Most of us who garden don’t have the space to grow grain crops such as wheat or barley, but we have space to grow legumes such as beans and peas. Legumes are second in importance only to grains in the diet of humans because of their richness in nutrients. Common New World beans (cooked) provide Vitamins B6 and C, plus pantothenic acid, iron, magnesium, phosphorus. potassium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, copper, manganese and provide a good source of protein while low in sodium and cholesterol.
Beans combined with any grain form a complete protein.
Most of us think only of the New World beans when the topic of beans arises, but the Old World had fava beans, chickpeas (garbanzos), lentils, peas, and lupin beans. Asia was home to adzuki, soybeans, winged beans, mung and urad dal, and Africa produced cowpeas, yard-long beans, pigeon peas, Dolichos lablab beans and black-eyed peas. The New World beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, are tender to frost, but some of the Old World beans such as fava beans do tolerate some frost. They’re winter-grown in some European countries, but I haven’t found them winter hardy in my garden.
Most gardeners in this area grow snap beans (New World), those we eat pod and all. They don’t all taste alike, so if you think you dislike green beans, try other varieties. I loved the flavor of Contender green beans and grew those for several years, but tasted Kentucky Wonder and some other varieties and did not like them. The late Ross Hadfield was enthusiastic about Slenderette variety of green beans, so I tried them and found they tasted as good as Contender, but were better in flavor and texture than my former favorites after freezing — and produced more than Contender’s three pickings. Slenderette pumps out pods until frost arrives. A 10-foot row provides us with green beans, fresh and frozen, for a year. Some beans are called “greasy” because they lack the fuzzy appearance of the pods, and they may also be called “cut short” because some of those old bean varieties are packed so tightly in a pod they have squared ends.
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Once beans begin to swell the pod, you should start picking snap beans, and pick about every other day. They’re delicious when young, but none are tender and delicious if they’re allowed to grow old. Romano beans don’t have to be picked that often to be tender and tasty. Pick sugar or sugar snap peas that often too. If you miss a bean or pea pod and it develops to maturity, that plant will probably die, having produced its own successor. So be sure you pick plants clean of pods ready for harvest.
Snap beans are also called “string beans” by some people. Early green beans had tough strings uniting the two halves of bean pods that had to be removed for eating by most people, but selective breeding for “stringless” pods has been largely successful. Food historian William Woys Weaver reports native Americans didn’t shell beans. Instead, they cooked the pods, then pulled then through their teeth, shelling the beans into their mouths. That’s the technique people use for edamame (soybean) beans today.
Some green beans are referred to as “filets,” and they’re slender round pods, preferred by the French and many restauranteurs. Tools are sold also to slice broader pods into thin “French” beans. One of the broad-pod beans that I’ve grown is the Romano. It’s delicious even when beans have filled out in the pod. The term “broad beans” usually refers to fava (also known as faba or horse beans).
I don’t like to grow pole beans because they don’t begin to set pods until August, about the time I’m ready to harvest bush beans for dry use, but friend Lindarose Curtis-Bruce loves the flavor and easy harvest of Emerite and Fortex pole beans. Curtis-Bruce said that since the pole beans don’t shade the soil with their leaves they require more water than bush beans. Those beans whose plant habit is described as “semi-runner” create quite a tangle in a garden bed, so avoid those until you have some experience with bush beans. Those are varieties that breeders haven’t worked on.
Wax beans aren’t waxy, but they are yellow. Once beans have filled out, and before the pods look dry, they may be harvested and cooked as “shelly beans.” This bean preparation does not require pre-soaking, but they should be simmered until the beans are tender. I wouldn’t advise using kidney beans as shelly beans because of their reputation of causing illness if not well-cooked.
I begin the harvest of dry beans as soon as I see one or two tan papery pods in a row. Then I either pull or cut off plants of that variety at soil level, and — turning the plant over — pull off all of the bean pods containing beans. Some are not yet tan and dried, but I spread those on hardware cloth in the greenhouse to dry. If you don’t harvest beans when they’re ready, the pod “explodes,” scattering beans. This is technically known as “shattering,” and many plants distribute their seeds in that manner.
I often leave bean roots in the soil, cutting off the plants at soil level, because as legumes they might have extracted beneficial nitrogen from the air and established it on their own roots. Beans are not as good at this nitrogen-fixing as some legumes, and are better at it if they’ve been inoculated with the proper Rhizobium bacteria.
