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Growing Beans: A Complete Guide to Plant, Grow and Harvest Beans
I love growing beans. One plant provides ample produce, and harvesting them is like a treasure hunt. Just when I think the plant is done, I head outside and find more hidden pods ripe for the taking. The plants are sturdy and low-maintenance. They're an excellent companion for many other vegetables in the garden, and they are delectable!
If you're gardening with children, beans are ideal. Hunting for fresh pods under the foliage is a fun activity for the family. I'll admit, I have fun with harvesting beans even as an adult.
Different bean varieties have unique flavor profiles and can add color to the garden. They deliver plenty of nutrition for the dinner plate, too, whether you eat them steamed, in soups, roasted, or refried. Beans are a staple vegetable in my garden, and every year I love to try new varieties.
If you are new to growing beans, or want to know how to make them grow better, this guide will get you going.
Pole vs. Bush vs. Runner Beans
Before you start shopping for bean seeds for your garden, you need to know the difference between the three types of bean varieties. Each has their advantages and disadvantages. Pole beans are tall and need support, which makes them perfect for growing beans vertically in small spaces. They require a bit more attention since you'll need to make sure they're not toppling over. Runner beans are similar. These flowered beauties grow like pole beans, but they prefer cool conditions over hot ones. Most runner beans are eaten fresh. Bush beans are my favorite variety to grow because they usually require no support, which makes it easy to re-sow throughout the season.
Note that many bean varieties are meant to be entirely dried before harvesting so that the interior seed is ready for storage and consumption, while some can be enjoyed fresh off the plant.
Varieties include Condor, which has a short vine and high yield. It's disease resistant and suited for canning. Zorro black beans mature in mid-season and are perfect for canning as well. Zenith black beans have an upright growth habit and resist lodging. This type matures in 100 days and retains its black color even after boiling and canning.
Also known as broad beans, this type can take a little longer to mature – up to 5 months before it can be harvested. Ianto grows massive beans on 6-foot tall vines and can be eaten dry or fresh. Masterpiece produces enormous pods on 3-foot tall plants. Windsor is the classic fava bean. It grows in an upright, non-branching habit and matures earlier than others in 75 days.
Great Northern Beans
Great northern beans are eaten dried and take between 65-90 days to mature. Matterhorn is disease resistant and matures in 90 days. Powderhorn has a compact vine growth habit and resists lodging.
Also known as butterbeans, you can eat lima beans fresh or dried. The Christmas variety is a pole bean that matures in 84 days and has flavorful, full yields even in hot, humid conditions. Fordhook is a bush type perfect for middle and northern latitudes. It tolerates heat and drought and has a nut-like flavor.
Navy beans are eaten dried and take up to 100 days to mature. Cascade is disease resistant and has an upright growth structure that resists white mold. Teton beans resist rust and have a narrow growing profile, so they don't take up much ground space in the garden.
This Mexico native takes up to 150 days before you can harvest it as a dry bean, but you can eat it younger as a snap bean as well. Pinto beans prefer warmer weather and come in bush and pole varieties. Lariat beans are uniform in size and resist mosaic virus. Eldorado has a short vine growth and an upright profile. It's disease resistant and matures in 85 days.
Another Mexico native, kidney beans are high in fiber and take about 95 days to mature. Red Hawk has a bush growth habit and pretty white flowers. It matures in 100 days. Cabernet matures in 90 days and lends nicely to canning. Sacramento is a reliable performer that prefers extra moisture. It matures in 85 days.
Green beans come in bush and pole varieties. They tend to mature earlier, in as quickly as 50 days, and are generally eaten fresh. Contender is a bush bean that does well in cool areas. The beans are long, thin and curved and are perfect for pickling or fresh eating. Dragon Tongue matures in 60 days and features yellow pods with purple streaks. This pole variety can be eaten shelled or as snap beans.
One of the things I love best about beans is that they're easy to grow.
I recommend direct-sowing since beans don't enjoy being transplanted. Plant with the eye of the bean facing down at a depth of 2-inches. Before planting, soak the bean overnight.
