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Growing Beans: A Complete Guide to Plant, Grow and Harvest Beans

Steph Coelho

Steph is a certified Square Food Gardening Instructor who has been gardening for more than 10 years in Canada where the winters are long and cold, and the summers are unpredictable. She is a volunteer for her community's Incredible Edible project. In the past she created an educational gardening space for seniors and taught classes at a local community center where she created her own curriculum and activities. She participated in several local municipal garden days where she set up a booth to educate citizens about the joy of gardening.

I love growing beans. One plant provides ample produce, and harvesting them is like a treasure hunt. Just when I think the plant is done, I head outside and find more hidden pods ripe for the taking. The plants are sturdy and low-maintenance. They’re an excellent companion for many other vegetables in the garden, and they are delectable!

If you’re gardening with children, beans are ideal. Hunting for fresh pods under the foliage is a fun activity for the family. I’ll admit, I have fun with harvesting beans even as an adult.

Different bean varieties have unique flavor profiles and can add color to the garden. They deliver plenty of nutrition for the dinner plate, too, whether you eat them steamed, in soups, roasted, or refried. Beans are a staple vegetable in my garden, and every year I love to try new varieties.

If you are new to growing beans, or want to know how to make them grow better, this guide will get you going.

How to Plant Beans

All types of beans should be sown after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to at least 50 F. (10 C.). Sow all beans except cowpea, yard-long and lima one inch (2.5 cm.) deep in heavy soil or an inch and half (4 cm.) deep in light soil. The other three types of beans should be planted a half inch (1 cm.) deep in heavy soil and an inch (2.5 cm). deep in light soil. Cover the seeds with sand, peat, vermiculite or aged compost to prevent soil crusting.

Plant bush bean seeds 2-4 inches (5-10 cm.) apart in rows that are 2-3 feet (61-91 cm.) apart and plant pole beans in either rows or hills with seeds 6-10 inches (15-25 cm.) apart in rows that are 3-4 feet (approximately 1 meter or so) apart. Provide support for pole beans as well.

Growing pole beans gives you the advantage of maximizing your space, and the beans grow straighter and are easier to pick. Bush-type bean plants need no support, require little care, and can be picked whenever you are ready to cook or freeze them. They typically produce an earlier crop too, so successive plantings may be necessary for a continual harvest.

Growing beans, regardless of type, do not need supplemental fertilizer but they do need consistent irrigation, especially while budding and on into setting pods. Water bean plants with an inch of water per week depending upon weather conditions. Water in the morning so the plants can dry rapidly and avoid fungal disease.

Runner Beans

Runner beans belong to the species coccineus and therefore will not cross with common garden beans or with lima beans. The Spaniards were the first to see runner beans in the New World and the first to introduce them into Europe. The French name for runner bean, haricots d’Espagne, recognizes this path of introduction. However, in old German herbals, runner beans are often called Arabische Bohnen (Arab beans), since the first specimens came into German botanical collections by way of Turkey. Runner beans take their name from the fact that they are vigorous climbers, and unlike most beans, wrap themselves counter-clockwise around poles or stakes.

Runner beans are known to have been introduced into England in 1633 by John Tradescant, gardener to Charles I. Tradescant knew four sorts, a red-flowering variety, a bicolor (red and white), a white-flowering sort, and a black-seeded one. These early introductions have been equated with the varieties now known as Scarlet Runner, Painted Lady, White Dutch, and Black Coat respectively. Black Coat was mentioned specifically by German botanist Michael Titus in his Catalogues Plantarum (1654), so there is no doubt about the age of this variety. Its flowers are a distinctive orange-red.

The commonest culinary runner bean on the Continent was the white, in England the scarlet sorts. In this country the scarlet runner bean was normally raised as an ornamental, while the white sorts were used in cookery. For American gardeners lima beans supplanted the runner bean as a kitchen garden vegetable except in areas where limas were difficult to grow. Runner beans of all sorts are generally used as shelly beans, and when cooked in this manner, they resemble fresh limas. The pods toughen as they mature, but if harvested young, they can be used like snap beans. In fact, the Gardener’s Magazine (1830, 177) recommended shredding them and salting them down to make a type of sauerkraut. The old Pennsylvania Dutch method was to “whittle” the beans diagonally into long shreds called Schnipple, hence the Pennsylvania Dutch name for the bean kraut: Schnippelbuhne. The Germans did this with the white varieties and called the pickle Sauerbohnen. Whatever, it is much milder than sauerkraut and can even be served with fish.

Georg von Martens (1869, 82) devoted considerable space to the white runner bean because of its importance in European kitchen gardens. He collected samples from many regions and recorded their local names: haricot de Sainte Magdaleine in Algeria, judias blancas in Spain, fagiolo da brodo in Naples, and fasolone in Apulia, to name just a few. Sorting out the many existing varieties can be daunting, but for the heirloom gardener, the four sorts known to John Tradescant can be cultivated with certain reassurance that they were known in this country at least by the eighteenth century. Of course, it is presumed that runner beans were raised here in the seventeenth century, although documentation is lacking. It is true, however, that their culinary merits were not noticed in England until the 1750s, which would account for the lag of interest on this side of the Atlantic.

Nineteenth-century American cookbook author Eliza Leslie often mentioned the scarlet runner bean as a worthwhile vegetable, from which we may assume that it was probably not completely familiar to all her readers. She took care to explain how to cook the pods in her Directions for Cookery (1851, 197). Or should I say, overcook them?

