Young snap beans to eat fresh from the garden. Colorful green, purple and yellow beans. Bush beans that grow on compact stems and pole beans that clamber up tepees and trellises. Few vegetables are as varied as beans, as easy to grow, and as versatile in the kitchen, which are the reasons the National Garden Bureau designated 2003 as the Year of the Bean.
Add nutrients to the equation, and you have a truly bountiful crop, worthy of space in your garden. Beans contain fiber and a lot of protein, including the essential amino acid lysine. They also provide folic acid and some minerals. All together, beans are a healthful vegetable, and they taste delicious.
There are basically three types of beans -- snap, green shelling and dry shell. Snap beans are named after the sound they make when pods are broken. They "snap." Snap beans are grown to eat the pods fresh or frozen; green shelling beans, such as limas, to eat the young, green seeds inside the pods fresh or frozen; and dry shell beans for the mature seeds, which dry in the pods on the vine before being shelled.
All beans belong to the legume family, as do peas and some favorite flowers, such as lupine, sweet pea, and baptisia. Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, which makes that nutrient readily available to plants.
Botanically, most of our edible beans are in the genus Phaseolus (pronounced phase-olus). Snap beans, French (sometimes called European or filet) beans, romano, and wax beans are P. vulgaris. French beans are bush-type beans that produce very narrow, sometimes pencil-thin, pods. Romano beans, a favorite from Italy, are thicker and flatter than other snap beans. Wax beans have yellow pods, which look rather waxy-but they don't taste like wax. Bush snap beans take 45 to 55 days to bear a crop, depending on the variety; pole snap beans begin to bear in 60 to 70 days.
Lima beans are P. lunatus; lunatus means crescent-shaped, which limas are in a plump sort of way; they are often called butter beans in the south. Lima beans require slightly warmer temperatures than snap beans to germinate well. Bush limas take 70 to 80 days to produce a crop; pole limas need 80 to 95 days.
Snap beans add more to the garden than the color green. They also come in purple, such as 'Purple Teepee,' 'Royal Burgundy' and 'Sequoia,' and yellow, such as 'Brittle Wax,' 'Goldcrop' and 'Rocdor.'
Other beans we grow to use in ornamental plantings. Old-fashioned and pretty scarlet runner beans, P. coccineus, are edible when the pods are young but are planted more for their attractive red flowers than their beans. Blue hyacinth beans, Dolichos lablab (also called Lablab purpureus) produce striking, deep lilac-blue flowers followed by maroon bean pods, which are edible but not the reason to grow the plants; they make a beautiful and fast-growing cover for all kinds of fences, trellises and arbors.
- Beans, like other plants, require at least 1 inch of water weekly, either from rain, a garden hose or a drip-irrigation system. Water early in the day, so the leaves of the plants dry before nightfall. Avoid working around or harvesting from beans when they are wet to prevent the spread of disease.
- Beans do not need extra fertilizing as long as you enriched the soil before planting.
- Harvest snap beans when the pods are young, about 4 to 5 inches long (depending on the variety) and the seeds within the pod are just beginning to swell. Snap the pod in half and then snap or cut the ends off, if desired, before cooking. Harvest lima beans when seeds are full size (the pods look pudgy) but before pods begin to yellow; shell before cooking. When you harvest, don't yank the pods from the stems because the stems may break. Instead, hold the spray of beans near the stem-end in one hand and gently pull each bean off with the other. Keep beans harvested or plants will stop producing.
Growing in containers
Bush and even pole beans grow well in containers, outdoors or indoors, so you do not need garden space to harvest these nutritious vegetables.
Select a large container, such as a half-barrel or a 12- to 24-inch diameter planter. For pole beans, set up a tepee made with bamboo poles or tomato stakes in a half-barrel.
Sow beans at the same depth you do in the ground-1 inch deep-and allow basically the same spacing between plants. Think in terms of the "square-foot gardening" method: Figure on nine plants per 12-inch container. With pole beans, sow three to four seeds around each pole.
Mulch the soil surface with a layer of compost, dried manure or decorative wood chips.
Water when the soil dries to a depth of 2 to 3 inches, depending on the size of the pot. Large containers cut down on the frequency of watering; the soil in small pots dries out quickly in the heat of summer.
Fertilize once a month.
Be creative. Grow pole beans on a trellis in a planter or window box in front of a south-facing window. Make a living, green curtain: Attach monofilament fishing line in a criss-cross pattern from a window box to the top of the window frame and train the beans up as they grow.
Select the sunniest window in the house. Water when the soil in the container dries to a depth of 2 inches. Fertilize once a month with a water-soluble fertilizer. Because most beans can self-pollinate, they produce pods without the help of breezes or bees, but you may want to brush your hand along the flowers occasionally just to be sure.