Plant after the danger of frost has passed, when soil temps are above 60°F. Be careful not to plant when the soil is too wet because the beans will rot in cool, damp soil. It can take up to 10 days for seedlings to sprout.
Sun and Soil Requirements
Beans prefer warmer weather for the most part, though this may depend on the variety. Plant beans in a sunny spot with at least 6 hours of sunshine. Beans prefer well-drained soil.
Depending on the type, beans thrive in zones 3-10.
I space beans using the Square Foot Gardening method and place 9 seeds per square foot. With pole or runner beans, plant them at the base of a support structure (like a trellis or teepee) spacing out according to packet instructions.
For row planting, place pole beans 4-6 inches apart with 12-inches between rows. Bush beans should have 4-6 inches between plants.
Support isn't all that important for bush beans, though some folks may prefer to use caging to help keep things tidy. I live in an area with lots of windy days — even in the summer — so depending on where I'm planting bush beans, I'll provide support if needed.
If you're planting pole beans, you'll need stakes or other types of support structures to help the beans grow upward. The choice is yours. Feel free to get creative! I'm a big fan of the inexpensive bamboo sticks that you can buy at hardware stores. Make sure you purchase sturdy sticks, some companies sell thin, flimsy ones that won't work well as supports.
I prefer to grow beans in my raised beds instead of containers because most pots don't provide enough room for beans to grow. Save your containers for plants such as tomatoes or peppers.
Caring for Beans
Here's are some basic care tips for keeping your beans alive throughout the season.
Water frequently and keep the soil moist by adding mulch around the base of your bean plants. Avoid watering plant tops and give about 1/2 inch of water per week.
Don't use a high-nitrogen fertilizer with beans. Doing so may result in a crop that doesn’t produce anything for you to eat! Instead, provide a balanced fertilizer once a month during the growing season.
Pinch or cut the top of pole beans to prevent the plants from growing out of control. Pruning is not required for bush beans.
Take care when weeding to avoid disturbing the roots of your growing beans.
Depending on how long your growing season is and what type of bean you plant, you can re-sow beans throughout the summer for a continuous harvest. Plant a mix of pole and bush beans for variety and choose beans with different maturity dates so you'll always have some to pick.
Take care to rotate bean crops each year. Beans fix nitrogen in the soil, so plant nitrogen-loving veggies where you had beans in the previous year. Rotating also helps avoid diseases.
Bean Problems and Solutions
Growing beans is a relatively simple and problem-free experience, but there are some issues you may encounter.
- Blossom drop –This occurs if the weather gets overly warm. In areas with sweltering summers, you may prefer to plant beans in partial shade.
- Lack of bean pods – No beans but lots of foliage? You may have a nutrient imbalance in your soil. Don't fertilize plants without knowing what's going on with your soil. Too much nitrogen prevents pods from forming.
- Broken stems – They may not look it, but growing beans are pretty sturdy. Still, strong gusts of wind may cause your bean plants to topple over. Plant bush beans in an area that's sheltered from wind and make sure your support structure for pole beans is strong enough to handle wind storms.
- Holes in the leaves – Spotting some unsightly damage on your bean leaves? The culprit may be a pest. Japanese beetles quickly munch foliage to shreds and they often arrive in hordes.
- Seeds not germinating – Do you keep planting bean seeds only to find nothing popping up? Are you noticing that seedlings have disappeared overnight? Poor germination may be the result of old seed, but squirrels and birds may be munching on your seed and seedlings. Protect your crops with wire mesh or some other barrier to prevent creatures from stealing your beans.
The bean weevil feeds on growing beans and dried, stored beans. To kill off weevils in your food storage, freeze beans for a few days. Outside, keep plants well fertilized in good soil so that they'll be strong enough to fight infestations. You can also cover seedlings to prevent weevils in the spring.
This pest is a particular problem in wet areas. It comes from seeds and infested soils, so only use certified clean soil and seeds.
