By Skip Richter,
ets face it; green beans are taken for granted. Vegetable gardening articles typically feature the queen of the garden, the tomato, or some exotic greens, or a new technique, or trendy tools. Yet year after year the dependable green bean appears in most every supporting cast, faithfully producing crops and feeding the gardening world. Green beans are the blue collar vegetable of our Texas Gardens.
Beans are perhaps the easiest veggie of all to grow. If you want to get kids hooked on gardening, let them help plant and harvest a crop of green beans. They are among the fastest of veggies from seed to table. Their large seed size makes planting with fumbly little fingers fool proof. And the hide-and-seek task of harvesting beans holds kids attention quite well.
Perhaps it is just this dependable, easy character that causes them to be taken for granted. Well, whatever the cause, they deserve an award for their integral role in any great vegetable garden. While other veggies may fly or flop in a given year, you can pretty much count on green beans to provide a dependable harvest.
First A Little Beanology
Before we get into the specifics of bean culture, lets take a brief look at some beanology. Basically the term bean is pretty generic and refers to the seed pods of many different plants in the legume family, including many ornamentals. In the vegetable garden, beans may be grouped into three basic categories, based on the maturity of the pod at harvest and the part eaten.
Green beans, also called snap beans and string beans, are grown to harvest the fleshy pods before the seeds inside develop. Shell beans are grown for the fresh seeds. They are allowed to grow a bit longer, usually until the pods start to turn yellow and soften, when they are harvested for their immature but plump, fresh seeds. Dry beans are also grown for the seeds but are usually allowed to mature further, sometimes to the point of drying on the bush. They are then harvested, shelled (and fully dried if necessary) and then stored for later use.
Green beans originated in Central America. By the time Columbus arrived they had spread through Mexico and into North America. From here they were taken back to the Old World where they joined other types of beans in vegetable gardens.
In this article we will focus on green, those harvested for their fleshy pods. I grew up referring to them as string beans, a throwback to the early varieties that had tough strings running down the pod sutures that had to be removed before the pods were cooked.
I recall years past as a child spending an evening stringing and snapping the days harvest in a bowl on my lap while watching TV. Those were often pinto beans, a dried bean that can also be harvested when young as green beans. But the green bean quality of pintos is pretty low compared to our modern varieties, and most new varieties are stringless. A great development, especially considering the fact that theres not much worth watching on TV these days anyway.
Preparing A Garden Spot
Beans like sunlight. While they will tolerate a little shade, like most fruiting vegetables they need at least six hours of sunlight to do their best. They also like good drainage. Sandy loam soils are best, but if you have a heavy clay all is not lost. Simply mix in lots of compost and build raised beds to facilitate drainage. These veggies do not like wet feet, and will flounder and rot in a soggy clay during extended rainy spells.
Green beans are tolerant of moderately fertile soil. They prefer a pH range of about 6.0 to 7.5. If your soil is more acidic, a little lime can easily fix the problem. In high pH soils, beans may exhibit a little iron chlorosis, which shows up as yellowing of the new growth.
To remedy iron chlorosis, add some iron sulfate or chelated iron to the soil according to label directions. Iron sulfate tends to tie up in the soil fairly quickly and becomes unavailable to growing plants. Chelated iron is more resistant to tie up, but is more expensive. For an even better long-term solution, add some compost whenever you work the soil prior to planting. Compost helps balance your soil nutrient content and stimulates microbes that cycle nutrients in the soil.
The most significant nutrient problem for beans is excessive nitrogen in the soil. High nitrogen levels stimulate top growth and will delay and reduce production. Beans are legumes and therefore are able to produce their own nitrogen through a symbiotic relationship with certain bacteria on their roots. These bacteria form nodules that are attached to the sides of their roots. They can extract nitrogen from the air in the soil and fix it into a form that the bean plants can use.
If your soil is really poor, mix in a cup of complete fertilizer before planting. Otherwise such additions are probably not necessary. Once the soil has been built up with compost for a couple of seasons, such supplements are usually not needed.
Beans love warm temperatures and will not perform well at all if planted too early in the spring. For you scientific gardeners, they need the soil temperature to be at least 65 degrees to sprout quickly and grow vigorously. In cold soil they will just sit there and never amount to much of anything. Wait until at least about a week after your last average frost date before planting.
You can get in a second planting or two about 10 to 14 days apart. This will extend the harvest season. However, when temperatures heat up, beans will fail to set very well and those that do will form smaller pods and be of poorer quality.