I have about 30 jars of different New World beans I’ve grown and shelled by hand while watching television. Since most are approximately the same size, I select handfuls of black, red, white, red-striped (borlotto), cream, tan, yellow and patterned beans until I have two cups full, then I rinse, add six cups of water, bring to a boil for two minutes, then cover the pot and let it stand for an hour. After that soak, I simmer the beans with one teaspoon of summer savory and a ham hock for two hours and dinner is ready to serve.
Beans are low on the glycemic scale for diabetics, and the flavor is excellent. The first year I tried growing beans for dry use (so easily stored and kept forever) was in 2005, and I’ve grown a few varieties each year since then. That first year I had poor germination of China yellow, and harvested just 2 ounces of dry beans from a 17-foot row. The heaviest producer that year was Vermont cranberry: two 17-foot rows yielded 2 pounds, 14 ounces, of beans. Two rows of Jacob’s cattle beans produced 1 pound, 13 ounces, and two rows of the larger Calypso bean produced 2 pounds, 2 ounces. The Calypso is also known as Yin-Yang or Orca, since it’s white with black markings like a killer whale. Four rows of Dutch brown bean plants yielded 1 pound, 12 ounces, and two rows of Bumble Bee produced 1 pound, 14 ounces.
I have not grown pinto beans, since they’re so readily available even in bulk bins, although my grandfather “saved” his newly-widowed sister and her children from starving during the Great Depression with a 50-pound bag of pinto beans he had grown. That diet did not deter the children from liking beans later in life. Pinto beans have a meaty flavor and good texture.
Lentils might not be worth it
I’ve grown many other varieties of legumes, and one I would not recommend is lentils or dal. A 17-foot row of lentils may yield a quarter of a cup of food, contrasting with the harvest yields above. I haven’t found the yard-long beans easily grown here, and I’ve had poor results from lima beans too. Good Mother Stallard is shaped like a lima bean but it may not be P. lunatus. I did get good harvests from that pole bean and one the French love for cassoulet, Tarbais alaric.
You can grow several varieties of beans without their cross-pollinating, since they belong to different genera (genuses). Cowpeas or crowder peas, mung and adzuki beans belong to the genus Vigna, fava and dolichos lablab beans to the Vicia genus; soybeans to the Glycine genus, garbanzos or chickpeas to Cicer, for instance. New world beans include Phaseolus vulgaris encompassing 4.000 cultivars of true beans of many colors; P. lunatus are lima beans; P. coccineus runner beans, and tepary beans (P. acutifolius. Scarlet runner beans are perennials, and many of us have thought they wouldn’t survive our winters, but they did survive last winter in Stella Schneider’s North End garden. Perhaps the snow blanket protected them instead of cold’s killing them.
Tepary beans are small beans, grown mainly in the American southwest. Native Seeds/SEARCH carries several varieties of tepary beans with a warning in their catalog that they often carry Bean Common Mosaic Virus (BCMV) showing only minor symptoms. This virus may be transmitted to beans more susceptible to the virus, resulting in death of the plant or reduced yield. It’s not harmful to humans who eat beans infected with that virus.
Dolichos lablab or Hyacinth beans are quite different in appearance from other beans, having a “roach-like” ridge of bristles on each bean. These are members of the Fabaceae family — pole beans that bear beans in dark purple or electric pink pods. They are said to be food beans and are said by others to be poisonous. Uncooked beans contain cyanogenic glucosides, so are poisonous. If you grow them, be cautious about selecting recipes and do not eat them raw. Other edible beans should be thoroughly cooked too before human consumption. Kidney beans that are improperly cooked are often at fault. Cooking at high temperature for ten to 15 minutes usually is sufficient.
Also, since they’re members of the fava bean group, they (and other fava beans) can sicken people who have an enzyme deficiency called Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase (G6PD) or favism, possibly fatal unless the source of the toxin is removed. People with this condition tend to be descendants of people from the Mediterranean, Africa or Southeast Asia.
The most attractive bean is the most deadly: castor bean or Ricinus. Apparently it’s one of the favorite tools of assassins. The plant is pretty, but I wouldn’t plant it if there’s a possibility of children coming near.