Cutworms chew through plant stems and roots. You often won't know you have them until your plant is shriveling up and dying. You can keep this pest from killing your growing beans by using plant collars and by putting diatomaceous earth around your plants. Hand pick any of the worms off if you see them.
The good news is that, in my experience, Japanese Beetles seem to attack in cycles. One year, I had an infestation, and my runner beans were quickly decimated. The year after? I didn't see a single beetle on my bean leaves. The little bugs are actually rather attractive. Their blueish-green sheen distinguishes them.
It's tough to get rid of them once they've established themselves, though neem oil can be used to help minimize the population. Hand picking works, too, but honestly, it's gross. Your best bet is to try to prevent them from getting at your plants in the first place. Use insect barriers like row covers to keep them away.
These little buggers are annoying but easier to deal with than other pests. Don't ignore them, though, since they spread disease. A strong spray from a garden hose or a spritz of homemade pest killer solution should do the trick.
These spotted beetles munch of plants and carry disease, so they're a double-threat. Again, covering plants is the best way to prevent this type of infestation, but some companies sell traps that may be used to catch these little creatures.
This fungal disease is helped along by cool and humid conditions. Avoid spreading the fungus by getting rid of plants affected by it, right away.
Mosaic virus causes young leaves to be small, while older leaves will curl and pucker. Bean pods will be kinked with a mottled yellow color. The virus is prevalent, and once it attacks your plants, there's no way back. Get rid of everything affected to prevent its spread. Purchase resistant varieties.
Downy mildew can be a problem in cool, wet areas. It looks like small white spots of mildew on bean leaves. You can purchase beans that are resistant to downy mildew if this is something you struggle with. Also be sure to rotate your crops.
Leaf and Pod Spot
This disease causes brown spots to form on the leaves and pods of growing beans. It is seed-borne, so purchase certified clean seeds. In wet areas, buy resistant varieties.
This disease causes brown spots that eventually destroy a plant. It is particularly prevalent in wet and cool areas. Plant resistant varieties if this disease is common in your area. You can also use an organic fungicide.
Bean rust manifests as rust-like pustules on leaves. Give plants plenty of space, water at the base, not the leaves, and keep weeds at bay. Remove any infected leaves and destroy.
Spider mites live in colonies on the undersides of leaves. They can attack bean pods and destroy your crop. Avoid pesticides because it will kill off beneficial predators. Instead, encourage predators, spray plants with neem oil, and keep plants watered so they can fight off mites.
Companion Planting for Beans
Beans are happy to live next to a variety of garden neighbors, and they provide nitrogen to surrounding plants.
Best Companion Plants
- Brassicas like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower
- Corn (three sisters method of planting)
- Variety of herbs (rosemary for example) keeps beetles away
- Marigolds are also a natural pest repellent
Worst Companion Plants
Harvesting and Storing Beans
Take care when harvesting beans. It’s tempting to try to snap them off roughly, but a hard tug may topple your entire bean plant. I use a pair of scissors and gently cut off beans when harvesting.
Harvest beans for fresh eating when they are young yet large enough to eat. Fresh beans are tender and tasty alongside mashed potatoes and your choice of protein.
You should fresh eat beans right away for the best flavor, but they can also be frozen or pickled. Blanch and then freeze to preserve for later eating. Beans are an excellent option for a variety of recipes and provide plenty of nutrition.
For drying, wait until the leaves start to dry, and the seeds start to bulge. Leaving beans on the stem will cause the beans inside the pod to dry out. You'll know they're ready when you can hear the bean rattle in the pod. Fully dried, they can be saved and stored for next year.
To thresh the beans, crack the pod open and scoot the beans out with your thumb. If you have a large harvest, put the pods in a brown paper bag and let them sit for a few weeks. Shake the bag every day. Spread the beans on one half of a tarp and cover with the other half. Stomp on the beans to free them from the husk.
I love to sautee young beans in sesame oil and a bit of mirin until tender and serve with steamed rice and a protein for an Asian-inspired meal. How do you eat beans?