The most colorful and tasty snap beans you will ever eat are the ones you grow yourself. You seldom find purple or yellow beans in a grocery store or farmstand, and the commercial green varieties just can’t compare to the fresh-from-the-garden pods harvested at their peak from your own garden. And if you like experimenting and trying different varieties, the humble garden bean knows how to deliver.
There are many types of beans that can be grown during a Texas warm season, and it is helpful to understand the various categories. Native to the Americas, beans are members of the extensive legume family, which includes Southern peas and long beans (Vigna unguiculata), soybeans (Glycine max), lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), hyacinth beans (Dolichos lablab), runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) and (the subject of this article) common garden beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), often referred to as snap beans or simply green beans. These beans, whether steamed lightly, sauteed or cooked in a rich broth, make a perfect side dish for the fresh and easy meals of summer.
Though most of this class of bean have green pods, there are also varieties with yellow pods, purple pods and color-streaked pods. Some are bush, some are pole and many varieties can be eaten at three distinct stages: a snap bean in the immature stage, a shell bean in the teenager stage and a dry bean in the mature stage.
Beans are also self-pollinating and an easy option for seed-saving since they do not require isolation or special processing. When harvesting dry seeds from any open-pollinated or heirloom variety, always set aside a generous amount for sharing and replanting in subsequent seasons. The truth is that we never know when a particular variety will disappear from the seed trade, which makes saving seed from year to year a valuable endeavor.
Snap beans top the list of easy-to-grow plants; they do not require strenuous soil preparation, nor do they require heavy fertilization. A layer of compost mixed into the soil is a good start and sometimes all that is needed in an established garden. If you are not sure about your soil’s fertility, mix in about one-half cup of a low-nitrogen fertilizer (such as 6-2-2 or 9-4-2) over a 10-foot row or a 4 × 4-foot planting area. Beans need just a little to get started, then they will take care of the rest. If plants receive high doses of nitrogen in the form of excess fertilizer, the result will be lots of lush, leafy growth at the expense of pod production.
Like all members of the legume family, beans have a symbiotic relationship with beneficial Rhizobia bacteria in the soil that inhabit the plants’ roots. These bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into a source that can be utilized by the plants. One thing you can do to encourage these beneficial bacteria is to inoculate the seed at planting time with a powdered inoculant that can be purchased at garden centers or from online seed companies. A light coating is sufficient and can be accomplished by simply shaking dampened seed and inoculant powder in a paper bag just before planting.
Beans require full sun and warm temperatures, but do not fare well in blazing, Texas heat. It is best to plant early in the spring, after the threat of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 60°. In the last few years, I have noticed bean “transplants” for sale at nurseries — little plastic pots containing four wiry bean seedlings. This is an expensive and unnecessary step when it comes to beans, and they will quickly outgrow the confines of four-inch pots. Bean seeds are large and easy to handle, quick to germinate and should be planted directly in the ground, following the planting and spacing instructions on the seed packet.
Keep the soil fairly moist until the seeds germinate; a dry, crusty soil may injure seedlings as they emerge. Once beans are up and growing, water when the soil is dry, providing about an inch per week. Soaker or drip-irrigation hoses are recommended to avoid wetting the leaves. Wet leaves become a conducive environment for foliage diseases. When watering by hand, direct the water to the roots rather than the leaves, and if you use overhead irrigation, water in the morning so that leaves can dry thoroughly before nightfall.
To extend your harvest window, make a second planting about 10 days after the first sowing. Most bush varieties are determinate in their growth, producing a concentrated set of pods over a period of three to four weeks. Pole beans, however, will continue to produce as long as the plants are healthy. Even if the heat of summer shuts down blooming, the plants will wait it out and start producing flowers and pods again once the weather turns more favorable. With that in mind, growing a mix of bush and pole varieties will keep the beans coming.
