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Pole Beans: Up, Up and Away!

By Skip Richter
Contributing Editor

Green beans are one of our favorite garden vegetables. They are easy to grow, tasty and nutritious. These beans come in three basic types: bush, half-runner and pole. Bush beans are the most common form. Half-runners are basically a bush bean with vines about 3 feet long. Pole beans are tall, vining types that climb by wrapping their growing vines around some type of support as they grow.

Pole beans have some distinct advantages over bush and half-runner beans. First, they are easier to pick. If you’ve ever stooped over to pick a row of bush beans, you can certainly appreciate a plant that brings the harvest up to you, although your chiropractor might miss seeing you as often! Pole beans tend to produce over a longer period of time than bush beans. They also are able to set their crop in a little warmer temperature than their short-statured counterparts.

For gardeners with limited space, pole beans are an especially valuable option. Perhaps you don’t have a vegetable garden area but could put in a narrow bed beside a fence around your property. Pole beans, if provided support, could turn this otherwise unproductive area into a garden spot.

Site and Soil
Like other garden beans, pole beans need sunlight to produce well. Sunshine on the leaves enables the plant to produce carbohydrates needed in bloom and fruit production, so the less sun your plants receive, the lighter their production will be. At a minimum, they will need 6 hours of sunlight to produce a good crop.

Select a location with good drainage. Beans don’t like soggy-wet soil conditions for extended periods of time. If your site has marginal drainage, plant on raised beds to facilitate drainage. Mix an inch or two of compost into the soil prior to planting. This will help a sandy soil maintain more even moisture levels, and it can improve the soil structure and internal drainage of a heavy clay soil. It also adds a slowly available source of nutrients for the growing plants.

Pole beans grow best in a pH range of 6.0–6.5 but are tolerant of a little higher pH levels. However, if the soil pH gets too high, iron chlorosis will be a problem and production will suffer.

Prior to planting, remove rocks, sticks or other debris and rake the soil surface smooth, breaking up any clods, to create a good seedbed for planting.

Variety Selection
There are many varieties of pole beans in the garden trade, and trials in Texas have shown that most do fairly well if they are not too slow to reach harvest. Look for the days-to-harvest (DTH) interval for the variety you are considering. Whenever possible choose varieties that will produce in 65 days or less from planting. Our Texas gardening seasons are rather short, with spring being interrupted by early summer heat and fall by an early cold snap. Varieties with long DTH intervals will likely be hampered by either summer heat or a fall cold snap before they produce to their full potential.

Pole beans come in the standard form with rather rounded pods and in a flat-podded form. Both can do well in our gardens. Some examples of proven varieties for Texas include:

‘Fortex’ (60 DTH) — Pods up to 11” long.

‘Rattlesnake’ (56 DTH) — Purple streaked 7” pods.

‘Kentucky Blue Pole’ (60 DTH) — From ‘Kentucky Wonder’ and ‘Blue Lake’ parents; has 6–7” pods; rust resistant.

‘Blue Lake’ (63 DTH) — 6” pods.

‘Kentucky Wonder 191’ (65 DTH) — White-seeded type.

‘McCaslan’ (65 DTH) — Slightly flattened 7” pods; a Southern heirloom.

‘Kwintus’ (aka ‘Early Riser’) (50 DTH) — Flat pods 8–10” long.

‘Northeaster’ (56 DTH) — Flat pods approximately 3/4” wide and 8” long.

Plant bean seeds about 1–2 inches apart and then thin plants to about 3-4 inches apart. Place the seeds 3/4–1 inch deep and press the soil in gently over the seeds before watering the area well. Soaking the seeds overnight prior to planting will speed germination.

Beans are legumes and their roots have a symbiotic relationship with certain types of soil bacteria enabling them to take nitrogen from the air in the soil and change it into a form that the plants can use. If you have grown beans in an area previously, these bacteria may be present in the soil in significant numbers. Otherwise it can be helpful to inoculate the seeds immediately prior to planting them with a product available from many seed suppliers. Just soak the seeds in water for an hour or so and then roll the moist seed in the powdered inoculant and plant before they dry out. Gardeners debate the need for inoculating the seed, and you can certainly get good results without inoculating if you provide adequate fertilization, but this defeats one of the advantages of growing a legume crop. That said, it would probably be helpful to inoculate seeds the first time you grow beans in a new garden spot.

Pole beans can be grown in the spring or the fall season. They are sensitive to frosts, and heat in the 90s can cause the blooms to abort and not set pods. Therefore, you should make your spring planting as early as the last average frost date. If you have a soil thermometer, check for when the temperature is 60 degrees about 4–6 inches deep. Remember to choose fast-maturing varieties to get in a good harvest before the heat sets in.

I think fall is the best season to grow green beans because the harvest is ripening in cooler weather and the quality is outstanding. In the fall, plant your pole beans 10–12 weeks before the average first frost date. It will still be fairly hot outside, so it may be helpful to shade the planting row a little to reduce the soil temperature. The late Dr. Sam Cotner, vegetable specialist with Texas AgriLife Extension, recommended planting 1–1.5 inches deep when planting in warm weather to keep the seed just a bit cooler.

