Dry Beans

Fall 2017
By the time these Orlando’s beans have ripened, the leaves of the supporting amaranth will have dropped to expose the dry pods. Photo by Will Bonsall

By Will Bonsall

Ordinarily I advise people with limited garden space not to focus on growing staple crops such as grain and oilseeds that are less expensive to buy and require less processing. That is, growing your own tomatoes, carrots and cabbage makes more sense than growing wheat and oats, if you can’t do everything. Dry beans may be an exception. They are a high-protein staple, which many vegans, like me, tend to view as a meat analog. Quality organic beans are relatively expensive to buy (typically $2 to $3 per pound), and you can grow a significant quantity, especially of pole varieties, in a limited area.


By beans I mean the common bean – varieties of Phaseolus vulgaris – and not such non-beans as fava beans, velvet beans, hyacinth beans and garbanzo beans (also called chickpeas, although not a pea either). I also omit soy, and even lima beans and runner beans, although the latter two are closely related to common beans, and most of my comments apply equally to them. Furthermore, I’m generally ignoring bean varieties grown for their green or yellow tender pods, although many of those do make decent dry beans, and vice versa. (Lowe’s Champion comes to mind.)

That leaves types generally used in soups or stews, baked or refried. In fact, any dry bean can be used for any of those purposes, but some are best suited for one or another. For example, New Englanders tend to favor yellow eyes, soldiers, pea beans or Jacob’s Cattle for baking; pintos are the traditional chili bean, although black beans and red kidneys are often used in regional variations; pintos are also preferred for refried beans due to their dry mealiness.

The so-called “shell bean” or “horticultural bean” types, picked when plump-seeded but not yet dry, are eminently suitable for dry use if you can’t keep up with them in the green-shell stage. They cook relatively quickly and retain some of the creaminess from the immature stage; in fact our favorite baker is a large, local heirloom pole horticultural type called Orlando’s.

Generally any ripe bean seed, even a green or wax variety, can be used for a dry or soup bean, but most are not particularly suited for that, especially those with glossy coats and long, skinny seeds (the better to fit into long skinny pods). When I plant green beans, I prefer varieties that also make nice dry beans, so that however many get by me (“has-beans”) needn’t go to waste.

While stores and seed catalogs offer a limited selection of dry bean varieties, seed-saving organizations such as the Grassroots Seed Network (grassrootsseednetwork.org) offer a dazzling assortment of colors, sizes and shapes. I have a few hundred myself. Most will mature easily in Maine if planted soon after the last frost – even pole beans, although some may crowd the season at the other end; that’s when varieties that work well as green-shell are especially useful. Some years when I’ve planted beans very late, say late June, and many were unripe at first frost, I’ve stripped those off, often a few pods per plant, and shelled them for canning or freezing. (I prefer the latter, and they cook up surprisingly fast.)

A few varieties are exceptionally early. I’ve planted Jacob’s Cattle, one of my favorites, as late as the solstice and harvested a full crop of ripe beans; and this is one of the more versatile varieties.

Soil Fertility

Dry beans have a low demand for nitrogen fertility since, as legumes, they harbor rhizobial bacteria that snatch nitrogen from the air. However, fertility is much more than nitrogen, and in this case the more important component of fertility is humus. For rhizobial bacteria to fix nitrogen from the air, air must be present, and abundant humus provides abundant air. Much of that humus may be derived from high-carbon residues such as straw or leaves.

I’ve often gotten reasonable results growing dry beans on newly broken sod. Much of the soil nutrient supply is tied up in the old sod, but beans are less affected by the dearth of available nutrients (which the decaying sod will release to enrich next year’s crops). The freshly tilled sod contains plenty of aerobic spaces to supply atmospheric nitrogen. Typically lacking, however, are enough available alkaline minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium needed for plant metabolism. Most experts recommend ground lime to raise pH (at the same time adding calcium), but that doesn’t grow on my land, and mining, grinding and transporting it to my land incurs more carbon expenditure than I’m willing to accept – especially when calcitic lime provides only the single mineral calcium. In fact my land does generate a lot of alkaline minerals in the form of wood ash from my heating and cooking fires. That too contains lots of calcium – and lots of potassium, magnesium, etc., and in a more balanced ratio. After all, ash is the residue of living land plants, not of fossil marine organisms.

Planting Methods

Some recommend planting potatoes as a companion crop for beans, as potatoes supposedly deter Mexican bean beetles while beans repel Colorado potato beetles. I’ve found this to be somewhat useful but by no means a panacea. Moreover, if you hill the potatoes by hoeing, you may damage the shallow bean roots; and if you “hill” potatoes with mulch (which allows you to put both crops closer together), you risk burying bean roots too deeply, although hay and straw mulch is very aerobic. I plant beans and potatoes separately from one another, although I’m always experimenting (even after 46 years).

