Tips on Growing Organic Beans

The beans I refer to here are the more common soup, chili, baking, salad and refry beans.

Salt Spring Island, where I've been growing for the last 32 years, is situated in British Columbia's Gulf of Georgia between Vancouver and Victoria at 49°N. and 123°W.  Salt Spring doesn't get the concentrated summer heat familiar to most continental growers. Summer days rarely go above 80°F (27°C).  Annual rainfall is about 39 inches (100 cm), most of which falls between October and April. By the second week in September I usually will have harvested most of my bean varieties. So, unless you're at a latitude or an elevation where there are less than 100 frost free days, don't let concerns about getting dry beans to mature thwart your desire to grow them.

I've made it my business to popularize dried beans, as I have been increasingly impressed by their versatility and food value as well as their easy culture and storage. If you are interested in becoming protein self-sufficient, growing dried beans is an excellent place to start. Many gardeners believe beans are not worth their growing space because of low yields and cheap availability. But I have found dozens of high-yielding, short season and great tasting dried beans that are not offered by stores or seed companies. As with almost all homegrown food, your own dried beans will taste better than store-bought varieties. Not only are garden-grown beans more easily digested, they also demand you highlight rather than bury their taste under condiments and spices. In time, you may become so intimate with the nuance and bounty of bean flavours that you'll reach for Aztec Red Kidneys, Black Cocos or Ireland Creek Annies with as much authority and discernment as you now do for Cheddar, Swiss or Camembert cheese!



Beans are divided into snap, shell and dry varieties depending on their stage of development at harvest. Snap beans, also called string, green or yellow beans, are picked fresh from early summer on, when their seeds are still undeveloped or very small. Shell beans, also called horticultural beans, are harvested when the beans are fully formed in the pods but not dried out. Dry beans are harvested when they rattle in the pods. 

There is some overlapping of the types: some snap beans and most horticultural beans can be left to mature into quite good dry beans, and some dry beans are quite tasty at the green shell stage. Most dry beans also make good green beans if picked early enough. Dry beans, if picked as green or yellow snaps will likely have strings: snap off the head and tail of the bean, and the string will come along too.

You'll want to consider whether to choose a bush or a pole variety of dry bean. Pole beans grow six to ten feet tall by twining around sticks, strings or wires; strong supports, such as trellises or tepees are best set in place before or soon after the seeds are sown. Bush types are self-supporting and grow only to two or three feet. As far as flavour is concerned, there are many delicious varieties of both pole and bush beans.


Soil Preference

Beans are very easy to grow. Though they are at their best in moderately rich soil, they do well in a wide range of soils, even without fertilizer. In especially acidic soil (below a pH of 6.0) the addition of wood ashes, dolomite lime or compost will, by their alkaline nature, moderate the acidity. In a very sandy soil that leeches nutrients easily, nitrogen should be added, but bear in mind that too much will promote excessive leaf growth, plus delay and reduce pod production. 

Nitrogen is important for good bean growth, but, because they're legumes, beans can fix their own nitrogen from the air through the action of the Rhizobium bacteria that live in nodules on their roots. Thus beans are an excellent crop for enriching your soil. In a new garden however, it's worth coating your bean seed with an inoculant containing the proper type of Rhizobium, carried at most garden shops, to ensure their presence. Once these bacteria are in the soil, they multiply rapidly and persist indefinitely. Soybeans have a bacteria inoculant specific to them, as do other legumes. Be sure to check the expiration date on Rhizobium obtained from garden centres to ensure that the bacteria are still active.

There is another consideration to note when choosing a planting site for dry beans. Green and shell beans are usually harvested when the summer sun is still high. Because dry beans take about six weeks longer to reach full maturity and because you want to harvest their pods at maximum dryness, plant them where they will continue to receive sun on August and September afternoons.


Planting Time

Most catalogues and gardening books suggest planting beans just after the last estimated spring frost date. On the coast here, where the last frost occurs in March or even February, but the soil does not warm quickly, I wait until at least early May to ensure good, even germination. Beans are a warm-weather crop and there is little to be gained by having them shiver through their early growth. On a small scale, planting beans in raised beds saves a lot of space and work. Raised beds also heat up more quickly in spring to allow an earlier sowing. Soaking beans beforehand is not usually worth it when they are going into cold soil anyway. Because presoaking often results in cracked seed and more difficult sowing, I would recommend it only for late-season starts.



