Bountiful Beans, Part II: Common Beans
Updated: Apr 14
Every winter, seed catalogues arrive in our mailbox: beacons of hope in the midst of bleakness. One of the most diverse and tempting categories in every catalog is the section for common beans, jam-packed with varieties, each one sounding better than the last. There are so many common bean options available that it is hard to resist each new type. The one factor that holds me in check is our seed-saving restriction. Because we want to save pure varieties, we only grow one type of bean from each species we choose. This means that there will be one type of runner bean (which you can read about here), one type of common bean, and one type from the cowpea/yard long family (Yard Long Beans). The geodesic greenhouse provides enough separation distance that we are able to choose two common bean varieties: one to grow inside the dome and another to plant in the outside gardens. Those that are started in the dome will precede the others by several months, because they are planted with the The First Green of Spring.
The first requirement in choosing a variety is that it must be a pole bean. In the pursuit of growing as much of our own food as possible, we prioritize intensive planting that allows many different types of food to be grown in a relatively small space. Our arid summer climate necessitates irrigation for growth; the most effective watering arrangement places plants in guilds with tall and short species sharing the same space. (Note: The root zones of the plants need to use different spaces, just as the above-ground growth does.) Because pole beans use vertical space and have a very small root zone footprint, they easily fit into the garden landscape between a stand of corn and a bed of potatoes. The beans will grow more quickly than either the corn or potatoes, giving them time to take in full sun before they have competition.
Two common beans we have trialed were the traditional Kentucky Wonder and standard Blue Lake pole beans. We were thoroughly impressed with the vigor of the Kentucky Wonders as well as their prolific production. However, the absolute necessity of removing strings made them inconvenient when mixed with the other bean crops coming in from the field. The Blue Lakes performed well in the greenhouse, but their production dropped off as soon as the warm weather began (partly due to pest pressure from heat-loving mites).
Our hunt for the perfect greenhouse beans will continue, but our current favorite is Fortex beans from Territorial Seed Company. They were quick to begin setting and produced long tender beans without even a hint of a string. Last season’s yield wasn’t as substantial as we had hoped, but that was due to the planting location; they were shaded by vigorous pea vines.
Our absolute favorite outdoor common bean variety so far has been Golden Gate Roma beans, also from Territorial Seed Company. The beans go into the ground as soon as it is warm enough to give them a good start. Earwigs and slugs love bean shoots. If the primary leaves (cotyledons) are eaten off, they will not regrow. The best defense against inevitable pest pressure on bean plantings is to plant extra beans expecting to lose a portion of them.
As the Golden Gates twine around the fencing that separates the corn bed from the potatoes, they show themselves to be vigorous and quick to bloom. Each pure white, scoop-shaped blossom stands apart on its own delicate stem. They set a thick curtain of pale-yellow beans, fruiting best during the warm weeks of early to midsummer. Although the product description says that they can grow up to an inch wide before being picked, we find that we like them best when they are in the ½- to ¾-inch range with a sweeter and more tender flavor. Because they have thick pods that hold their shape well, they are especially well suited to canning. When the scorching weeks of late summer come, their growth slows and the beans will sometimes develop a tough exterior before they reach their full size. (The best way to tell if they are toughening is to snap one in half. It should have a smooth, clean break. If there are diagonal fibers hanging onto the edges of the break, it will probably be tough.) By this time the heat-loving yard long beans are beginning to produce, and the procession of harvests marches on.
Golden Gates are relatively easy to save for seed. As the end of the season approaches, we select one cluster from each planting group and allow them to mature past the tender stage on to toughness and eventually to a brittle shell. Most green beans can be picked and allowed to dry any time after the exterior has begun fading to yellow. Since the Golden Gates are initially yellow, we watch for them to darken to light orange at the seams before they are picked. If the weather cooperates, they can just be left right on the vine until they are completely dry.
As tempting as each new variety of common bean is, the Golden Gate Romas are in our lineup to stay. With their vigorous spring growth and abundant summer production they have earned their place in this bountiful garden.
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