Saving Heirloom Bean Seeds—How You Can Help ........... by Bill Best
Over the years that I have been saving and collecting heirloom beans, I have often noticed that they have been saved, sometimes for generations, in a somewhat mixed form. For example, the bean, which I am calling the NT (Non Tough) Half-Runner, came to me some years ago as three distinct beans in one. One was a long, plump, exceptionally tender, half runner. The second bean was a cut-short, and the third was a semi-greasy about two inches long. For three years I tried to separate the three beans into their respective types when I harvested them for seed saving, but I was having no luck. They still grew back the following year in their mixed form. Finally I lucked out. The fourth year only one planted bean survived in a trellis around sixteen feet long which was the end section of a row about 200 feet long (The others in that section of row drowned out due to excessive rains and I didn’t replant that portion of row because of continued rains.
I took good care of that one bean vine and it thrived, eventually took up most of the trellis, produced 286 bean pods, and nearly a pound of seed. To my good fortune, it was the bean I was trying most to separate from the other two. The following year I planted most of those beans and saved most of them for seed, eating one mess of green beans and sharing a few seeds with some growers who had earlier traded seeds with me. I also sold a few pounds at farmers’ markets to test consumer responses. Those responses were uniformly positive with many saying it was the best bean they had ever eaten. Finally, after this past summer, I now have enough seed beans to share with others—all descended from that one plant.
In contrast, my Aunt Bertie’s bean (Bertie Best bean in the “bean catalog”) has existed in its present form for at least 130 years. It is a greasy bean which is also an excellent bean for drying into shuck beans which are also known as shucky beans, leather britches, and at times in the past, fodder beans. It comes in three colors: About ninety percent are white beans, about six percent are tan, and the remaining four percent are black. To my knowledge, no one has ever tried to separate these beans, and since they are from my family, I will adhere to tradition. I might also add that some of the older people thought that the black and brown beans were what they called “pollinator beans.”
Another phenomenon that I have noticed over the years is that of mutant beans. I have had a few of them myself and have worked with one in particular. Close to thirty years ago I planted some brown greasy beans given to me at the Lexington, Kentucky Farmers’ Market by a man from Cincinnati. He had grown up in Harlan County, Kentucky but, as so many Mountaineers have done, had kept his family beans when he moved to the city. Since I received the beans late in the season, I planted a few of them just to see if they would mature in time for me to save seed. There were no other beans close enough to cross-pollinate with them and they did mature in time for me to save seeds.
While almost all the beans looked just like the ones I had planted, there was one exception. One plant was quite different: It matured earlier than the others and had much larger beans than the other beans from that planting. It was also a white bean, and I had not planted any white beans. I picked the beans and didn’t shell them out so that I would be sure they didn’t get mixed in one of my freezers with some of my other white beans. I put them, still in their dried hulls, in an airtight bag and left them for over fifteen years. Finally, I decided to shell them out and plant them to see what I had on my hands. Due to wet ground, I only had nineteen of sixty-one beans survive, but the bean turned out to be an excellent one. The bean had come back in the same form. We ate one meal, were convinced that it was an excellent addition to our collection, and planted most of the remaining seeds the following summer. It continued to breed true and I gave it a name: I called it the Robe Mountain Bean, naming it for the mountain behind my house. It is a very tender bean, about nine to twelve inches long, and strings easily.
I tell these stories in order to welcome newcomers to the world of growing heirloom beans and saving their seeds. The process is both intriguing and challenging and, I might add, delicious. Commercial beans, which have been genetically manipulated to be tough and tasteless, are no match for the heirlooms and seem to be getting tougher and more tasteless with each passing year.
With my current collection of around 275 varieties of heirloom beans (January 2005), collected over many years, I think I can offer some observations that might be helpful to those wishing to get started:
Don’t expect heirloom beans to be pure each time you purchase or are given some. At times they have existed for decades or longer as a collection of two or more beans. If you don’t enjoy tedious work, you can just leave them as they are and continue to grow them as they came to you, as I have done with my Aunt Bertie’s bean. If you enjoy a challenge, you might do as I have been doing with the bean I am calling the NT half runner. (I still have to separate out and stabilize the other two beans.)
Be on the lookout for mutations. Many of the beans that have been shared with me are family heirlooms, starting out in someone’s garden as a mutation, and then grown for generations. As several people have told me: “This bean appeared in my grandma’s garden and she was intrigued by it. She grew it the following summer, and it came back true. She continued to grow it during her lifetime and named it _______(fill in the blank). It has always been known by that name since that time. It is a good bean for eating fresh or canning or making leather britches.” Variations of this story have been told to me several times, and I’m confident that many, if not most, family beans came about through mutations.
Guard against letting your beans become contaminated by commercial beans containing the tough gene. It is generally recognized that commercial beans were toughened so that they wouldn’t break during mechanical harvest. The toughening also served the purpose of lengthening shelf life. Of course, the toughening process made some sacrifices necessary. We are now admonished not let to “let the lumps appear within the hulls as that may make them stringy”. Of course, the lumps they are talking about are the seeds—the protein part of the bean. If you grow heirloom beans and commercial beans in the same garden, you are putting the heirloom beans at risk. Another bean company says that its “beans are grass-like”. If this were true, why grow beans at all? Why not just mow your lawn and put the clippings in the pot for supper? Nearly all admonish that “beans should be picked while young and tender”. We are never told that beans should never get tough. But if for any reason you must grow commercial beans, put them as far away as possible to avoid crossing with your heirlooms. This is especially true in areas with a lot of bumble bees which are very aggressive with bean blossoms.
Never plant all of your beans of a particular variety. Save a few in case of a crop failure. Several people have been made happy by my collection. After sharing their beans with me, for one reason or another they lost their own seed and had to come back to me to replenish their stock.
When you are saving your seed, try to save those that appear to be most true to form. If you are growing a multi-seeded heirloom and wish to separate it into its component parts, grow a few beans with each being in relative isolation and save the seeds of each differing kind. Plant them again the following year to see if they are staying true to type. This is tedious work but can pay big dividends. It is not too difficult to experiment with two or three each summer. Also, if your first beans are planted early enough, you can have a second crop by planting the freshly picked bean seeds right back into the soil and gain a season in the process.
Finally, as soon as you are comfortable growing heirloom beans, start sharing them with other growers in order to keep these rare beans in circulation. Swap seeds with other growers of heirlooms and attend gardening club meetings and trade shows where it is possible to swap or sell them to other growers. If you grow for farmers’ markets, they can soon become your best sellers as they have been for me for over thirty years. I now have many customers who had never eaten an heirloom bean before they bought them from me who have sworn off commercial varieties altogether.
One note of caution: As heirloom beans are gaining in popularity, some seed companies are trying to exploit what they see as a lucrative trend. Get to know beans about beans. Greasy beans don’t have the fuzz on the outside of the hull that other beans have. They are slick in appearance—hence greasy. Cut-shorts are crowded in the hull and tend to square off on the ends. They are cut short. Heirloom beans can be one, both, or neither. Some seed companies use greasy and cut-short interchangeably. I, personally, do not know of a single commercial company selling a genuine greasy bean.