2003: The Year of the Bean
The National Garden Bureau Celebrates 2003 as
the Year of the Bean
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. (Most grains lack lysine; combine them with beans, however, and they form a
complete protein.) They also provide folacin (folic acid) and some minerals. All together,
beans are a healthful vegetable, and they taste delicious.
What's in a Name?
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." We grow
snap beans 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. We are going to
discuss the first two types because we do not have enough space to address the dry type.
All beans belong to the legume family (Leguminocae), 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. The genus name is from the Latin for kidney bean; the
species name translates simply as common. 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.
A Bit of History
People have cultivated beans for thousands of years, but before breeders developed
stringless beans, beans had fibrous strings along the seam of the pod and a rather tough
lining-and were aptly called stringbeans. Gardeners removed the strings and cooked the
beans quite awhile to soften the lining, which was time consuming and did not result in
the best tasting beans. Prior to the late 19th century, most beans grown by home gardeners
were raised for shelled, dried beans, not fresh green beans.
In the late 1800s breeders began to select varieties of beans pollinated by bees or by
hand, looking for improved characteristics. Calvin Keeney, in New York State, has been
called the "Father of the Stringless Bean" because of his breeding work in this
area. In 1898, he bred 'Burpee's Stringless Green Pod,' which became the most popular
variety until 'Tendergreen' came on the scene in 1925.
Nothing much was done with bush beans until the breakthrough 'Bush Blue Lake' bean was
introduced by Asgrow in 1962. That strain combined the great flavor of the 'Blue Lake'
pole bean with a bush habit. Nowadays, gardeners demand new varieties frequently and every
few years a new bush bean appears on the market. The National Garden Bureau found, in
addition to flavor, the emphasis in all bean selections is on disease resistance.
Pole beans were even slower to change: 'Kentucky Wonder' was introduced in 1877 by
Ferry-Morse Seed Company and is still a very popular variety today. The pole bean
'Kentucky Blue' resulted from a cross between 'Blue Lake' and 'Kentucky Wonder'; bred by
Rogers Bros. Seed Company, it was an All-America Selections winner in 1991.
Lima beans can be grown as pole or bush beans. The original 'Henderson' pole bean was
released in 1889 and 'The Fordhook' bush bean in 1907 by Burpee. The latter was discovered
in a field of pole lima beans in 1904 and subsequently sold to W. Atlee Burpee. Both
varieties have led to improved bush and pole limas.
Gardeners tend to think of all vegetables as hybrids, but that is not accurate. Beans are
not hybrids. They are produced as open pollinated crops, primarily in the northwestern
U.S. where growing conditions are optimal and disease pressure is minimal. Improvements in
existing lines are made when breeders select a parent that has a desirable trait, such as
virus resistance. Breeders then "fix" that trait, making the new variety
genetically identical through many generations of self-pollination. In doing so, they are
careful to make sure that the new beneficial trait breeds true and that it is carried from
one generation to the next. The newly bred variety is an open pollinated bean.
Bush versus Pole: Pros and Cons
Some gardeners like bush beans better than pole beans because bush beans produce a lot of
pods in a short time frame; they do, however, take up more space in the garden than pole
beans. Bush beans rarely have trouble with pests and diseases, simply because they are not
in the garden long enough to be bothered. The bush bean's shorter life span gives
gardeners a chance to dig up the dead stalks and plant a different crop or a succession
crop of beans.
Gardeners who prefer pole beans like the way they make great use of vertical space by
climbing up trellises or tepees, a bonus in small gardens. Their longer presence in the
garden does make them prey for pests and diseases, which can disfigure the foliage toward
the end of the season. They also take more time to begin producing than bush beans, but
they continue to bear, slowly, through the summer, which is advantageous if you do not
want to eat beans every other day or bother to replant a crop.
Some gardeners think that bush beans taste better than pole beans, but just as many prefer
the flavor of pole beans-definitely an individual choice!
How to Grow Great Beans
Beans are warm-season vegetables. If you plant before the soil has warmed up in late
spring, the seeds may rot before germinating. Wait until all danger of frost has passed
and soil and night temperatures remain at 55 degrees or higher-that may mean in April in
southern zones and as late as June in colder northern regions. Because they take longer to
mature and prefer even warmer soil (about 65 degrees), lima beans may not have enough
frost-free days for gardeners in the far north, unless you try starting them indoors. If
you do, sow them in individual biodegradable pots about 4 weeks before setting them out in
the garden; beans do not adapt well to transplanting.
* Beans prefer a light, well-drained soil with a ph of 6.0 to 6.8. Prepare the soil before
sowing: Dig to a depth of 6 to 8 inches and incorporate organic matter, such as compost or
* As you sow the seed, not in advance, sprinkle an inoculant in the row if you want to
help increase the nitrogen-fixing ability-and therefore growth-of legumes. Inoculants are
available at garden centers and from mail-order companies.
