|By Patty Glenn Leander
reen beans, bush beans, string beans, snap beans, Phaseolus vulgaris. No matter what you call them, they deserve a place in every Texas garden. Like corn and okra, green beans are a wonderful summertime treat, and their fresh-from-the-garden flavor is hard to beat. Folks who get their green beans from a can or the frozen food section are really missing out.
Remember sprouting bean seeds on the windowsill in elementary school? Right there in the milk carton a little miracle took place, and we hardly had to do anything. Provide a little soil, a little water, some sunlight and warmth, and the bean seed did the rest. And it’s almost that easy in the vegetable garden. Given the right growing conditions, bush beans are an excellent warm season crop, as long as we remember that they like our warm, but not blazing, Texas temperatures.
Soil temperature in spring is critical to success – plant too early and the seeds will just sit there, plant too late and they will sprout and grow, only to fry in the summer heat. The ideal planting time is about two weeks after the last freeze in your region. The soil temperature should be at least 60 degrees to 65 degrees; warmer is even better. If you missed the window this spring, take heart – fall is an even better time for planting beans because they germinate quickly in the warm soil yet ripen as the days are starting to cool off. So you have plenty of time to order some new varieties and get them planted in August or September. The recommendation is to plant about 10 weeks before the first freeze in your area.
Beans do not require much soil preparation, nor do they require heavy fertilization. If you have fertile garden soil, a 2- to 3-inch layer of compost will suffice. In case you haven’t heard, compost is the cure-all for heavy soils, sandy soils, infertile soils, high pH soils, and low pH soils. The key here is organic matter. The more we add to our garden beds the better our plants will thrive. A soil test is always a good idea, especially in a new garden, as it will identify any nutrient deficiencies or excesses. If you are not sure about your soil fertility, you can add a low nitrogen organic fertilizer (like a 6-2-2 or a 9-4-2) at the rate of 1/2 to 1 pound per 25 feet of row. Beans need just a little to get started, then they will take care of the rest.
Like all members of the legume family, beans have a symbiotic relationship with beneficial bacteria in the soil that “live” on the plant’s roots. These bacteria take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a nitrogen food source for the plants. Because they are able to manufacture their own nitrogen, if you feed the plants with additional high nitrogen fertilizer, you will get lots of lush, leafy growth at the expense of bean production. And we want bean production – and lots of it! One thing you can do to encourage these beneficial bacteria is to inoculate the seed at planting time. Seed inoculant can be purchased at many garden centers or through garden catalogs (see resources). A light coating is sufficient and can be accomplished by simply shaking the dampened seed and inoculant powder in a paper bag just before planting.
Plant your seed in moist soil about 1 inch deep and 2 to 4 inches apart. Be sure to keep the soil moist. If the soil is allowed to dry out, a crust may form over the surface, injuring the seedling as it emerges. Sprinkle the soil daily if necessary to keep it from forming a crust. A week or so after your beans are up, thin, if necessary, to a spacing of 4 inches between plants. A layer of mulch (shredded leaves, dried grass clippings, compost) is always a good idea to help moderate the soil temperature and conserve moisture. Your plants need adequate moisture but will not grow well in constantly wet soil, so water only when the soil is dry. Soaker hoses or drip irrigation are recommended as beans are susceptible to foliage diseases and wet leaves are an ideal environment for fungal and bacterial critters. If you do use overhead irrigation, or if your plants receive that irrigation from the sky, do not handle or walk among your plants until the foliage is dry to avoid spreading disease.
When you purchase bean seed, you will be faced with a multitude of wonderful-sounding varieties. Bean seeds are cheap, and I encourage you to try something new, along with one or two tried-and-true varieties. Also, if you have the space, consider making two or three successive plantings about a week apart. This will spread the harvest out over a longer period.
If you are a long-time gardener, you probably have an established relationship with a preferred bush bean variety – something that performs well in your garden and pleases your palate. For me, that favorite is ‘Roma II.’ We have a long history together. It was the number one pick of my garden mentors, the late George and Mary Stewart of Houston, and is a favorite in my own family. We plant these flat, Italian green beans every year and have never been disappointed. They have a delicious beany flavor and are a consistent producer. Every summer we look forward to having ‘Roma’ green beans and new potatoes on the menu, just like our grandmas used to make. This dish is Southern comfort food to me and evokes warm memories of my past. You may already have a tasty recipe for green beans and new potatoes, but if not, I have included my mom’s delicious recipe. Of course, she never made them from a recipe, so I had to coax the proportions out of her. You may need to adjust it to suit your taste. I happen to like lots of freshly ground pepper on mine.
