Phaseolus vulgaris – bush and pole beans
Magic beans have been mentioned in fables for centuries, but beans truly are magic. They are a perfect food, containing loads of protein, fibre, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
Beans are one of the easiest crops to grow. How many of you have memories of sprouting runner bean seeds in jars in the classroom? They don’t need herbicides or pesticides to produce well, and their drought tolerance makes them ideal for growing in our warming climate.
FYI: Canada is the world’s largest exporter of pulses (chick peas, beans, peas, lentils) but we don’t consume many of them ourselves. The ones found on our supermarket shelves are often imports, old and dried out.
There are still many old varieties of beans available to gardeners if you know where to look. In fact, the Seed Savers Exchange lists over 4,000 varieties of beans, which is just a start. Beans are popular with seed savers and collectors of heirloom varieties because of their ease of saving seed and huge variety of seed colours and patterns.
Classes of Beans
Stringless beans, snap beans, beans for drying, beans for shelling, beans for flour – there is maybe no vegetable that is more versatile.
- Snap or green beans – picked and eaten fresh before the inner seeds get large.
- Shell beans – picked, shelled and seeds cooked when seeds are mature but not dry.
- Dry beans – harvested when the seeds are dry in the pod.
In keeping with their versatility, many dry beans, if harvested early enough, can be cooked and eaten whole, and many green beans can be left on the vine until dry for soup.
Try recipes for classic baked beans and quick pickled beans from Seed Change.
The Story of Beans
Beans are the survivors of the vegetable world – the ‘1500 Year Old Cave Bean’ listed in the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds Whole Seed Catalogue is proof. It is believed to have been found in a sealed clay pot in a cave in New Mexico. Carbon dating indicated the seed was around 1,500 years old. Aren’t you intrigued to grow this tasty bean in your garden?
Beans have one of the longest histories of any vegetable. Dan Jason says “Beans have been a key food in temperate climates around the world for over 8000 years.”
Cultivated beans originated in Central and South America, although some references say they are originally from Peru (like potatoes – those Peruvians really knew how to grow veggies!).
European explorers to the New World brought beans back with them to Europe in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, where they adapted well to the shorter growing season. At that time beans could be quite tough so they were grown ornamentally, and not eaten until around the 18th century. By the 1880s a huge number of bean cultivars had been created by hybridizers, and growing beans has been popular ever since.
So next time you’re enjoying a Nicoise salad or your Thanksgiving green bean casserole, think about the ancient history of Phaseolus and give thanks.
FYI: Beans are one of the three partners in the North American indigenous peoples ‘Three Sisters’ trilogy, which also includes corn and squash. In this traditional planting method, beans are planted to climb the corn stalks, while squash plants shade the roots of both. A beautiful synergy!
How to Grow Beans
Here in Western Canada we plant beans directly in the ground beginning mid-May through mid-July, depending on the current weather. Beans love to be planted in warm soil during a dry spell, otherwise the seeds can rot before germinating, making them ideal for raised bed growing.
I’ve also grown pole and bush beans in very large containers in a sunny spot. I plant one seed every few inches around the edges of half the pot, tucking in eight-foot bamboo stakes for pole beans once the plants are a few inches tall. The containers will need extra water during hot dry spells. Note that pole beans will not set fruit in temps over 32°C (90°F)
Harvest green (fresh) beans while the pods are smooth and the seeds inside are immature. Shelling beans should be harvested when the pods are fully mature but still green and fresh, not dry. Wait until the pods are completely brown and dry on the stalks before harvesting for dry beans.
PRO TIP: Bean plants have nodules of nitrogen on their roots. So when the plant is finished for the season, instead of uprooting them, cut them off at soil level, leaving the roots in the ground. They will add a little of that nitrogen, making the spot perfect for growing nitrogen-loving plants like lettuce.
How to Save Your Own Bean Seeds
Dan Jason says beans in the Phaseolus vulgaris family are self-pollinating, meaning “pollen is not transferred from one flower to another, either on the same plant or between plants… Because they rarely cross with another variety of the same species, isolating them is unnecessary unless you want absolute purity in a strain.” So unlike some other vegetables, for seed saving purposes there is little need to isolate one variety of bean from another in order for your seeds to grow true the next year.
Let the pods dry on the vines until most of the leaves have dropped and the pods are entirely brown and crispy. Seeds may even rattle inside the pods. Pick the pods and lay on a screen or rack or place in a paper bag in a cool, dry place indoors for a week or so.
Pop open the pods and store the beans in a glass jar. Just to be safe I leave the lid off the jar for a few more days. These precautions ensure your seeds won’t go mouldy. Seal well and store in a cool, dry place.
IMPORTANT: Label your seeds clearly with the variety name and year they were harvested. You can even add where you originally obtained the seed just in case you have a crop failure in subsequent years and need to order more.
Bean seeds may remain viable for many years; however most experts say three to four years.
Heirloom Bean Varieties to Try
Cherokee Trail of Tears (snap, dry)
This bean tells the heart-rending story of the infamous Trail of Tears. In the winter of 1839 the U.S. government forced the Cherokee people to march from Tennessee to new reservation lands in Oklahoma in order to clear the land for white settlers. Over 4,000 Cherokee people died on the journey. They carried the shiny black beans with them on this enforced march. Once you know this story, it’s not possible to grow and eat this bean today without a much deeper appreciation of its heritage.
Salt Spring Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange, Heritage Harvest Seed
Lazy Housewife aka Lazy Wife (snap, dry)
Introduced in 1810 in Germany as the first snap bean that didn’t required stringing, it was brought to North America by German immigrants. It was first introduced commercially by W. Atlas Burpee back in 1885. This white-seeded bean is good eaten fresh but is said to be one of the best as a dry bean.
West Coast Seeds, R.H. Shumway, Burpee Seeds, OSC Seeds
Kentucky Wonder Bean, aka Old Homestead (fresh, dry)
Early maturing variety dating back to 1863. This bean is still quite popular and fairly easy to find on commercial seed racks.
Salt Spring Seeds, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, West Coast Seeds, Burpee Seeds, OSC Seeds
Purple Peacock, aka Purple Podded
First found in the 1930s in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, this beautiful purple-podded bean is a favourite of mine. It has gorgeous mauve flowers and purple-tinted leaves, making it very ornamental in the garden. It is a prolific fruiter, although sadly the purple pods turn green during cooking.
Salt Spring Seeds, West Coast Seeds, Burpee Seeds, Wildrose Heritage Seed Co
The Spruce includes some of these pole beans and more in their article 10 Great Heirloom Pole Bean Varieties
Jacob’s Cattle, aka Trout, Anasazi
The exact origins of this New England bean are cloudy and mostly legends. Nevertheless it is one of the most beautiful beans around with its white background speckled and splotched with deep maroon. Great for making baked beans and chili.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, West Coast Seeds, Vesey’s Seeds, High Mowing Seeds
Dragon Tongue, aka Merveille de Piemonte, Dragon’s Tongue (fresh, shell, dry)
Another great beauty – this time it’s the bean pods themselves that win the beauty contest with their yellow background streaked in purple. An old Dutch heirloom that grows prolifically.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, West Coast Seeds, Territorial Seed Company, Seed Savers Exchange
Buerre de Rocquencourt
A descendant of wax beans introduced to France from Algeria in the 1840s. Its yellow pods are beautiful in the garden, and the buttery flavour is said to be superb.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Heritage Harvest Seeds, McKenzie Seeds