Scarlet Beans Recipe

It is not generally known that the pod of the scarlet bean, if green and young, is extremely nice when cut into three or four pieces and boiled. They will require near two hours, and must be drained well, and mixed as before mentioned with butter and pepper. If gathered at the proper time when the seed is just perceptible, they are superior to any of the common beans.

Runner beans are not difficult to grow, but they do have certain peculiarities that can be considered advantageous on the one hand and inconvenient on the other. The beans are native to the highlands of Central America and therefore are not only day-length sensitive but, more important, prefer cool weather. If they are planted soon enough in the spring, the vines will begin flowering before the onset of summer, thus assuring a crop of seed. Long periods of hot weather cause the flowers to drop and not set pods in many parts of the United States, flowering ceases in July and August. In areas of the country where summer evenings are cool, runner beans will bloom profusely throughout the season, just as they do in England.

In their native habitat, runner beans are perennial. They develop a thick tuberous root that can be lifted in the fall and stored like a dahlia. This feature was well understood by gardeners even in the 1600s, but literature on the technique is more recent. English horticulturist John Cuthill published an essay, “On Taking up the Roots of the Scarlet Runner in the Autumn,” in the Gardener’s Magazine 1834, 315, and his advice is still useful today. Lifting the roots, as shown in the drawing, has two advantages. Vines from tubers produce more abundant crops of beans than those raised annually from seed Furthermore, the tubers can be started in pots early in the spring, either in a cold frame or in a greenhouse, and thus the plants will have a head start when they are set out and flowering many weeks in advance of newly started vines. These points are particularly important where runner beans are being raised as a food crop.

For seed saving, keep in mind that runner beans have large flowers attractive to bees. Of all the beans in the garden, runner beans are mostly likely to cross if planted in proximity. I would recommend growing only one variety at a time, or at most two varieties widely separated and of entirely different seed color. Planting flowers nearby that are attractive to bees will help reduce the likelihood of crosses if there are other runner beans in the neighborhood. Seeds are gathered from the dry pods in the fall. Their viability is about three years.

I have included this under runner beans because it is treated like a runner bean when cultivated as a food crop. However, this bean is a different genus and species from all the other beans in this book and therefore will not cross with them. But it will cross with other lablab species. Unlike the runner bean, which is a New World plant, the hyacinth bean hails from tropical Asia and thrives on heat.

Visitors to Monticello are usually astounded by the grand display made by this bean when it is allowed to run over arbors the way Thomas Jefferson preferred to cultivate it. The purple flowers and seed pods are ornamental from any standpoint, and the dark purple leaves only add to its striking character. I have yet to learn why it is the Venetians call these beans moneghine, which means “little nuns” and seems ill-suited to the showiness of the plant. But perhaps it has to do with the seed, which is black and white. The young purple seed pods are edible and commonly consumed in Asia. In America, however, the bean is grown mostly as an ornamental.

Matthias de l’Obel illustrated a white variety of hyacinth bean in his Plantarum seu Stirpium (1591) under the name Phaseolus brasilianus, mistakenly interpreted as a runner bean even though the seed is clearly a Dolichos. Bernard M’Mahon sold the Purple Hyacinth Bean as early as 1802, but the plants were raised in the United States mostly by wealthy plant collectors like William Hamilton of Philadelphia and the scientifically curious like Thomas Jefferson. It is a telling comment on the popularity of the bean that it did not appear until 1824 in Edward’s Botanical Register (#830), and then only with a note that it was mostly raised from imported seed. This bean will not produce flowers in England unless raised in a greenhouse. I have found that of all the varieties of hyacinth bean now available, only the purple one of this sketch does best in my part of the country. The white-flowering, green-podded variety available from some seed houses does not bloom in Pennsylvania, and I do not recommend it to gardeners outside California or the subtropical parts of the country. Its growing season is simply too long.

Hyacinth beans may be cultivated like runner beans because they too require trellising or a fence to grow on. Hyacinth beans are also perennial, but short-lived. Therefore, they cannot be dug up and overwintered in the same manner. Saving seed is the best method of propagation. The secret is to start the plants early in large flowerpots, get them well on their way, then set them out when the weather is warm enough to plant tomatoes. Seeds are saved from the dry pods in the fall. Seed viability appears to be about three years.

Warning: The dry seeds of the Hyacinth Bean contains cyanogenic glucosides in toxic amounts. Asians treat the beans to remove the toxins, but for safety’s sake, I would recommend not eating the dry beans unless you are perfectly familiar with the cooking process. Be absolutely certain that the seeds do not fall into the hands of small children who might swallow them. The toxins work much more powerfully on children than on adults.

Read more: Uncover the history of heirloom bean varieties in Heirloom Spotlight: The History of Beans, and get more expert gardening advice on growing bean varieties in Grow These Heirloom Bean Varieties.

Find seeds for these heirlooms and more with our Custom Seed and Plant Finder.

Buy the brand new e-book of Weaver’s gardening classic in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Heirloom Vegetable Gardening.

Photos and Illustrations Courtesy William Woys Weaver.

How to Grow Bush Type Beans

Once bush beans have started growing, they need little care. Make sure that they get at least 2-3 inches (5 to 7.5 cm.) of water, either from rainwater or a watering system, a week. If you would like, you can add compost or fertilizer after the bush beans have sprouted, but if you started out with organic rich soil they do not need it.

Bush beans do not normally have any issues with pests or disease but on occasion they will suffer from the following:

Pests such as aphids, mealybugs, bean beetles and bean weevils can be a problem too.

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