by Julia Frisbie
posted May 20, 2021
How do you know it’s time to plant your beans? As the climate crisis accelerates, historical planting dates will become less and less useful. I use phenological cues:
- When the dogwood blossom petals are the size of a squirrel’s ear
- When the wild blackberries bloom
- Peter waits for the soil to hit 60 degrees
- When the snow is gone from the face of Cultus Mountain
I grow several different types of beans:
But none of them get their own dedicated garden space. Instead, I plant them at the feet of heavy feeders like dahlias, tomatoes, and corn. My primary goal with beans is fertility, not food. The fact that we also get to eat beans is a lovely side effect!
Legumes like peas, beans, and clover have a very cool thing going on underground. All plants need nitrogen, but they can only absorb it from the soil, not from the air where it’s most abundant. Legumes have come up with a creative solution: make homes on the surface of their roots for symbiotic bacteria. These bacteria take the nitrogen in the air pockets of the soil and fix it into a soluble form that plant roots can absorb. These little round nodules are where the magic happens:
All this is to say that beans make very good neighbors, especially for nitrogen-hungry plants. Indigenous farmers have recognized this since time immemorial, growing beans alongside corn and squash in three sisters plots. Lots of people have written about this. The relationships are beautifully traced in Braiding Sweetgrass, and some exact methods are described in Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden.
Beans come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and growing habits. Consider the height of each bean variety relative to its neighbors when you plan your garden. Many wonderful combinations are possible. Here’s what I’m growing this season, and where:
“Rockwell” and “Ireland Creek Annie” bush dry beans under dahlias
- “Provider” and “Empress” bush green beans under tomatoes
- “Withner’s True Cornfield”, a half-high pole bean which makes flat pods, under corn
- “Scarlet Runner” against tall fences and among tall blackberry canes
Beans also make a great beginner seed-saving project. All of the above except the scarlet runner belong to a single species, Phaseolus vulgaris, so it’s possible for them to breed with each other and produce unpredictable offspring. But because the flowers are mostly self-fertile, they rarely do. The Seed Garden (published by Seed Savers Exchange) recommends just 10-20 feet of isolation distance between varieties to keep each true to type.
Saving the seeds is as simple as allowing the pods to dry in place on the vines. When they’re golden-yellow, crispy, and make a slight rattling noise, they’re ready. You can harvest individual pods as they ripen, or cut the whole bean plant at the soil level. Don’t pull its roots up, or you’ll be robbing its companion of a final nitrogen boost before the end of the season.
To plant beans, I like to wake them up with a pleasant warm bath for a few hours. (An overnight soak seems to be too long, resulting in wrinkled seed coats and splitting seeds as they begin to decompose.) Then I take them outside and push them into the soil at the base of their companions with their belly-buttons facing down or sideways (never up). I give the companion plants a head start, waiting to plant the beans until they’ve got at least few sets of true leaves.
If you’re only planting a few beans and you can’t afford to lose any to the birds or bugs who are attracted to their fleshy cotyledons, you may want to take extra precautions. In her excellent book Backyard Bounty, Linda Gilkeson recommends pre-sprouting them in trays of vermiculite: “Every seed seems to germinate, and there is little risk of root rot as the vermiculite doesn’t hold excess water. The seedlings can grow for 2-3 weeks (until they are a couple of inches high) on the food stored in the seed, so they don’t need soil.” She recommends poking seeds an inch deep into damp vermiculite inside a plastic container with drainage holes in it, keeping them at room temperature until they germinate, and then giving them strong light in a windowsill or cold frame. When it’s time to plant them, it’s easy to disentangle their roots in the loose vermiculite.
I used to start my beans that way, but now I direct-sow them because I plant so many that I can afford to share with birds and bugs. Once you befriend beans, there’s no going back.
I’ll leave you with our family recipe for “Dilly Beans,” i.e. pickled green beans.
First, load pint jars with the following, in order:
- One grape leaf to line the bottom (this helps the beans stay crunchy)
- Two small cloves garlic
- One small serrano pepper (we now skip it in deference to our four-year-old, who doesn’t want his beans to be spicy)
- Half a teaspoon mustard seed
- Three or four peppercorns
- A small handful of fresh dill (seeds and leaves)
Then, pack in the beans as far as they’ll go, side by side and pointy-end down, so tightly that they squeak against each other. Cut off the stem end of the beans below the jar neck.
Last, bring the brine to a boil:
- Ten parts vinegar (white and brown mixed)
- Ten parts water
- One part canning salt
Ladle the hot brine into the jars on top of the beans. Add lids and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for ten minutes. I make these all summer long, and then we wait until Thanksgiving to pop open the first jar.