In late summer there is another planting window for the fall crop. This is truly the prime bean season. Pods that ripen in the cooler days of fall are at their peak of quality!
If you are growing beans in a new garden spot, it may be worthwhile to purchase a seed inoculant to make sure the symbiotic bacteria are present. Wet the seeds and then place them in a small paper sack. Then pour the black, dusty inoculant powder into the sack and shake it around a bit. This will get some of the powder on the seeds. Plant the inoculated seeds immediately.
Once you have grown beans in a garden spot, these inoculants are not really needed as the soil contains plenty of the symbiotic bacteria. I have planted and grown beans quite successfully in a new garden area without inoculants. The nitrogen-fixing bacteria are often present from other legumes which grew in the area.
To plant the seeds, open a trench about an inch or so deep with the corner of a hoe. Drop the bean seeds in the trench about 2 inches apart. No thinning will be necessary at that spacing. Cover the trench with about an inch of soil and tamp it down gently to firm the soil around the seeds. Then water the planting row well to moisten the soil deeply. I usually plant beans in two rows spaced about a foot apart down the length of the bed.
Keep the soil moist while waiting for the seedlings to emerge. This will reduce crusting and help get the seeds off to a fast start. Wait to mulch until the seedlings are about 6 inches tall. Unmulched soil warms up faster and mulch may attract certain pests that will feed on the emerging seedlings.
Once the new plants are about 6 inches tall, it is time to add mulch. If they lack vigor and green color, a light fertilization may be helpful. Apply 1/2 cup of balanced fertilizer per 25 feet of row in a 3 inch deep trench about 6 inches away from each row of plants. Then cover the fertilizer with soil and water it in well. After watering, apply a couple of inches of mulch to protect the soil and prevent it from splashing onto the plants.
After that, simply keep the plants moderately moist to prevent drought stress. They really do not need a lot of supplemental water, especially if well mulched; soggy conditions are very detrimental.
I have grown many different varieties of beans over the years. Most have done quite well. There are some proven choices, but I encourage gardeners to experiment and include a new variety or two with an old reliable variety each year. You will find many great new varieties are waiting for you to discover them.
I group green beans into four basic types: standard round-podded beans, flat-podded Italian beans, French filet beans (haricot verts) and pole beans.
The most common type in our Texas gardens is the standard round-podded types. One that is an old standard with Texas gardeners is Contender. This bean consistently produces nice crops of good quality pods and does well in many different soils and climates. I have conducted trials for a number of years and although Contender has never been the winner in productivity, it was always in the top group. I think if you are going to plant just one variety it is a good choice, and is widely available.
Other great bush beans include Jade (my personal favorite), Derby (1990 All-America Selections), Florence, Topcrop (1950 All-America Selections), Provider, Espada, and Dorabell (yellow wax type).
Flat-podded Italian or Roma type beans produce large crops of large, flat, full-flavored green beans. Great varieties include Roma II, Romano, and Romanette.
French filet beans are thin, tender beans considered as gourmet fare by bean connoisseurs. I find them very tasty but a bit tedious to pick since it takes more to make a meal. Some choice varieties are Maxibell, Normandie, and Nickle.
Pole beans are a great way to take advantage of tight garden space and to spread the harvest season out a bit. My favorite pole bean is Kwintus (formerly called Early Riser), a very early bean with flattened pods that speed from seed to harvest in just 45 days. Three other proven pole varieties in my gardens are Northeaster (another favorite with large, flat pods), McCaslan (slightly flattened pods) and Rattlesnake (round pods). I have grown all four and found them to be outstanding yielders of quality beans and much superior to the pole types Kentucky Wonder and Blue Lake.
Pole beans climb by twining around a support. Bamboo poles, wire mesh fencing, livestock panels, lattice work and even twine dropped from the eaves of your home to the soil line will make a great support for pole beans. Just make sure that they, like bush types, are in an area that receives plenty of sunlight.
Pests and Diseases
Beans have their enemies in the garden. Perhaps the most troublesome are spider mites. These pests love a dry, hot, dusty environment and tend to gather on the lower surface of leaves where their feeding causes discoloration and, in serious cases, drying and death of the leaves. They can be identified by placing a white piece of paper beneath leaves showing the light colored mottling that is characteristics of mite infestations. Then thump the leaves. Watch the paper for mites, which appear as tiny specks moving about.
