quantity seed is very hard to find, but we have seen at least one vendor offering it on line..

(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.)
Black “Soup” Beans

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 shellys 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.

Garbanzo Beans

While the terms “garbanzo” and “chickpea” are often used as if identical, they are not [archived copy]: “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).

We regard chickpeas as a wonderful vegetable, with a taste not really like anything else (“a buttery texture and nutty taste” one source says). But home-growing them is another matter: chickpeas are not very productive: one plant will produce perhaps 3 or maybe 4 pods at one to two peas per pod—that’s 8 peas per plant at best, and possibly as little as 3. And there’s no special point in having them fresh. Moreover, they take a long time to mature, 100 days or so, plus they want cool but not cold weather during those days. But anyway…

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 is that they are more or less blight-resistant. Despite being black, as desi types are, it is said that they are true kabuli types, as the name asserts; but some references suggest thast these are not actually chickpeas at all, but rather are a type of lentil. 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 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, as the production per square foot is so, so low. We buy them dried or canned.

Shelling Beans

Fava Beans

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 alternatives till many, many more significant other matters are resolved, but experimenters might want to try one or another longpod variant.

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.

Horticultural Beans

What many Americans casually call “shellys” 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 “shellys” (yet another common designation is “horticultural beans”).

Pretty much any bean can be grown and harvested as a shelly; besides the cosmopolitan types just mentioned, plain old Jacob’s Cattle and Cranberry beans are commonly used as shellys. 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 shellys: 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). These are also often called by their French name, flageolet beans.

If you want to try a pole shelly, the top of the heap would seem to be one or another of the cranberry pole types, of which (as always, confusingly) there are many. One popular type is the “cranberry” pole bean—there are numerous cranberry varieties, such as the Vermont Cranberry Pole Bean [60 days to shelly]. Another well-regarded type is the Italian “Borlotto”, again with numerous varieties; perhaps the best of these is the Borlotto Lamon [75 days to shelly].

Note that some gardeners compare the taste of these sorts to that of red kidney beans, possibly making them—if your season works for them—a good substitute, effectively a pole kidney bean.

Shellys 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.

Also note that runner beans, discussed farther below, can make fine shellys.

Lima Beans

The more or less “standard” (large-seeded) limas all have growth times beyond what folk in our climate can grow. But the small-seeded varieties (notably Carolina Sieva) are manageable. They are, admittedly, not quite as delicious as the large-seeded sorts, but they are still fine eating.

Cannellini Beans

The Italian white-kidney type commonly called cannellini, while it can be a shelly, deserves mention on its own. True cannellini can—some say—be closely approximated in flavor by certain other pole beans, especially some runner types; but what distinguishes true cannellini is their skin thickness, which makes them hold up to cooking much better than other types.

No kitchen is complete without a generous supply of this bean (especially good in soups and stews, but excellent anywhere, even just as itself), so why not just grow real pole cannellini? Because it’s virtually impossible to find any offered for sale. There are lots of bush types (clearly inferior in flavor). There are also occasional offers of “pole cannellini” that inevitably turn out to just be runner beans (discussed a little farther on). Those may be good eating beans in themselves, but they are not any sort of true cannellini. And the taste of various white pole beans may also be similar, but they too lack that true cannellini cooking quality.

Some gardeners suggest the pole type Brita’s Footlong as a substitue for true cannellini. We have no experience with it, but you might consider it. For ourselves, while cannellini apparently make great shellys, their best use seems to be in cooking, for which dry beans are satisfactory. If one grants that, the need to home-grow them as shellys evaporates, as one can readily purchase dry cannellini, even organic.

“Green” Soy Beans

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; those 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.

Though there are quite a few varieties available to home gardeners, the best balance of earliness, productivity, seed availability, and quality seems to come down to two types: Envy, and the early and charmingly named variety Beer Friend. If you’re considering growing edamame, you might do well tgo try some of each.

Runner Beans

We intend to train some runner bean vines 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 anyway, 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 2006 Royal Horticultural Society Trial had 28 cultivar listings. In recent years, American seedsmen have started listing several varieties, though still nothing like so many as one can find from U.K. 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, significantly better-tasting bean than the colored types; some say “[T]hey look and taste just like real limas (only plumper). Scarlet runner beans are perfectly edible, but the pink and purple seeds have a certain flavor that I find slightly off-putting…White runner beans, on the other hand, are indistinguishable from ‘true’ limas in flavor…” Also, whites are said to produce better in hot weather.

