{Planning the Garden 2013} Homegrown Dry Beans

home grown turtle beans
home grown turtle beans

While the debate about gun control rages around us, we are quietly getting ready for the zombie apocalypse by planning our garden instead of amassing weapons.  I am not a survivalist, but I do like the idea of being able to eat a nutritionally balanced diet out of our garden in case there is a short blip of social chaos.  I might choose to tough it out at home, eating our own food rather than immediately succumbing to the disaster at hand. Dry beans are good for that.

Dry beans are cheap to buy and kind of finicky to harvest, so most gardeners don’t bother with them.  We have always grown some beans for the experience and the bragging rights and because they are good for the soil, adding more nitrogen than they remove , like all legumes.  Dry beans are also aesthetically pleasing, looking fabulous in jars in your kitchen.  Some beans are simply beautiful and many have gorgeous flowers that can cause you to linger after you finish weeding the rows.  And as an added bonus, beneficial insects tend to hang out in bean plots, eating the pollen or sipping the rich sap, then going off to spear the nearest lygus bug through the gut.

Beans come in three basic phenotypes: pole, bush and runner.  Pole beans spiral and climb, so are very easy to trellis, adding a nice architectural touch to the garden.  Runner beans can be trellised or can meander about.  If you trellis them, you may have to loop them around the bean pole or corn stalk yourself occasionally to get them off the ground.  Bush beans grow in an upright plant, more like the common green beans people grow.

five week old bush bean plants
five week old bush bean plants

The first trick to growing dry beans is that you must inoculate them if you are not buying pre-inoculated seed.  Most heirloom seeds, which is what we grow, are not inoculated when they are sold by seed companies.  The inoculant contains the bacteria that beans need to fix nitrogen in their root nodules.   You can buy the inoculant through your seed catalog.  It has to be bean/pea  inoculant, not alfalfa or soybean inoculant.  While beans may grown without inoculant, they won’t thrive.

Plant the inoculated seeds around two weeks before the final frost date in your area, mid May in upstate New York where I live. They should be approximately six inches apart in the row.  We hand weed around the plants and  cultivate frequently between the rows so the weeds won’t outcompete the young bean plants.

Sometimes bush beans tend to fall over, or lodge, as they grow, especially in sandy soils, but you can fix that by standing them upright, hilling them with loose soil and then tamping the soil down with your foot.

turtle beans on the vine
turtle beans on the vine

One of the biggest problems with dry beans is knowing when to harvest them.  We harvest our beans when the pods are turning tan and the leaves are half-green and half-brown.  They are ready if you can push your fingernail against the pod without making an indentation.  When in doubt, open a couple of pods to see if they seem like dry beans yet.

If you leave beans in the field too long in the northeast, they can take on moisture during rainy spells and start to sprout inside their pods or get moldy.  We lost our entire dry bean crop in 2011 because the beans moldered in our wet fall weather and we weren’t quick enough to get them out of the rain.  If the beans are close to maturity and heavy rain is in the forecast, pull the plants up by their roots and hang them upside down  in a garage or barn or other dry place.  If you do this, try to avoid mixing root dirt with your beans;  it is a pain to cook with dirty beans.   We usually brush the dirt off of the roots as we pull them up in the garden.

beans pulled up by the roots
beans pulled up by the roots

When the beans are dry, you can thresh the pods by hand, stripping the beans out of individual pods. If you grow lots of beans you may be able to crush the pods or put them in a pillow case to thresh them or devise some other system, but we grow small quantities so we just hand shell them.

To clean the beans after threshing, we separate the beans from leaves and large pieces of plants with a 1/4 inch mesh screen (larger mesh is needed for larger beans). Winnow the beans in front of a fan just like wheat.  My husband has found plans for a seed cleaner he plans to build this year that can be adapted to bean cleaning as well as cleaning smaller seeds. More on this later in the year, I hope.

plans for a seed cleaner Michael downloaded from the internet.  They are in the public domain, so feel free to use them.
plans for a seed cleaner Michael downloaded from the internet. They are in the public domain, so feel free to use them.