If you are new to gardening and have not yet had the pleasure of developing special relationships with your seeds and plants, let me offer a few recommendations. High on the list of many long-time and successful vegetable gardeners are ‘Provider,’ ‘Derby’ and ‘Contender.’ An incomplete list to be sure, but plant any of these and you are just about guaranteed a tasty and successful harvest.
A couple of years ago, several members of the Travis County Master Gardeners tested about a dozen varieties of green beans; some were old favorites and some were new to us.
We planted in late March and again in mid-April, and were harvesting by late May and into June. The beans we trialed were good producers and fairly dependable. A few of the stand-outs were ‘Derby,’ ‘Maxibel,’ ‘Jade,’ ‘Contender,’ ‘Festina,’ ‘Xera,’ ‘Strike’ and ‘Jumbo.’ Of these eight varieties, ‘Jumbo’ was especially interesting because it was, well, jumbo! It was the last to germinate, but when it did its size was noticeably bigger. As it grew, the leaves were big and the pods were long and flat and very flavorful. It is a cross between ‘Romano’ and ‘Kentucky Wonder.’
Two of these trial varieties, ‘Festina’ and ‘Xera,’ are supposed to perform better under high heat conditions. And ours did do fairly well into late June, but even though they would set blossoms at higher temperatures, the bean pods eventually became small and fibrous. By early July they had succumbed to spider mites, a common pest of beans and one that is hard to avoid. Spider mites thrive under hot, dry conditions. So, keep an eye out for them, especially as we enter the summer months, because early detection will give you a better chance at control. Spider mites are very tiny and hard to see with the naked eye. But if you see little yellow specks or stippling on the top of a green leaf, and the underside looks dirty, with tiny black dots and fine webbing, then you are seeing evidence of spider mite activity. My first line of defense against spider mites is to wash the underside of the leaves with a hard spray of water, and then do it again two or three days later. Then I do it one more time after that to make sure I’ve gotten the grandparents, the parents, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren. Other effective, low-toxicity controls are insecticidal soap and products labeled for spider mites that contain neem oil. Both products work by coating the insect, so be sure to spray the underside of the leaves where the spider mites reside. And remember, if you do have to spray your plants, it’s best to do it early in the day so the leaves can dry before nightfall.
There are two other types of bush beans that I like to grow: yellow beans and gourmet or French filet, also known as haricots verts. ‘Goldito’ is a dependable yellow bean with smooth, slim pods and good disease resistance. ‘Isar’ is a very slender, yellow filet bean that produces well and must be picked almost every day, before the pods start to develop and ruin their figure. These beans are so slender it would take quite a mess of them to make a meal. So I prefer to use them to add a little color to salads or save them for a “fancy” recipe.
I love to grow French filet beans, especially when I see them for $4.99/lb at the grocery store! They are grown just like standard bush beans, but, like Isar, they must be picked every day or they loose that tender, slender, gourmet appeal. I did not grow up eating French filet green beans, did you? They might have been eating them in Dallas or Houston 30 years ago, but we sure never ate them in my hometown of Midland. They seem quite available now, though a bit pricey, and they are popular in fine dining restaurants. But for pennies and a little patience you can grow them in your own backyard. Two varieties that have performed well in my Central Texas garden are ‘Maxibel’ and ‘Nickel,’ but there are many others out there to try. These delicate beans are best prepared lightly steamed or blanched quickly (2 to 3 minutes) in boiling water. Try serving them atop tender salad greens with roasted beets, toasted pecans, blue cheese and a light vinaigrette made with white wine vinegar – a heavenly combination.
Your green bean bounty can be steamed, stir-fried, boiled, roasted, pickled or frozen. An easy and delicious method for cooking green beans is to lower them into boiling, salted water and cook for 4 to 6 minutes, just until tender. Then drain, toss with a small amount of butter, and sprinkle with salt, pepper and lemon juice. Now that is a perfect accompaniment to any summertime meal.
|Days to Harvest