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.
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.
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.
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.
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?