Fedco Seeds, my very favorite and cheapest seed catalog has twenty one varieties of dry beans that can be grown in the northeast, with detailed descriptions of each of them.

This year we’re planning to grow the following varieties:

  • black turtle beans – These bush beans are tough as hell and almost never fail, plus rabbits don’t eat them even if they eat all of your green beans down to the ground.  And they are great for Mexican dishes.
  • scarlet runner beans – These are northeastern beans developed by the Seneca.  They have beautiful red flowers and, when dried, produce a breath-taking purple and white mottled seed.  You can eat them as green beans or let them dry and use them all winter.  We often trellis them on corn plants.
  • yellow Arikara beans – For the last couple of years my crazy husband Michael has been working on a garden modeled on that of Buffalo Bird Woman, a Hidatsa tribe member from what is now North Dakota.  The corn-bean-squash trinity is well described in the account she gave to the anthropologist who interviewed her about the agriculture of her tribe in 1917.   If you haven’t read her book, you can download it for free here.  Yellow Arikara beans are the kind of beans she grew.  We found them at the gift store of Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Virginia last September.  He obtained the seeds from Lewis and Clark, who got them directly from the Hidatsa; they have been grown at Monticello ever since.
  • Soybeans – This is my personal project since I want to make tofu from soybeans that I grew.  This is a test year.  Mind you, soybeans cost around a dollar a pound, so this is not a high value project, but mine will not be genetically modified by Monsanto.  And won’t you be impressed?
home made tofu
home made tofu

14 Comments Add yours

  1. Jillian says:

    awesome Dianna, thanks!

    1. Dianna says:

      You’re welcome. I was bored with what I was going to write, so this was much more fun.

  2. Tim W says:

    also awesome as a dry bean is the black Soybean called Jet -Johnny’s has them. In addition, Carol Deppe’s book The Resilient Gardener has an excellent section on Beans with some interesting analysis of Buffalo Bird Woman’s techniques and a whole piece on the growing of pole-type Beans in the cornfield.
    Oh yeah, and if you cut the plants at the ground when they’re ready then no rocks or dirt to deal with!!

    1. Dianna says:

      Thanks. Good idea re cutting although I tend to be the impatient yanking type.

  3. melissa mackinnon says:

    Tofu. I am impressed. I have thought about growing dried beans for a while now. Maybe this will be my test year. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Dianna says:

      You are welcome. Sometimes I feel silly growing beans when I see that I can buy a year’s supply at my food coop for ten dollars, but I really like the idea of growing protein. And in order to keep gardening for the long haul, you have to amuse yourself and keep engaged. Messing around with beans is interesting.

  4. Julie says:

    I’ve been on a dried bean kick for the last year, seeking out all kinds of unusual beans. I have dried scarlet runners that I really don’t know what to do with. (Suggestions welcome!) I don’t know much about how beans are grown, so this was really interesting. Thank you!

    1. Dianna says:

      You can use them in any bean recipe: beans and greens, chili, soups, whatever you like. I usually make some kind of bean stew with whatever is lying around my kitchen. When it gets oldish and loses its soupiness, I use the leftovers to mix in with potatoes or greens or greens and potatoes in a one pot stir fry. If you start with what you have, mix them all together, add hot sauce and it usually works. You can sprinkle a little grated cheese over the top to add flavor. I am sure there are real recipes out there in the universe, but I would say they could be substituted for kidney beans or pinto beans in any recipe.

  5. narf77 says:

    I have planted beans for drying for the first time this year and this tutorial is great :). Cheers

    1. Dianna says:

      good luck! Feel free to holler if you have any questions as you go.

  6. Kris says:

    Thanks for this post. I can’t wait to try growing more varieties of beans.

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