If your soil is on the dry side, irrigate the area well 2–3 days prior to planting to wet the soil deeply. This is especially important when planting in late summer to early fall. This pre-plant irrigation will significantly improve the establishment and early growth of the plants.

Pole beans need some type of support on which to grow. Make sure to get your support set up before the young plants start to vine. There are many options including wire fencing, poles and twine woven between posts. Just remember to make your trellis at least 6 feet tall to allow the vigorous vines plenty of room to grow.

I’ve also grown pole beans on tall tomato cages. Another fun technique is to form an arch with livestock panels by placing one end in a bed and then arching it over the walkway and securing the other end in the adjacent bed. By placing more than one archway down the row, you can create a tunnel. Kids will like the tunnel of beans, and it makes for shady picking! One additional option that kids love is to use 3–4 bamboo poles tied at the top into a “teepee” structure. Plant 5–6 seeds in an 8-inch circular area around each of the poles and the plants will wrap around the poles as they grow.

Fertilizing and Care
The best guide for fertilizing is to have your soil tested. In the absence of a soil test, spread 2–3 pounds (4–6 cups) of a complete fertilizer in a 1-2-2 or similar ratio per 100 square feet of soil surface and mix in at least 4 inches deep. If you are using an organic product, double or triple that rate. When the plants start to bloom, sprinkle a complete fertilizer with a little more nitrogen (such as a 3-1-2 ratio) in a 6”-wide band alongside the plants down the row at a rate of 1/2 cup of synthetic or 1–2 cups of organic fertilizer per 10 feet of row and gently work it into the soil surface inch before watering the area well. Avoid using a lot of high nitrogen fertilizer on pole beans or it will result in excessive vine growth at the expense of production.

Beans need moderate soil moisture to grow and produce well. It is important to not allow them to dry out, especially during the critical stage when they are blooming and setting pods.

Prevent weed competition with mulch or with shallow cultivation. Beans are fairly shallow-rooted plants and deep cultivation will destroy roots.

Pest, Disease Management
Pole beans can suffer from a handful of pest and disease problems. Perhaps their greatest pest problem is spider mites. These pests hide underneath the foliage and suck juices from the leaves. Because pole beans are growing upright, you can use strong blasts of water directed upward from beneath the plants to dislodge these pests and reduce their numbers. Mites are primarily a problem in warm weather, and a weekly blast of water will do a fair job at keeping them under control. Sprays of insecticidal soap, also directed at the lower leaf surfaces, will also work on mites.

Aphids will occasionally become a problem on beans but can be quickly dealt with using insecticidal soap. These pests tend to congregate on the succulent new growth or sometimes under the foliage. Stinkbugs are occasionally a concern. There are pesticides on the market that can reduce their numbers, but you’ll need to weigh the moderate amount of potential damage against your personal concerns about pesticide use. A few species of beetles and caterpillars will sometimes bother your beans by consuming foliage, but it would take a lot of foliage damage to cause a reduction in yield, and these pests seldom cause such significant damage.

Common diseases include root rot and foliar rust. The best way to manage root diseases is to avoid overwatering and to rotate your vegetable crops each year, waiting at least 3–5 years before planting beans or Southern peas in the same location. Rust fungus can be reduced somewhat with foliar sprays, but it is also important to not harvest the plants when the foliage is wet to minimize spreading this disease.

Pole beans, like bush beans, are at their peak quality when the pods are still tender. For round-podded types, harvest when they are the diameter of a pencil and just nearing their mature length, but before the seed fully develops inside. You can harvest earlier, but if you wait too long, the beans will become tougher and much less tasty. A fresh green bean should be tender, not stringy, and should easily snap in two.

The large flat-podded types will show more of a bulge when the seeds are at harvest stage, but must still be harvested before they become too mature. Some sampling and practice will help you know when to harvest the variety or type you are growing.

When harvesting the pods, grab the pod near the point of attachment and also grab the vine. I’ve learned that the hard way when I’ve broken off a section of the plant by getting into a hurry and trying to pull off several beans at a time. One additional word on harvesting: if you leave even a few pods to mature on the plant, they will reduce the future yield of the plants. So harvest every few days to avoid letting the pods become too mature.

It is best to harvest beans in the morning when they are still cool. This will maintain better post-harvest quality. The sooner you cook them, the better. If you need to store them, place the beans in the refrigerator right away, where they’ll maintain good quality for about a week or so.

When cooking beans, remember that less is better! I grew up eating green beans that were cooked to death until they were no longer very green. As a result, I was not a big green bean fan! Now we either cook them in boiling water just until they are tender or we spread them on a cookie sheet, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and then broil in the oven.

Pole beans are productive and delicious, and well worth the limited space they require in your garden. Why not give them a try this season? I’ve mentioned a few varieties in this article, but there are many others that deserve a try. Try out some new ones with shorter days-to-harvest intervals. Then let us how they did for you!

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