* Sow beans 1 to 1-1/2 inches deep. You do not need to sow very thickly because bean seeds
* Sow 1 to 2 bush bean seeds every 3 inches. A traditional method for sowing is to set up
double rows, 18 to 24 inches apart. If you plant in single rows, allow 18 inches between
rows. Bush beans also grow well in wide rows: Sow seeds in a 3-foot wide by 4-foot, or
longer, bed. Although bush beans need no support, harvesting is easier if you set twigs or
brushy prunings within the planting. Spread compost down the middle of the rows after you
sow to give the plants a boost in nutrients.
Plan to extend the harvest of bush beans by making repeated sowings every two to three
weeks until two months before the average first fall frost in your area.
* Put pole beans on trellises or tepees on the north side of the vegetable garden, so the
plants do not block the sun from other crops. Sow 6 to 8 seeds in a circle around each
pole of a tepee, 1 pole bean seed every 3 inches along a trellis.
Spread compost in a broad circle around a tepee after sowing for extra nourishment for the
* Beans germinate in 6 to 10 days. When the plants have two sets of true leaves, thin snap
beans to stand 2 to 3 inches apart, limas 3 to 4 inches apart.
* 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
* 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 Beans 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.
Kids and Beans
A lot of children don't like beans (or any vegetable for that matter!). Attract them with
a planting of their own, using the psychology that if they grow it they may actually want
to eat it.
Let very young children (three to six or seven years old) discover how seeds work. In a
glass jar filled with soil, sow a few bean seeds, pressing them against the glass so they
show; moisten the soil. As the seeds germinate, the children will clearly see the roots
and shoots begin to form as the two halves of the seeds split apart. The germinated seeds
may not grow if you plant them outdoors because beans do not take to transplanting, so
treat this as a fun experiment. A note for teachers and leaders: To avoid the
disappointment of seeds not germinating, do not use dried shell beans from the store; they
have been dried for food consumption and undoubtedly will not germinate.
Set up a bean tent: Sow pole bean seeds around a tepee, leaving an opening between two of
the poles. As the beans grow, they form a cool, dark tent where kids can hold
Because bean seeds are so large, they are easy for even the youngest child to handle. Set
aside a space in your garden for the children to grow their own. No matter how inexactly
they sow the seeds-even simply pushing the seeds into the soil to the depth of their first
finger-the beans will grow, although you may want to help when the time comes for
thinning. Try bush snap beans for a first-time planting; they mature faster than pole and
Pests and Diseases
Modern bean varieties are resistant to many of the diseases that can infest a planting.
Prevention is usually easier than a cure. With beans (and many other plants), avoid
working around them while leaves are wet, thoroughly clean up garden refuse at season's
end, and rotate crops from year to year.
Anthracnose, caused by a fungus, creates dark brown, red, or black spots and a
pinkish mold on pods or seeds. To prevent, avoid working around wet plants; remove
affected plants; rotate crops from year to year.
Bean mosaic virus produces deformed pods and mottled leaves; the leaves wrinkle and
curl under. To prevent its spread, control aphids, which carry it from one plant to
another, and remove any affected plants.
Bean rust affects the undersides of leaves, with orange-brown blisters; leaves
yellow and drop. To prevent, clean up the garden at the end of the season; avoid working
around wet plants; dust leaves with lime.
Mexican bean beetle, a problem in the eastern United States and some parts of the
southwest, resembles the beneficial ladybug, but it has 16 black spots and no white
marking between the head and body. Round, yellow eggs, pale yellow larvae, and adults
usually remain on the undersides of leaves where the latter two forms feed until they
skeletonize the leaves. In very hot and dry conditions, nature controls the beetles.
Handpick all stages off leaves. Cover bush beans with row covers; it's difficult to cover
pole beans. Interplant potatoes and beans; each repels the other's favored pest. Plant
resistant varieties. (There are other species of bean beetles that plague other regions of
Japanese beetle, mainly a problem in the eastern United States but spreading
westward, spends its grub stage underground, often under lawns-where you can defeat them
by spreading milky spore disease (in powder form) over the lawn in spring, although it may
take awhile. The beetles skeletonize leaves. Rainy, cool weather deters them. Handpick
from leaves or knock them off into a jar of soapy water. Plant white geraniums among the
beans; an element in the leaves poisons the beetles. Set out traps made specifically for
them; use with caution, however, because the traps themselves may attract the beetles from
neighboring yards. Cover bush beans with row covers.
The Nutritious Bean
Beans are low in calories, about 31 calories to a cup (cooked), and contain vitamins A, B,
C, calcium, phosphorus and some iron, in addition to protein and fiber. The fiber, which
is good for you, can sometimes cause problems if you eat raw beans in large quantities
because it may not be easy to digest.
The amino acids, broken down from protein during digestion, truly are the "building
blocks" of the body, and folacin, or folic acid, contributes to cell growth and the
formation of red blood cells, as well as digestion and the nervous system.
You simply cannot go wrong when you eat beans, and you do not need to relegate them to be
the side dish of dinner. Try main-dish ideas, such as green bean soup, casseroles, and
colorful mixed salads with green, yellow and purple beans. If you plan to freeze beans,
mix some purple beans in with the green when you blanch them: the purple in beans is water
soluble; after 2 minutes of boiling, the beans lose that color and turn green-a built-in
indicator for the correct blanching time.
Information and Photograph courtesy of National
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