Beans: The Versatile Vegetable

Next to tomatoes, beans are probably the most popular and commonly grown garden vegetable in Texas. And rightfully so, they are packed with nutrition, can be harvested green (immature) or shelled (mature), plus they are relatively easy to grow.

If you have never tasted a mess of home-cooked green beans just minutes from the garden, you are in for a treat. I must have been 7 or 8 years old while on a summer visit to my grandparents farm when I discovered how wonderful fresh green beans tasted. Back then, it was common to grow old-fashioned pinto beans and harvest them in the immature state as green beans. Of course, this meant that the strings had to be removed. But that was okay. Nobody seemed to mind sitting under the pecan tree listening to the crickets and other night sounds, while stringing a bushel of beans. To this day, it is still hard to beat a mess of green pintos cooked with onions and saltpork.

Soil Preparation

Beans do best in a light, loose soil since this type of soil usually warms quicker in the spring. Bush beans need a soil temperature of 60 degrees or higher while limas need it even warmer - 65 degrees at planting. If you are not blessed with this kind of soil, try planting your beans in raised beds. You do not have to have fancy beds with sides. Just mound the soil in the row 3 to 6 inches. Resist the temptation to add fertilizer to the soil before planting unless your soil is really poor. Beans have the ability to manufacture nitrogen with help from a bacterium. Too much nitrogen may help Jack reach the sky, but would result in very few beans to harvest. If you have never grown beans in your garden before or have had poor results you can purchase bacterium inoculate from garden centers or a mail order seed company. Be sure to apply it immediately prior to planting for best results.

Prior to planting, add a liberal amount of compost - 2 to 3 inches or more to the soil. If you garden in East Texas and have had trouble growing beans try adding lime to your soil. For those of you gardening in alkaline soil (pH above 7.5) try adding a small amount of iron to the soil. You can plant your beans in single rows or better yet, space-conserving double rows spaced 18 inches apart. Plant seed 1 inch deep in heavy clay soil and 1 1/2 inch deep in lighter, sandy soil. To avoid problems with damping-off disease, be sure to use treated seed. Most bean seed comes treated. You can tell for sure by the pink coating on the seed. If your seed is not treated you can purchase an approved fungicide and treat it yourself.

Unless blessed with timely rainfall, water your beans upon planting. To avoid problems with crusted soil water daily once the seedlings begin to emerge. This helps the bean seedlings, especially limas, avoid damage as they emerge from the soil.

A week after your seedlings emerge, you can thin your green beans to a 3 to 4 inch spacing. However, closer spacing will not reduce yields significantly. Pole beans should be spaced 6 inches apart and limas do best 4 to 6 inches apart.

Once the soil has warmed significantly, and your beans are up and doing well, mulch around the plants with a generous layer of mulch. Water your bean plants when dry. But once your beans start blooming and producing pods, be sure to keep them well-watered or your yield will be reduced and of inferior quality.

Bean Pests

Beans are susceptible to a variety of insects and diseases. In general, try to encourage beneficial insect populations. For example, lady bugs in your bean patch will help control aphids, a common bean pest particularly in spring. Also, water in the morning and harvest only when the foliage is dry to avoid spreading diseases.

Other insects that are considered bean pests include stinkbugs and spider mites, both of which can be controlled by using an approved insecticide. Nematodes can also be a problem with beans. These microscopic worms' damage cause knots on the roots. However, healthy beans also have knots that are a result of the nitrogen-fixing bacteria we mentioned earlier. The knots caused by the bacterium are loosely attached to the roots while the nematode knots are actually part of the root. Practice crop rotation and solarization to help control nematodes.

Besides damping-off disease, referred to previously, beans are prone to problems with rust, powdery mildew and bean mosaic virus. Use sulfur or an approved fungicide to control rust and powdery mildew. Select seed that is resistant to bean mosaic virus and always remove spent vines from the garden. More information on disease and insect control can be found in The Vegetable Book by Dr. Sam Cotner, head of horticulture at Texas A & M University.

Now for the fun part - harvesting your bean crop. Green beans should be picked when immature - that is about 4 to 6 inches long depending on the variety. It is important to harvest your beans every 2 to 3 days or your yield will be reduced. For dry beans, allow the pods to fully mature before harvesting.