The best way to boost bean yields is to use your garden’s vertical dimension. Although all commercially grown dry bean varieties are bush types – after all, they have to be reaped by combines – most dry bean varieties, and many of the finest flavored, are pole types. They’re slightly later but far more productive on a given footprint. Even some classic types are available in pole forms. For example I grow a pole bean called Roark, which is merely a pole pinto. (“Pinto” isn’t really a specific variety, but rather a type, like black beans.)

I don’t grow dry beans on poles when I’m also growing lots of sunflowers and amaranth (a Mexican grain variety that reaches 7-plus feet). Those crops serve well as “living poles” while also producing another food crop. I don’t get the same bean yield by companioning. In fact, the sunflowers and amaranth, which I tend to view as the primary crops, repress the bean vines by their shade. However, since the beans have no negative effect on the tall crops, whatever beans I get are gravy. I find that beans grown thus yield 75 percent of what they would on naked poles – on top of 100 percent of my primary crop!

Those crops must not be planted at the same time, or else the beans will be looking for something to climb when the sunflowers and amaranth are just getting going. Since beans cannot be sown before the last frost while the hardy sunflowers and amaranth should be started at least two to three weeks earlier, the timing should take care of itself. I drill the bean seeds around the primary crop when it is several inches tall.

Dry beans are usually sown unnecessarily far apart between rows to meet the needs of the tractor or rototiller, not the bean plants themselves. I put my rows 24 or even 18 inches apart and cultivate between rows with a wheel hoe or push cultivator; often I mulch with shredded leaves after the first cultivation and hilling. If I plant beans in hills 18 inches apart (three to four beans per hill), I can cultivate easily within the row. I do very little hand weeding; half the point of hilling is to bury small weeds before they become a problem. The sooner the bean plants form a dense canopy, the less weeds can compete.

Harvesting and Processing

To process mature bush beans, I pull the dead plants and pile them on a tarp for threshing. Sometimes I clip the plants instead of pulling to leave the nitrogen-rich root nodules in the soil and to keep the beans clean. Separating the soil is not a big deal, but sometimes tiny pebbles get caught in the bean roots and remain in the finished beans, even after threshing and winnowing. No amount of pre-soaking will make those pebbles cook up tender. For smaller crops I may just strip off the pods.

Using a home-made flail (see “Is There a Place for Wheat in Your Garden?” in the summer 2010 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener), I wale away at the pile until all the pods have shattered and the beans are in a dense heap at the bottom. These I scoop up and winnow by pouring them between two buckets in a gentle breeze.

Since a few pods, although ripe, always resist shattering due to a bit of residual moisture, I let the pile of once-threshed vines sit in the sun to finish drying. Within an hour I can re-thresh and get even more beans.

With pole beans I pick dry pods off the vines; later I shred the dead vines and compost them along with the supporting sunflower stalks. I either dump the beans into a large galvanized washtub to trounce with my feet or I stuff them into a burlap bag and beat them with a flail or just a stick.

Pest Control

Animals are a significant problem with all beans. Rabbits and hares are not around my area, and I can usually live-trap woodchucks, but deer are a nuisance. I have shot them in the past, but being a vegan who doesn’t consider them fit for food, I greatly prefer to exclude them. A single strand of electric tape-wire (woven plastic with fine wires enmeshed) about 3 feet high works nicely if I first “train” deer by stapling a scrap of aluminum foil smeared with peanut butter and grape jelly every 30 to 50 feet. As long as I maintain the battery and they lick the tabs, they soon decide that the nice old hippie isn’t so friendly after all, and maybe his fir browse is much tastier. After a couple of weeks, the deer usually lose interest, even with the power off.

Mexican bean beetles are a real pest in some years, much less in others. I watch for hatch-outs and dispatch them before they build up. Pole beans are especially vulnerable due to their greater “cover.”

Sometimes leafhoppers are a problem (much worse in my favas); for those I’ve used variously Pyganic or Safer’s Soap with garlic concentrate. The latter has the advantage of repelling rather than killing. (Yes, I kill things, but not wantonly.)

One More Thing …

I would be derelict if I did not discuss the property for which dry beans may be best known. Yes, the fear of flatulence keeps many a diner from partaking in as many beans as the taste buds might welcome. A pity, because the main remedy for intestinal gas is eating more, not fewer, beans. The human gut develops the microbial population best adapted to digest the food most commonly available to it. If that consists heavily of meat and low-fiber foods, then beans pose a real challenge, resulting in discomfort and lots of “chamber music.” However, I consume beans regularly and abundantly and am not aware of any fireworks (unless people are just being polite). Undercooking beans can create unpleasantness, and adding sugar (as in molasses baked beans) and acidic foods such as tomatoes before the beans are thoroughly tender will prolong the cooking time. Done right however, dry beans are a highly nutritious and practical food crop for the commercial grower or the home gardener alike.

About the author: Will Bonsall lives in Industry, Maine, where he directs Scatterseed Project, a seed-saving enterprise. He is the author of “Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical Self-Reliant Gardening” (Chelsea Green, 2015). You can contact Will at [email protected].

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