Planting my dry beans in rows a foot and a half (45 cm) apart allows me to do most of my weeding by rototilling between the rows until the bean plants fill the open areas and block out weeds. I sow the seed about an inch deep, using a push row seeder (an efficient and inexpensive tool for large gardens), and later thin the seedlings to a few inches apart to allow for adequate air circulation around the plants.



Bean diseases seldom ruin a backyard harvest. During all the years I've been growing beans on Salt Spring Island, I've seen no bean diseases and only a few aphids and bean beetles. It is worth taking precautions, however. Don't risk spreading rusts, mildews or blights by working among wet plants. Remove or turn under bean debris when the plants are finished. Gardening guides recommend rotating the location of the bean crop from year to year for disease and pest management. However, I break that rule on occasion and usually get better harvests thanks to the abundance of nitrogen-fixing bacteria still in the soil from the previous crop.

Dry beans aren't “dry” until three to four months after planting, so until then, the main tasks are watering, weeding or mulching, and watching for insects or disease. Most bush beans help keep the soil from drying out by their spreading habit.  Mulch, if available, can greatly reduce the need to water and weed. The most crucial time to ensure adequate soil moisture is during pod and seed formation; fewer and smaller beans will result if the plants stay thirsty at this time. Beans are fairly drought tolerant.



With short-season varieties, anyone blessed with a hot, sunny site can have a crop that dries to perfection in the garden. The leaves fall off the plants and the pods turn brown. On hot late-summer days, the pods start spilling their beans. Pick them before too many have fallen. To ensure that the pods are thoroughly dry, bring them indoors to a warm, dry place with good air circulation. Some varieties ripen over a week or two, and it's often best to go through the patch every few days to pick the driest. 

If you're experimenting with different varieties, you'll find that many longer-season beans do not reach the drying stage until September or October, when rain and fog are common. If the weather is dismal, pull entire plants and hang them upside down in a well-ventilated greenhouse, shed, barn, attic or basement. Do this also if frost threatens, as bean plants are killed by only a few degrees of frost. So long as the crop is close to maturity, the seeds will continue to ripen in the pods even after they've been removed from the plant. Even relatively immature beans may ripen this way. If the pods are damp when picked, but the weather is clear, spread them on tarps in a sunny place to prevent the growth of mold. If they are already dry, bring the pods indoors and stir them occasionally until the beans reach their full colour.



I used to place the dry pods on waist-high tables in a greenhouse and at the end of one or two hot days, I would thresh them by hand in a matter of minutes. The method is actually closer to kneading than threshing; squeezing and cracking the dry pods with the fingers, the shelled beans quickly go to the bottom and the split pods stay on top. An alternate and quite enjoyable method of shelling the pods (my preferred method now) is to place them in my threshing box and to then walk/shuffle over them. You could use any large box, chest or trough. It is most important in this case that the beans are totally dry or they will be crushed.

I once cleaned threshed beans by putting them in a large bowl outdoors and then blowing the chaff away with a hair dryer. All the while, I'd screen out any debris or weed seeds and discard any moldy or discoloured beans by hand. Then I discovered the air compressor, previously reserved for filling truck and tractor tires. The right nozzle attachment and degree of pressure directed at my bucket of beans gets the job done in a few minutes.



When beans are sufficiently dry, a thumbnail cannot dent them. Some catalogues recommend putting beans in the freezer for a few days to kill any bean weevils that could damage the crop in storage, but I have yet to find any of the small holes in beans that are the telltale signs of weevils. If you decide to follow the freezing procedure, give the beans a little extra drying after removing them, as beans placed in the freezer collect some moisture. Store dried beans in labeled jars on a cool, dry shelf.



Yield is a significant consideration when choosing varieties. For example, a 50-foot row of Jacob's Cattle beans usually provides half the eight or ten pounds of dry beans I'd harvest from another variety. However yield is determined by many factors: many of my far-flung seed customers to whom I have sent Jacob's Cattle beans report harvests of over ten pounds per same length row.

I have occasionally had early and abundant yields from supermarket dry beans, especially navy and kidney beans.

If you save and plant seed from your earliest and highest-yielding plants, you'll have your own locally adapted strain in a few years. Once you have a type you like that does well for you, you need never purchase seed again.

Yield is sometimes not as important as taste or beauty. Many dry beans are particularly delicious or so pretty that a child's delight in shelling them might overshadow the importance of quantity. 



Common beans I've mentioned are indigenous to the Western Hemisphere. They were introduced to Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, later to return to North America. Most of the world's cuisines have wonderful bean-based dishes, but in Central and South America it's been beans for 7,000 years!