For best quality snaps, harvest bush and pole beans before the pods begin to bulge and pick frequently to encourage more blooming. Heirloom varieties are favored by many gardeners for flavor, but keep in mind that many of these old-fashioned beans are true “string beans” with strings along the pod that must be removed before cooking. Modern varieties of snap beans no longer have strings thanks to the work of Calvin Keeney, a vegetable breeder from LeRoy, New York. Keeney is known as the “father of the stringless bean” for his work developing beans without strings between 1884 and 1911. One of his earliest bean varieties, introduced by the W. Atlee Burpee Company in 1894 as “Burpee’s Stringless Green-Pod,” is still available today in the Burpee seed catalog.
Many long-time gardeners settle on a few varieties that they grow and save from year to year. Nothing wrong with that — it’s nice to always have a supply of seeds that yield consistent results. But, with so many varieties available to home gardeners, I can’t resist trying new ones every season. And in Texas we have two bean-planting seasons, spring and fall, which allows for even more experimenting. I encourage everyone to grow some beans this year and to kick off the spring season I’ll recommend a small sampling of tasty and rewarding varieties to try.
‘Capitano’ (56 days). This Romano-type bean produces succulent yellow pods with rich bean flavor. Its green counterpart, ‘Roma II’, is a bush form of the popular Italian Romano pole bean. Both varieties produce wide, flat, stringless pods on upright plants that grow about 20 inches tall.
‘Provider’ (50 days). These flavorful green pods are straight and smooth, a popular choice for many backyard gardeners. With seeds tolerating cool soils, ‘Provider’ is a good option for early planting. Similar varieties include ‘Jade’, ‘Contender’ and ‘Strike.’
‘Dragon’s Tongue’ (55 days). Creamy yellow pods mottled with purple give this bean a novel appearance. It is a tasty multi-purpose variety that can be harvested as a snap bean, a shell bean or a dry bean. This Dutch heirloom is also sold under its French name ‘Dragon Langerie’.
Pinto (62 days snap, 90 days dry). The dried pinto beans that Texans are so fond of can be eaten as green snaps if picked at a relatively immature stage before the beans begin to swell. As the pods develop, the plump beans can be used in the shell stage or can be left to mature fully on the plant and harvested as dry beans. Cultivar recommendations include ‘Improved Pinto’ and ‘Dwarf Horticultural’, though many gardeners have success simply planting pinto beans from the grocery store.
‘Velour’ (55 days). This bean offers straight, tender pods in a lovely shade of purple. Don’t delay planting in spring, as most purple varieties tend to be more sensitive to heat. The purple color will fade when cooked, but slender immature pods can be enjoyed raw.
All pole beans require a trellis, teepee or fencing for support.
‘Cherokee Trail of Tears’ (65–70 days). These shiny black beans come with a woeful history that dates back to the winter of 1838, when the Cherokee Indians were forced to leave their homeland near the Smoky Mountains to reset-tle in Oklahoma’s Indian Territory. Many died in the harsh winter conditions along the route, now known as the “Trail of Tears.” Dr John Wyche, a seed saver from Hugo, Oklahoma, is credited with sharing these black beans of his Cherokee ancestors, which were brought to Oklahoma and passed down through generations.
‘Kentucky Wonder’ (65 days). Also known as ‘Old Homestead’, this popular heirloom dates back to the 1800s. Its plants produce bountiful yields of green pods with down-home flavor. They are widely available and easy to grow.
‘Monte Gusto’ (58 days). Slender and smooth, these vivid yellow beans grow on vines reaching up to six feet. For tender filet beans, harvest when the pods reach five inches in length, before the beans inside have a chance to develop.
‘Rattlesnake’ (65–70 days). These eye-catching green pods streaked with purple hang from vigorous vines that grow eight to nine feet tall. Be prepared to string this one — the strings are inedible and must be removed before cooking, but it’s a dependable plant that tolerates heat and drought, making that extra effort worthwhile. Snaps are good for freezing, and mature beans are good for winter soups and stews.
‘Seychelles’ (55 days). An All-America Selections winner in 2017, this tasty climber produces clusters of stringless, dark-green, uniform pods about five-to-six inches long. Space-saving and productive, it is a good choice for freezing, canning or pickling.
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables