One of the biggest problems for new gardeners and experienced ones alike concerns planting seeds. For many years gardening publications have instructed people to “sow” bean seeds. And mechanical planters have been designed to plant bean seeds much closer than corn seeds, for example. Seed catalogs often tell of how many pounds of bean seeds it will take to plant a given distance of row. And this leads many people to think in terms of pounds when ordering seeds.
While this may not work for everyone, we have found that planting two beans seeds together every eighteen inches works best. Planting two seeds together allows the young plants to break from the surface of the soil together and avoid breaking their backs or necks as they emerge from the soil. This is especially true in heavier clay soils.
Timing of planting also is important: Many people of the Southern Appalachians plant by the signs. I am one of them, having been taught by my gardening neighbors many years ago when I watched their bean harvests exceed mine. They were planting when the signs were in the arms (Gemini) and having real success. I started doing the same thing and began to have success as well, even more than my neighbors. One told me that since my soil was better than hers was, my crop should be better.
If you are expecting a soaking rain it is not a good time to rush out and plant your bean seeds. It would be better to wait until after the rain and barely scratch the soil to drop in your seeds. A soaking rain just after seeds are planted tightens the soil and makes it harder for the sprouting beans to break through the surface.
Two plants, or even one, every eighteen inches allows each plant room to send out side shoots and when properly trellised, such plants will form a virtual wall of vines and leaves difficult to see through, almost resembling Kudzu. This also allows plenty of sunshine to reach the leaves of the plants. I have found that such plants also seem to have a lot more vigor than plants closer together. As an extreme example, a few years ago I had one vine use nearly all of 18 feet of trellis, produce 286 bean pods and nearly a pound of seed. That plant was my original NT Half-Runner plant. Other plants in that section of trellis had drowned out, but the surviving one, on a little higher ground at the end of the row, showed what one plant can do.
Another extreme example was when we had about a week of rain a few years ago and I just placed my bean seeds on top of the ground. Nearly 100 percent germinated and produced an excellent crop. The moral of the story is not to make germination difficult. Loose warm and moist soil is best for germination, but we don’t always have that. Seeds an inch deep in moist warm soil will usually produce good germination.
Beans are not supposed to cross since pollination occurs prior to the bloom opening. And Bumblebees are not supposed to be able to fly because of the way their bodies are constructed. However bumblebees do fly and can rip open a bean blossom while pollination is taking place, and cross pollination can and does sometimes occur. We have found that Goose Beans in particular are prone to cross and we recommend they be grown in as much isolation as possible if you intend to save seeds of this variety. On the other hand, some varieties seem not to cross at all.
Supporting Bean Vines:
All but two of our heirloom beans are vining ones that require support of some type. That support has traditionally been provided by corn stalks. However, many people no longer plant corn in their gardens and, even if they do, modern hybrid corns, both sweet and field, usually have big ears and weak stalks unable to support bean vines. (For those still wanting to try growing beans in corn, one of the many heirloom corn varieties could be used.)
Instead of using corn stalks many people now use poles instead which works well in many respects. Often used in teepee style, the poles can be of several heights and produce heavily. A down side of poles can be storm damage, especially during heavy winds when the poles can be flattened with heavy vines and poles tangled up.
This has led to many people constructing trellises for their beans. Some use cattle fencing panels supported by steel T-posts. Such panels can be placed two high and be very strong in adverse weather. They can then be taken down at the end of the summer and used over and over.
What I have found to be the most cost effective and efficient way of trellising beans is to have six inch posts spaced about 18 feet apart with the top of the posts being as high as I can comfortably reach. I then put high tensile wire across the top of the posts from one end of the row to the other. I use commercial tomato twine stretched tightly across the bottom of the posts at a height of about eight to twelve inches. I then use the same type of tomato twine to create a trellis between the wire on top and the tight string on the bottom. (See photos of bean trellises in our photo album.)
Posts need to be anchored on each end of the row so the rows don’t begin to sag as the vines become heavy with vines and beans. Posts can be bought from farm stores but, locust, cedar and sassafras posts can be used just as effectively if available. I have found sassafras posts to be both lightweight and very long lasting.
Another way of trellising is to use bean towers created out of concrete reinforcing wire with one stacked on top of the other. They can be different diameters but eighteen inches to two feet seem to work well for those people I know who use them. Such towers do need to be supported by a couple of strong stakes to avoid being toppled by high winds.
My own bean towers are constructed by using a bicycle wheel on top of fifteen foot high cedar posts with strings trailing downward from the wheel attached to two foot sections of rebar driven into the ground about a foot. I use these when I am trying to get as much production as possible from a new bean I am growing for the first time and where I have very few seeds. Many climbing beans will climb for twenty feet or more if given support. A dozen strings can easily be attached to one wheel without crowding. The important thing to remember is that cornfield beans can yield heavily and a little extra care can help that yield significantly.
Commercial seed catalogs warn gardeners who grow beans to “Pick while young and tender.”, “Don’t let lumps (seeds) appear in your beans.”, and “Our beans are grass like.” These warnings are to be taken seriously since, once the seeds appear in most commercial beans, they are too tough to eat. They have been bred to be tough and straight so they won’t break during mechanical harvest.
It is not too far fetched to say that our recommendations are the opposite since heirloom beans, at least those of the Southern Appalachians, are typically harvested at the “full” stage, that is when the seeds within the hulls have reached near full maturity. We of the Southern Appalachians have depended on our beans to be a protein food, one that “sticks to one’s ribs”. (For further information on this, read the article “Bean Terminology".)
The most important part of growing heirloom beans is getting ready for the following planting season by saving seeds. Once considered just a part of the natural order of things, seed companies took over that role in the minds of many people. That could be good if those same companies had kept selling the beans of our past, but the definition of the word “bean” itself has largely been changed just to mean just the bean hull and nothing else. The modern bean, as defined, is essentially protein free.
For those who would like to save their own seeds, and we hope that most of you do, these suggestions are presented:
Allow the pods you intend to save to reach full maturity on the vine. Once the pods have started to turn yellow, the pods can be harvested and then put somewhere to finish drying out. If no rain threatens, the pods can be left on the vines until they have dried significantly and then be removed to allow further drying in an area where they will not be rained upon. If the pods are left on the vines too long, the pods may darken and, if it rains further, the seeds may even sprout within the hulls. (If that happens, the seeds are not salvageable unless one has enough growing time to plant them in the soil right away.) In other words, timing is important if one wants to have good looking and viable seeds. A small amount of staining doesn’t hurt germination, but it is always good to save seeds at the right time if possible.
We have been collecting heirloom bean seeds of the Southern Appalachians for decades. Many of them are regional beans and fairly well known, but the vast majority are family heirlooms that have been in extended families for generations. We do not always acquire them in a pure form so you might find some beans in your garden that do not appear to be true to form. When you are saving seeds try to save the seeds of the plants that appear to be most true to form. On the other hand, if you have a plant that is notably different from all the others, you might wish to save it separately since it might be a true breeding cross or mutation. Such is the way new varieties come about. (I am always on the lookout for such plants.)
It is also important to note that some heirloom beans have been in a mixed form for generations with little effort being made to separate them into individual varieties.
We have found it best to store seeds in a freezer or refrigerator in airtight containers. If allowed to become too warm, seeds might become infested with bean weevils, and this can become a serious problem quickly. While the older ways of preserving bean seeds with hot peppers or mothballs still works, freezing them can keep them viable for decades. I have had good luck with germinating beans that have been frozen for 35 years and have no doubt that they would still germinate for many more years.