Master Gardener: A hill of beans

For centuries explorers, armies, and cowboys traveled on nothing more than a meal of beans. What would we do if we didn’t have green bean casserole for Thanksgiving? Beans don’t have the great reputation of other vegetables in our garden but there are many new varieties. With so many choices, where do you start when choosing bean seed?

There are three main categories of beans: snap, shell and dry.

• Most are familiar with the snap bean starting with the fresh green bean (Phaseolus vulgaris). Also called string beans or squeaky beans, these are slender and succulent and range from pencil thin to broad and flat pods. The thin pods are referred to as filet beans or French-style and picked at the earliest stage of development. You can eat these raw or cooked. Yellow snap beans are called wax beans or butter beans. There are also purple wax beans. No one knows why they are called wax beans (I checked gardening books, cookbooks and the internet).

• If you leave snap beans on the vine, they bulge as the bean inside matures. The pods have probably turned fibrous by this time, but the bean inside is great cooked. This is when they become shelling beans. Some varieties are grown specifically for shelling. Any bean that matures can be called a shelling bean.

• Dry beans are left on the vine to wither and die and you harvest them when they are dry enough to rattle; very hard and dehydrated by nature. They are a nutritious food packed with flavor, fiber, protein, and complex carbohydrates.

There are also Romano or Italian beans that have large broad, flattened pods, that can be eaten as a snap bean (young), shell bean (intermediate stage), or Dry bean. Broad beans are known as fava beans (Vicia faba) and need a long cool spring. Lima Beans (Phaseolus lunatus) – gardeners who grow them claim they taste different fresh vs store-bought or canned. True butter beans are really vegetable soybeans (Glycine max) and are known as edamame. Yard-long beans (Vigna unguiculata) are an Asian variety that taste good, but are often grown for their novel appearance. Runner Beans (Phaesolus coccineus) are usually grown as an ornamental that draws in hummingbirds – they are edible, but best eaten as small tender pods. Purple hyacinth bean (Lablab purpurea) and are sometime called ‘little nuns’ because they have distinctive black-and-white capsules. Blackeye peas and cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata) need a longer growing season, are actually beans and edible.

Just as there are many types of beans, there are several growth habits to consider when purchasing seed. Bush beans are planted densely and yield a heavy crop within a few weeks. Gardeners who want to freeze or can find this bean desirable. Pole beans need a trellis or support for their vertical growth habit. The advantage of pole beans is they are easier to pick and they continue to bloom through the growing season so you have fresh beans for eating over a longer period of time.

Bean Facts:

• Beans need 6 to 8 hours of sunlight a day and consistent watering.

• Allow for air circulation to help avoid any blight or fungal diseases.

• Beans need warm soil to germinate.

• Follow the seed packet directions for spacing.

• Beans are legumes and fix atmospheric nitrogen in nodules on their roots. They will improve the fertility of your soil.

• Because most beans are non-hybrids and all are self-fertile, you can save dried seed for future planting.

• The body digests beans slowly.

• Of all common beans, only kidney beans are considered toxic when eaten raw. Both red kidney beans and white kidney beans (sometimes called “cannellini”) contain toxins that are denatured during cooking.

Resource: University of Minnesota Extension