When mites start to become a problem direct a spray of insecticidal soap upward from beneath the plants. Make this application early in the morning when temperatures are still moderate and the sun is not baking down on the plants. A repeat application five to seven days later may be needed for better control.
Aphids can also gather and feed on bean plants. While I have yet to experience a significant aphid problem on my bean crops, if they do become troublesome they can be controlled with insecticidal soap or pyrethrum sprays.
Stink bugs can deform pods. They are more difficult to control but insecticide products are available that will control them. I prefer to simply break off any damaged pod sections and have not found them to be serious enough in most seasons to warrant spraying.
The most common bean diseases are damping off, rust and powdery mildew. Damping off refers to the decay and destruction of young seedlings by fungal diseases. It is best managed by keeping the seed bed well drained and not too soggy wet. Avoid turning under fresh green matter just prior to planting beans. Also allow the soil to warm in the spring before planting the seeds.
Rust is a fungal disease that causes reddish powdery spores to appear on the lower leaf surface as well as on the pods. It is made worse by frequent wetting of the foliage and harvesting the plants when the foliage is wet. Powdery mildew causes a white, powdery dusting on the leaves and will result in drying and loss of foliage. It is not a common problem on beans but can occasionally do significant damage. Both rust and powdery mildew may be controlled by minimizing wetting of the foliage and by sprays of wettable sulfur.
Beans may be harvested at any time from when the pods are very small to when they reach their full length. Quality is less if you allow green beans to stay on the plant too long, so it is best to not allow the beans inside to develop past about a third of their full size.
You can get a feel for this as you look at the outside of the pods. Although varieties differ significantly in shape and form, when the beans in the round-podded types are bulging visibly in the pods, those pods are probably getting too mature. Fresh pods are very tender and snap in two readily when bent. You will need to harvest almost three times a week to prevent some pods from over maturing. They really move fast, come harvest time!
When harvesting, use two hands, one to hold the plant where the bean attaches and the other to pull on the pod. Bean plants are very brittle and can easily be broken or uprooted during harvest. Finally, allow the morning dew or irrigation to dry off the foliage before harvesting to avoid spreading foliage disease.
Each planting of beans should yield pods for a couple of weeks. After harvest is over, you can pull up the plants and compost them. I prefer to cut them off at ground level and leave the roots (with their nitrogen fixing nodules) in the soil to release nutrients back into the soil.
Green beans are a moderate source of protein, fiber, vitamin C and beta carotene (a precursor to vitamin A). They are low in calories and contain a modest supply of calcium and folic acid.
Fresh green beans are flavorful and add color to our mealtime. Purple-podded varieties turn dark green with cooking and yellow-podded types fade a bit. The key to tasty green beans is to not overcook them or they will become mushy and lose their bright color.
Simply steam or boil them in a little water for a short amount of time. It only takes about 5 minutes for them to become tender and ready to eat. Cook them just long enough for them to be barely cooked through but yet still retain the slightest crunch.
Oh yeah, this is Texas, so feel free to add onions and bacon to taste!
Standard Round-Podded Bush Type
Contender 1, 3
Jade 2, 5, 6
Derby 1, 6
Topcrop 1, 3
Provider 2, 4, 5
Espada 1, 4
Florence 4, 5, 6
Dorabell 1, 5
Italian Flat-Podded Bush Type
Roma II 1, 6
Romano 1, 3, 4, 5
French Filet Bush Type
Maxibell 2, 6
Rattlesnake 3, 5
1 Willhite Seed, Inc.
P.O. Box 23; Poolville, Texas 76487-0023
Phone: (817) 599-8656; Toll Free (800) 828-1840; Fax (817) 599-5843
2 Johnnys Selected Seeds
955 Benton Avenue; Winslow, Maine 04901
Phone: (207) 861-3900 Fax: 800-437-4290
3 – Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 460; Mineral, VA 23117
Phone (540) 894-9480 Fax: (540) 894-9481
4 Harris Seeds
355 Paul Rd.; P.O. Box 24966; Rochester, NY 14624-0966
Phone (800) 514-4441 Fax (877) 892-9197
5 – Pinetree Garden Seeds
P.O. Box 300, New Gloucester, ME 04260
Phone: 207-926-3400; Fax: 888-527-3337
6 – Geo. W. Park Seed Co.
1 Parkton Ave; Greenwood, SC 29647
Phone: 800-213-0076; Fax 800-275-9941