Beans, the Multi-talented Vegetable
by Sara McCamant, CSE volunteer and Ceres Garden Manager
(This was originally published as an iGrow.Sonoma.org blog post from June 2014.)
I love beans, and I love all the different ways you can enjoy them. It is not too late to plant a patch of beans if you haven’t gotten to it. I do three successions of green beans to keep eating them into late fall. There are lots of different types and lots of different stages of growth when you can harvest and eat beans. I thought I would describe them all so you might expand your bean horizons.
The first thing to know is that there are bush and pole beans. Bush beans only grow about 16-24 inches tall and do not need support; they produce most of their beans in a relatively short period and then are done. They are great if you want to have enough at one time to freeze them. Pole beans can grow 5-9 feet tall; they tend to produce smaller amounts over a longer time. I think pole beans are better for a small garden as you can eat them over many weeks. They need fairly tall trellising to support them. There is actually a third type, called half runners; they are mostly in the dry bean category and they grow about 3 feet tall and can use a short support system or trail on the ground.
There are different colors of bean pods: green, yellow, purple, and a few that have a mixture of colors. And there are hundreds of combinations of colors in the dry bean world.
There are also many different types of green beans — really they are different types of shape and texture of the bean pod.
The traditional green bean tends to be between 5 and 7 inches long. You harvest them for green beans before you can see or feel a bean forming inside the pod — they tend to be woody if you let them get older.
Filet beans are a delicacy. You harvest them when they are very thin — as soon as they get bigger they don’t taste good. They need to be picked regularly.
Romano beans are one of my favorites. They are flat instead of round, and they tend to get quite large — sometimes ½ inch across and 8 to 9 inches long. They taste good even when they are large, which is different from the other types.
Wax beans are yellow and have a bit of a waxy feel to them. They are picked like the traditional green bean.
Runner beans are a completely different type of bean. They are always pole (or half pole) beans and produce large flat bean pods. The pods are edible but not as tender as other beans.
You can eat beans at different stages of the bean development. Some varieties are for a specific stage: Blue Lake beans, for example, are green beans; Petaluma Gold Rush beans are a dry bean. Some can be used at all three stages: green, shelling and dry.
The green bean stage is obvious — but it is good to know how big the pods can be allowed to get before they taste bad.
Shelling beans are the fresh eating stage of the actual bean, not the bean pod. You let the bean develop and harvest them when there is a substantial bean or as the pods begin to fade. After shelling, the beans can be cooked briefly in hot water or, if really fresh, sautéed.
Dry beans are what we think of as pinto or black beans. You let the bean dry on the plant and shell them and store them dry for cooking later. They need to soak before cooking and usually have a fairly long cooking time.
Almost all beans can be eaten as a dry bean, but many beans are not good as a green bean. That means that if you have forgotten to harvest your green beans, and you have a bunch of over-mature pods, you can shell them and use them that way. And if you forgot to harvest them and they have dried, shell them, soak them, and cook up some chili or bean salad.
I highly recommend trying some dry beans if you have space. A small patch of pole beans can produce quite a few beans for later eating. All beans are really beautiful when they are dry, so it is really rewarding to shell them. Dry beans need longer time in the garden so they can dry completely. In early June you can still get a crop of green beans in — and probably a crop of dry beans also, especially a bush variety.
What else to plant now: You can also think about planting successions of cucumbers, summer squash and basil. I look for a cooler week and plant carrots and beets for an early fall harvest.
You should be harvesting your garlic about now if you haven’t already. You want to pull it out as the leaves start to brown. Then find a dry, warm place out of the sun, to let it cure for a few weeks. Then either braid it or clean it up and use it.
Enjoy the Solstice!