Bountiful Beans

Credit: West Coast Seeds

While it may be possible to buy beans in season at your local supermarket, nothing compares to these tasty morsels plucked fresh from the vine for maximum snap and flavour. Luckily, it’s not difficult to grow a wide selection of beans in your own garden.

Decisions, decisions… Should one grow bush or pole, yellow, green or purple, snap, Romano or horticultural (dry) beans? Everyone has a personal preference, which proves that there is probably no such thing as a bad bean.

Since most green beans are available in pole or bush varieties, it’s up to the gardener to decide on the lesser of two evils: the task of erecting a trellis for pole beans or enduring an aching back when picking beans off a bush. While picking pole beans is certainly easier on your back, this type generally begins to produce beans about three weeks later than bush varieties. However, pole beans do bear a larger crop over a longer period of time. Bush beans taste just as good, but they are, well, so close to the ground!

For those who prefer yellow wax beans there’s little choice; as far as I know there are only a couple of yellow pole beans available. One is named Goldmarie, and the other, Yellow Annelino, a heritage variety, is not widely available.

For gardeners living in colder areas of the province, pole beans might not be suitable because of the short growing season. It is possible, however, to start beans earlier in a greenhouse and transplant them outdoors when the weather has warmed sufficiently. I have to resort to this method to produce dry Anasazi beans, an ancient bean from Mexico that requires a very long time to mature. But their delightful flavour is well worth the extra trouble.

The best tip that I can give about growing any kind of bean is to be certain the soil temperature is at least 16°C before planting seeds. Beans that are stunted by cold have a terrible time getting started and usually have to be replanted. Why not wait until conditions are right and save yourself the extra work?

Beans prefer slightly acidic conditions and regular garden soil amended with compost and a small amount of organic fertilizer. Too much nitrogen will cause excessive foliage, reduced pod production and late maturity. Keep in mind that bean plants have shallow roots that require plenty of water during hot weather. A drip watering system seems to work best. Watering at ground level keeps the foliage dry, preventing mould and mildew from forming.

My husband and I grow a lot of beans – at least three types of bush beans and four or more different pole beans (10 to 15 poles in total). These are some of our favourites:

The yellow bush bean, Golden Rocky, produces an abundance of thin 15-centimetre-long, stringless yellow pods over several weeks. This is an old variety that was once known as Beurre de Roquencourt, which is considered by many gardeners (myself included) to be one of the best yellow beans ever. Golden Rocky has good flavour and the pods remain tender even as the beans mature. They also freeze well.

Venture is a green bush bean that I grow for two reasons: the seeds will germinate in cool, wet soil where other varieties would fail, and this extra-early bean is ready for the table at least a week before other types. Venture has slender dark-green pods similar to the Blue Lake pole bean and it is extremely prolific.

Another bush bean, Derby, has a vigorous upright habit that not only makes picking a snap (pardon the pun) but also holds its large 18-centimetre pods well above the ground, thus preventing mildew spoilage in damp weather. The pods are a nice dark green and must be picked frequently to encourage new production. Derby is ready about a week after Venture, thus extending the season until the pole beans are ready to pick.

More than half of the pole beans we grow consist of Musica Romano beans. Romano produces a massive crop of wide, flat, meaty pods on three-metre vines. The pods, which can grow 2.5 centimetres wide and 22 centimetres long, will remain tender and delicious whatever their size. I usually pick the pods when they reach 15 centimetres and make dilly beans with them (see recipe on page 26). The pods are also an excellent shape for filleting into lengthwise slices. This is another bean that freezes well. Romano beans are also flavourful dried. We always allow many of the pods to dry on the poles. Later in the fall we shell the beans and save them for use in chili, soups and bean casseroles.

Another amazing pole bean is the Fortex Pole Filet. A neighbour introduced this variety to us three years ago, and for us it was love at first bite! Fortex is a vigorous climber that bears long (25-centimetre) medium-green pods that are exceptionally tender and sweet. Never stringy, this is without a doubt the best bean for freezing that I have tried. Fortex does not produce as large a crop as other pole varieties but the beans are so tasty that I can easily ignore this one shortcoming.

If you live on the coast, it’s always best to be prepared for any type of summer. For this reason I like Purple Peacock, an early pole bean that produces well in cool, wet weather. The long, thin, tasty pods are a lovely purple shade that turns green when cooked, much to the amazement of our grandchildren. Purple Peacock should be picked often and used when small – the pods become tough with age. This bean has beautiful purple flowers, dark-green leaves and purple twining stems that are decorative enough to be used as an ornamental screen in any location. The vine grows three metres tall.

Our bean crop would not be complete without a couple of poles of Scarlet Runner. We seldom eat the green bean, which I consider rather watery, stringy and of inferior flavour compared to other types. We do, however, love the dried bean. Scarlet Runner pods that are allowed to dry on the vine produce huge 2.5-centimetre black or white seeds that are absolutely delicious. This is another lovely vine with pretty red flowers.

Try a few different varieties of beans in your backyard this season, and I’m sure you’ll find a personal favourite. As you can probably guess, beans have now become the most popular vegetable in our family!

Sunshine Coast resident Vonnie Kovacic is a strictly organic gardener who has developed a passion for starting plants from seed.