Of the white runners reasonably available in the U.S., two that were on the RHS “Award of Garden Merit” list (see the link a bit above) were Emergo and White Lady. (Another was White Achievement, but we see no seed sources for those in the U.S.)

Note! If you want to save seed, grow only one type (or keep the types separated by quite a lot), as these cross-breed with the greatest of ease.

Green Beans


Curiously, in the light of our love of dried and shell beans, green beans have never been a hit in our household. This season we will trial some. While tastes vary, almost everyone agrees that: 1) pole beans taste much better than bush beans; and 2) that “Romano” type beans (flat-looking) taste better than the more common round-podded types. And of the pole Romanos, there are a very few considered especially fine for both flavor and garden growth. The one we will trial is Musica (sometimes listed as “Spanish Musica”). But if you want also (or instead) to grow a classic round pole bean, the feeling seems to be that you can do no better than the type Fortex.

(Seed for Musica has become hard to find; a good alternative, which seems widely available is a type that goes by several names: Early Riser, Kwintus, Northeaster, and maybe others; it, too, is a Romano type.)

Other Green Beans

Filet Beans

These are not so much distinct types as distinctively grown. (They are also known as haricot vert). A filet bean is one picked when still quite thin and tender. One imagines that almost any bean could be picked at that stage and called a ”filet“ bean, but there are some cultivars that have been developed expressly for that use. The foremost contender here we also listed above with ”ordinary“ green beans: Fortex. But Emerite, a very early pole bean, is a keen competitor.

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. As to which one, ya pays yer money an’ ya makes yer cherces. (Note that filet beans are only crisp and tender if picked while young, which means you need to harvest them every 2-3 days at most. But a bonus is that they require only minimal cooking: literally a flash in the pan will blanch them.)

Long Beans

The one other pole green-bean type we think worth attention—for those whose season length allows it (we don’t know if ours does)—is the novelty (in this hemisphere) bean Vigna unguiculata sesquipedalis, called variously ”yard-long“, ”asparagus bean”, “snake bean”, or “Chinese noodle bean”. (These are, naturally, pole-type beans that need trellising.) Their flavor is excellent, and they are said to grow easily and prolifically.

They have traditionally been associated with long, hot summers, but it seems that there are now, with expanding interest in them, available in varieties that will grow in som,ething like 70 or 80 days, which is manageable in our climate (if a close shave).

The usual suspect here is the Red Noodle bean, but it has a longer days-to-maturity than most, so there are better alternatives. For us, with our hot but short summers, the best choices would be either Taiwan Black or Liana, both readily available.


After all those paragraphs, we summarize. Remember that it is our firm opinion that, 1) growing drying beans of any kind is only for those with lots of available garden space and time on their hands; and 2) that pole beans are so much better than bush beans as to make bush types pointless. YMMV, but, for simplicity, we have in this Summary omitted drying beans and bush beans (except favas, which come in no other form); if you must have one or the other (or both), go back to the notes up the page.

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.

Do always remember that all pole beans are climbers, so you always need to provide something for them to grow up. That can be a trellis of some sort, or you can use the common “tepee” approach, using long sticks (typically of thin bamboo) with their bases in a circle and thei tips tied together, growing one pole-bean vine up each stick. (Here is a link to numerous images of pole-bean teepees). But most agree that for notably vigorous climbers, a good, strong trellis (cattle fencing works well) is clearly superior to tepee tents.



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 starting target.

All Other Beans

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 raised 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.)

The Beds

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.

Planting Out


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 Other Beans

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-wide rolls, 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 do it 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.)

Keep a close eye out for pests. If you see ants on your bean vines, you can be sure they are there to milk their aphid colonies. Rinse them away with a jet of water as strong as you can manage without threatening to damage the vines.

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. Shellys also require careful attention—for real shellys, the pods have to be harvested when well-filled but still green. (And again: shellys 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.


Relevant Links

Besides any links presented above on this page, the following ought to be especially helpful:

Odds and Ends


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.


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.

Fava Beans

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.

American Beans

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).

Soy Beans

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.

African Beans

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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