Beans are thought to have been first cultivated alongside their sister crop, corn, around 7,000 years ago in what is now Mexico. Over thousands of years they made their way north on Native American trade routes with unique varieties developing along the way. Mature dry beans are packed with protein, carbohydrates, and dietary fiber, making them an excellent choice for gardeners looking to live off of homegrown produce. They also store indefinitely at room temperature so you won’t need to take up valuable freezer space to eat them all year round.
Similar to tomatoes, beans grow in either a “determinant” or “indeterminate” habit. Determinant varieties grow to a certain height and then produce all of their beans at once—these are referred to as bush beans. Indeterminate varieties grow as a vine and continue adding new bean pods wherever they are able to expand—these are referred to as pole beans.
Generally in a small garden, you’ll want to grow pole beans since they can use space more efficiently. Bush beans are optimized for mechanical harvesting so they are most commonly grown in commercial operations. If you don’t have anywhere for a pole bean to climb, bush beans are an excellent choice for a raised bed.
All beans can be eaten as green beans or allowed to mature fully to harvest as dry beans. Though some bean varieties, marketed as “string beans” or “snap beans” are bred to be more tender in their green stage and don’t produce very large seeds. If you harvest beans in their green stage, they’ll continue setting flowers and producing more beans until they receive the signal that they have successfully produced viable seeds.
The primary bean that we grow in our subsistence gardens is a variety called “Cherokee Trail of Tears” which is said to have been grown and eaten by the Cherokee people when they were forcibly removed from their homeland in the 1830s. This amazing heirloom is excellent both as a green bean and as a dry black bean. Many other varieties provide a similar dual-purpose harvest so don’t feel like you need to grow one or the other.
Beans grow best in rich, tilthy soil with good drainage. They can be susceptible to root rot and fungal diseases so heavy clay soils that hold pools of water should be amended with compost before planting beans. On the other hand, a lack of water can lead to a poor crop and pithy string beans, so your plants should be watered regularly either through rain or irrigation. About an inch of rain per week is a good rule of thumb to aim for.
Like corn, most beans prefer hot weather and you should wait to plant your beans until after the last frost in your growing zone. We space our pole beans about 3 to 4 inches apart along their trellis and in our Three Sisters mounds, we plant two beans per corn plant. If you grow bush beans you can space them 4 inches apart in a diamond pattern to fill the beds.
Pole beans require a structure or trellis system to climb so they can grow to their full potential. These climbing structures can range from bamboo poles to plastic netting to corn stalks. Simply plant your pole beans at the base of the structure and once they reach about 6 inches tall they will actually begin to search for the structure. In a process that we call “wandering,” the end of the vine rotates around 360 degrees as it grows until it finds a suitable structure to climb. If your beans are struggling to find their trellis, don’t be afraid to lend them a helping hand. Once your bean vines find their structure they will begin to wrap themselves around it and explode with growth.
The primary insect pest you might encounter on your bean plants is the Mexican bean beetle. These insects are a relative of ladybugs and one of the few species in that family that are considered a garden pest. They resemble yellow ladybugs in their adult stage and plump yellow grubs in their larval stage. Both the adults and larvae feed on bean leaves and pods and they can be incredibly destructive in large numbers. The grubs can be hand-picked from plants and squished, but if your beans are overwhelmed they should be treated with the organic pesticide pyrethrin. Although pyrethrin is an organic pesticide and it does not persist in the environment, you should avoid spraying it during times of day when pollinators are active. Bean beetles overwinter in garden residue so removing and composting your bean plants after the season is finished will help reduce the population for the following year.
Fungal diseases in the roots can be a problem when growing beans in heavy clay soils without adequate drainage. To avoid this you can amend your soil with compost or other forms of organic matter. If you have previously experienced fungal disease on your beans it is best to avoid growing them in that plot for 3 to 4 years. A good crop rotation can help prevent the build-up of fungal and viral pathogens in the soil. If you live in an area with particularly high rainfall and humidity, fungal diseases can sometimes infect the leaves of your beans. To avoid or at least reduce this problem, plant your beans in an area of the garden with good airflow and space them a couple of inches further than I recommended above to encourage the leaves to dry out between rainfall.
With all that said, beans are generally a pretty hands-off crop and you will likely have a great harvest regardless of the pressure from pests and diseases.
If you’re harvesting your beans in their unripe form as string beans, you can simply harvest them whenever they reach the size that you like to eat. Generally, they are most tender before the seeds start to bulge out in the pod. Green beans are often ready to harvest within 60 days of planting. For mature dry beans, the pods should be allowed to hang on the plant until they are yellowish-brown and dry. It takes about 90 days from planting to harvest mature dry beans.
We like to use string beans in a Syrian tomato stew called Loobeh. In order to keep this dish on the menu year-round we blanch and freeze gallon bags of green beans when they are at their peak in the summer. Dry beans are a major staple for us. After harvest, we fill glass jars with beautiful jet black beans and pile them up in our cupboard. In the winter we usually cook up a big batch of black beans every weekend to eat throughout the week in tacos, chili, and by the spoonful.
Like their older sister crop corn, if you’re looking to subsist off of your garden in North America, beans are a must-have.