All About Beans
Learn tips for planting, growing and harveting this lovely legume.
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Green beans are a staple of many vegetable gardens, including at the COPIA (the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts), located in Napa, Calif. Beans are a seasonal staple for this garden center where they grow over 100 different varieties.
There are literally thousands of named varieties of beans out there to grow and they're really fun to save seed from, says COPIA's director of gardens Colby Eierman. The beans grown at the center display a range of colors and sizes. A lesser-known fact about beans is their edible flowers. They're considered a delicacy in some restaurants where they're used to dress up the look and flavor of many dishes.
Most beans grow in one of two forms—bush beans and pole beans. Bush beans, as the name suggests, are bushy. Pole beans are climbers that need some type of support to grow efficiently. What you choose to plant in your garden often depends on the amount of available space.
"Bush beans are a great way to go if you have a little bit of garden space, and you don't want to bother with building a trellis," says Eierman. "Pole beans are wonderful if you don't like to bend down to pick them. They don't hurt your back quite as much."
Another benefit of upwardly-mobile beans is increased air circulation. Because beans are prone to disease in damp conditions, growing up instead of out will help them to survive. A sturdy trellis will do, and you can make one yourself.
Do-it-yourself bean trellis
Begin with some one-by-one-inch redwood stakes that measure eight feet long. Slant two stakes toward the center of the bed so they cross at the top, forming a V-shape. After both ends are in place, slip one stake down the middle of the "V" to act as a supporting crossbar. Wherever the stakes cross, add a zip-tie for stability. Zip-ties are more practical than twine when making your own trellis because they're easier to use. Place the trellis firmly into ground so it holds itself sturdily upright (figure A).
Planting and growing beans
Whether you're planting pole or bush beans, the instructions are similar. With a few exceptions, beans are a warm-season crop. They grow best in full sun and a rich, well-drained soil. Once you've found a good planting spot, dig a shallow hole, throw two or three beans in it and cover them up with soil. Water every day until the beans are established. Revisit the plants to see if you need to thin them out as they start to grow up the poles.
Once established, water as needed. Be careful not to water your beans from above—only water the soil at the base of the plant. Drip irrigation is a great way to help prevent mildew and other fungal diseases in beans.
If you don't have a large garden, pair certain plants with the beans for a compact planting area. In the COPIA garden, corn, beans and squash are planted together. "It's a great relationship where the corn grows up, the beans then use the corn as a trellis and then the squash fills the ground layer," says Eierman.
Growing beans is a snap, which is also the key to harvesting. Beans harvested at the peak of freshness are called snap beans (figure B).
"You really need to be out in the garden picking almost every other day at the peak of the season. Otherwise these beans will go past the ripe stage and get dry and woody," says Eierman. Growers can combat this by staggering the times when beans are planted. Don't worry if harvesting isn't done right away—you can let the beans stay on the vine a little longer.
Next is the shelling, or shelling bean stage. At this stage, you have a fresh green bean beginning to show signs of the seed stage. Beans at this stage have great flavor.
If you let the beans stay on the vine, they'll dry and you can save the seed from them. They should be harvested before the pod literally "spills its beans." Soak them in water overnight and they will be ready to become ingredients for soup. Or, store them in a cool, dry place for planting next year. Eierman recommends keeping the beans in quart jars (figure C) to keep them away from the bean weevil, which burrows a hole into the beans and prevents them from germinating.
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