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New beans, old beans ... easy to grow, well worth it.

New beans, old beans . . . easy to grow, well worth it

If you haven't tasted fresh-picked home-grown snap beans, you're in for a tender, juicy, sweet surprise. Unlike fibrous commercial beans, which are bred mainly for sturdiness during shipping, the special varieties you can grow at home are never leathery. These new-world natives are easy to grow and come in a wide range of colors, shapes, and sizes. Along with old favorites such as `Blue Lake' and `Kentucky Wonder', seed companies every year offer new varieties and imports. In fact, catalogs offer so many choices of snap beans (also called green and string beans) that selection may at first be overwhelming. Choose from dozens of heirloom varieties, as well as delicate-tasting, gourmet French haricot vert "filets" (long, slender green beans). Many gardeners prefer the rich, beany taste of flat, Italian-type `Romano' and `Jumbo' beans. Yellow (wax), purple, and mottled kinds add color and variety to your garden and your cooking. Some gardeners swear by the good "bean" flavor of pole beans over bush types. Others say that new varieties of bush beans have caught up to and even surpassed pole beans in taste. If you have room in your garden, it makes sense to grow both bush and pole beans. Bush beans are easier to grow, since they don't need trellising. They produce early and abundantly for three to four weeks. For continuous harvest, you can make successive sowings every two to three weeks up until two to three months before the first frost. Pole types produce later and more slowly, but they continue for eight weeks or longer if the beans are picked regularly. Because they use vertical space, pole types are good for small gardens.

Look for key words in catalog descriptions to identify uses and tastes

If you're a first-time grower, try planting several varieties to determine your favorites. You can grow those regularly and experiment each year with one or two other types that intrigue you. Select from catalog descriptions according to what's important to you, such as cold tolerance (`Roc d'Or' and `Royal Burgundy' perform well in cooler soils), color (try mottled `Dragon Tongue' and `Wren's Egg', yellow `Goldkist' and `Roc d'Or', purple `Royal Burgundy'), earliness (`Provider' and `Venture' for short-season climates), and flavor and texture (choose from beany-flavored `Romano', crunchy `Blue Coco' and `Vernandon', stringless `Greencrop', and tender `Oregon Trail'). Some beans are better for specific uses. `Blue Lake', `Kentucky Wonder', `Oregon Trail', and `Slenderette' are good for eating fresh, freezing, and canning; French filet beans have superb qualities for eating fresh; `White Half-Runner' and `Wren's Egg' can be used for both green and shelled beans; and `Blue Coco', filet types, and `Mini Green' or `Mini Yellow' are good choices for pickling.

Don't rush planting

Although birds and snails can also cause spotty stands of bean plants, if you've had trouble germinating bean seeds, it's probably because you planted too early. The seeds will rot in cool, wet soil. Plant seeds after the soil has warmed to at least 60 [degrees] (to prevent rot, it helps to dust seeds with captan fungicide when soil temperatures are below 65 [degrees]). Also, covering soil with black plastic (punch holes for seedlings to come through) can help boost germination. At optimum soil temperatures of 70 [degrees] to 75 [degrees], seeds germinate within a week or so. Most bean varieties are also sensitive to air temperatures below 50 [degrees], which cause stunting and lower yields. Since temperatures often fluctuate in spring, use season extenders such as slitted plastic tunnels or floating row covers when necessary. Also, the cold-tolerant varieties mentioned above left may be in order. If the weather is cool while beans are forming, pods will have "skips" (missing seeds) and be distorted. In hot climates, spring and fall are the best bean-growing months, since flowers abort when temperatures are over 90 [degrees]. To help keep plants producing in hot weather, mulch the soil and keep it moist.

To avoid seed rot, preirrigate the soil

Choose a site in full sun with well-drained soil. To help prevent seed rot when soils are cool, soak soil thoroughly before planting, then hold off watering until seeds germinate. Because seeds are easily ruined, most growers don't recommend presoaking them to hasten germination. Many kinds of beans, like some other members of the legume family, can host soil bacteria that create nitrogen-rich nodules on their roots. This improves yields and soil fertility. However, through cross-breeding many varieties have lost that ability to fix nitrogen--and the varieties that haven't don't all work with the same strain of bacteria. Some catalogs suggest adding nitrogen-fixing bacteria as a soil inoculant, but inoculants don't include all strains. While only some bean plants benefit from the use of inoculants, all plants benefit from a fertilizer containing nitrogen. You can mix it in before planting, or apply a 2-inch-deep band of fertilizer several inches from a row of seed.

For bush beans, sow seeds 1 inch deep, spaced 2 to 4 inches apart in rows 18 to 24 inches apart (or two rows in a 3-foot-wide raised bed). Thin to 4 to 6 inches apart. Reseed areas that don't germinate; they usually catch up with the older plants.

For pole beans, you can train them up string, a trellis, or large-mesh wire fencing or nylon netting strung between poles. Sow seeds 1 inch deep, spaced 3 to 4 inches apart in rows 3 to 4 feet apart. Thin to 6 to 8 inches apart. Or plant four to five seeds in hills spaced 3 feet apart, and let them climb up rough wooden poles. For either kind, protect seeds and seedlings from birds and snails. Cover rows with bird netting; hand-pick snails in the evening or early morning, or use a bait that is safe around vegetables.

Harvest when young and tender

Many of the new bean varieties stay tender longer, and interior seeds don't enlarge quickly. But to keep plants flowering and producing, harvest every three days or so. Most types of French filet beans must be picked when less than 1/4 inch thick or they get tough and stringy. Since they're very productive over a fairly short time, you need to harvest every other day.

Diseases and pests can inhibit growth

Unless they're labeled in catalogs as resistant, beans are susceptible to a number of diseases. Halo blight is a problem in cool, wet climates; leaves look bleached yellow. Viruses cause stunting, and mottled yellow and green leaves cup downward. But many varieties outgrow early problems if plants are well watered and fertilized. To avoid spreading disease, don't work in the bean patch when leaves are wet. Always remove and discard severely infected plants. At the end of the season, discard any mildly infected plants. Rotate crops every year and don't replant beans there for three years. Spider mites can be serious pests during warm, dry weather. Rinse the undersides of the leaves regularly and spray with insecticidal soap if necessary. Cucumber beetles (green and black insects that look similar to ladybugs) can damage the foliage and beans if they build up to large numbers. Sprays usually aren't necessary; however, if damage is severe, control with pyrethrum, rotenone, or carbaryl.

Where to buy special varieties

Most nurseries sell a good assortment of bean seeds. But for the best selection of varieties--including unusual heirloom and European types.

PHOTO : Hidden beneath leaves, first bush bean crop is ready to harvest. Straw keeps soil moist

PHOTO : Strong twine, attached to eyescrews on crossbeams, supports `Wren's Egg' pole beans.

PHOTO : Sturdy posts support structure
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Date:Apr 1, 1990
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