Cooked dry beans are delicious in a wide variety of main and side dishes. They are a nourishing, versatile staple, each kind with its own flavour and texture.

The flatulence factor in beans is a major concern for many people. One tested method for reducing gas caused by beans is to change the soaking water two or three times, replenishing the pot with fresh water each time. Rinsing beans after they've been soaked also removes gas-promoting substances. Cooking beans thoroughly is also important: uncooked starch is obviously harder to digest. Do not add baking soda as some books suggest: it reduces flavour and nutrition by making the water too alkaline, it can toughen the beans, and it doesn't lessen the offending substances. Also, do not add salt to the soaking or cooking water: it reacts with the seed coat and prevents absorption of liquids. Beyond these precautions, the best way to avoid flatulence is to cook homegrown beans: chemical changes transpire as beans age, making them less digestible when cooked.

Homegrown beans do not need as much soaking or cooking as do purchased beans. The usual recommendation of an overnight soaking is for convenience and also because some beans will have been lying around for years. Relatively fresh beans absorb all the water they can in four hours. Use three or four times as much water as beans. If you don't have time for a long soak, place washed and sorted beans in a large pot, cover them with three or four times their volume of fresh water, heat and hold them at a boil for two minutes. Then remove the pot from the heat, and leave it covered for an hour. Rinse the beans, and they will be ready to cook. The final product will not be as mellow as it should be, because beans have a better texture if they absorb water slowly; nevertheless, the loss of nutrients from the quick-soaking method is negligible. 

After four hours of soaking, most homegrown beans need 50 minutes of cooking. (Soybeans and favas need about 90 minutes.) To cook pre-soaked beans in a pot, cover them with fresh cold water, bring to a boil, reduce heat, partially cover the pot to prevent foaming and simmer for the indicated length of time. When using a pressure cooker, make sure the pot is no more than half full, and cook at 15 pounds (7 kg) pressure for 15 to 25 minutes. Some beans, especially soybeans, have a tendency to bubble up through the pressure valve during cooking. To prevent this, add a tablespoonful of vegetable oil per cup of beans before cooking. Oil also helps reduce foam when using a conventional saucepan.

The texture of cooked beans can greatly enhance their appeal, so it's important to know how long to cook them. Cooking them for just under an hour leaves most of the beans I grow with a little chewiness to complement their taste.  Pressure-cooked beans inevitably have a soft-textured inside and a tender skin. Do not cook beans in a sauce in an effort to soften and flavour them at the same time: many ingredients tend to halt the tenderizing process. When you add cooked beans to a sauce, their texture will not change but they will happily absorb the new flavours.


Saving Seed

Common beans are self-fertile, so it is rare to see any crosses. However some cultivars have a more open flower than others, enabling the occasional fertilization by insects. To maintain pure strains it is advisable to separate varieties by a row of another plant species or to grow late-maturing beans beside ones with an earlier maturity.

Runner beans, such as Scarlet Runners, are a different species and cultivars will cross. If growing two or more runner beans, separate them as much as possible if seed purity is desired.



The recent rise in popularity of dried beans is bound to accelerate as more and more people discover how tasty and digestible they can be. Beans also have tons going for them in terms of contributing to healthy bodies and a healthy planet.

Degenerative diseases are almost unheard of where diets include large quantities of beans and other fibre foods. As cultures replace beans and other complex carbohydrates with foods loaded with fats and cholesterol, there is a corresponding increase in cardiovascular diseases, intestinal ailments, cancers of the digestive system, appendicitis, gallstones, diverticulosis, hiatus hernia, hemorrhoids and diabetes.

Beans are a boon to diabetics, hypoglycemics and those on weight-loss diets. Only two to six percent of the calories in beans are derived from fat, in contrast to 75 to 85 percent for meat and cheese. Not only are they cholesterol-free, beans don't trigger a rise in blood sugar or require that the pancreas pour out extra insulin to readjust the glucose level in the blood.

Beans are high in protein and are well-endowed with thiamine, niacin, B-6 and folic acid as well as calcium, iron, phosphorous and potassium. The fibre in beans helps keep the digestive system clean and promotes regularity.

It takes 16 pounds of feed and 2500 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. Why grow beans to prepare millions of animals for slaughter when we could be eating them ourselves for better health and nutrition!

Dry beans don't have to be refrigerated, frozen, canned or packaged in plastic. Between 22 and 44 times less fossil fuel is required to produce beans (and grains, for that matter) rather than meat.


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