Beans, Beans, Beans!December 18th, 2007
Beans are the most important single garden crop. Once fully mature, they provide protein. Peas and lentils are part of the same family too. I like both of those, but I'd much rather choose from the milder beans to eat every day. They are all Legumes, which means they can use Nitrogen from the air to make protein. Other vegetables or grains can't do that. Peanuts, clover and alfalfa are in the Legume family too. The plant residue after the final harvest should be cultivated in, to share the Nitrogen with your garden soil. I don't know exactly where Fava beans fit in, but they are not closely related to the rest of the bean family. Real beans need a warm soil and plenty of heat, rain and sunshine. Fava beans are grown in much cooler conditions, like sweet peas.
There are many types of beans, and thousands of varieties. Like many other things in agriculture, different names are used in different parts of the country. Sometimes the same name has a different meaning in other regions. There are bush beans we plant in rows, and pole beans which need something to climb on as they grow. On a large scale, setting up poles or trellises is a big job. If you have limited space, bigger yields can be had with pole beans. Pole beans can also be sown in the one row of dry corn on the south side of your garden. If you are growing corn and beans to combine in your diet, with bush beans you will need about 4-5 more rows of corn than beans. With pole beans bigger yields about 6 rows of corn for each row of beans.
The earliest beans are harvested for the pods. They are picked about the time seeds just begin to form. The taste is mild, and they provide some vitamins and fiber. Many of these varieties will continue to produce pods when picked regularly, including the Provider beans I sell. Once pods are left to mature a little too long, they stop forming new string beans. Older varieties had a tough 'string' along one side of the pod, which you remove before cooking. I guess that is how they got the name. They can and freeze very well, but if you have a big appetite, they will not satisfy it. No protein and almost no carbohydrates have formed this early in string beans.
As the seed inside the pod grows nearer to full size, carbohydrates form. They may start mostly as sugar, and taste sweet. Some varieties are never sweet, and always taste starchy. At this stage, the pods are tougher. These types are often cut diagonally, and cooked for a long time in soup.
Next to be ready are Shell or Horticulture beans. French Horticulture and Vermont Cranberry beans are examples of Shell beans. They are removed from the pod before cooking. The seed can be eaten while still tender, and regardless of what color they may be, this is called the 'green' stage. Gradually they mature to be 'dry'. During this process, protein is formed in the bean. Soldier and Jacob's Cattle beans are both considered dry beans, but are good picked at this earlier stage for succotash or simply boiled and served as a starchy vegetable.
Peas and even corn follow this pattern too. First they taste sweet, then starchy. But there isn't much protein until they are fully mature and dry.
The last category is the the most important. The fully mature baking beans, such as Jacob's Cattle and Soldier Beans. In the grocery store Pinto, Great Northern, and Navy Pea beans are common, and there are many, many others too. They are also used for Chile and in soups. These are the beans that can really feed you all winter. The ones explorers and travelers carried into the wilderness, and immigrants to their new homes. Each kind does have a slightly different flavor. They are all excellent sources of vegetable protein. The Vitamins in dry beans vary from one variety to another. Beans will not readily cross pollinate.You can grow many different ones in the same garden to help round out your nutrition and vary the flavors. By eating a small serving of cooked 'dry' beans every day, your body will get used to them. All beans grown to maturity still need to be dried. If the weather cooperates, some of it can be done right on the plants in the garden. If rains are expected, it is safer to pull the vines and bring them under cover. Once the stalks and pods are dry, you can shell, or thresh to remove the beans from the pods. After that, lay out the beans in a dry, well ventilated area, like a sun porch. All types of edible beans can be baked or boiled to eat in the dry stage.
Most bean varieties are grown to be harvested at a particular stage, but some can be used at different stages. My Provider String beans mature later to be one of my favorite baking beans. French Horticulture and Vermont Cranberry shell beans can be enjoyed fresh and succulent, and allowed to mature as an excellent baking bean too. Soldier and Jacobs Cattle beans are thought of as dry baking beans, but are also good picked earlier as shell beans.
UPDATE- I have not been able to cook dry beans here only in a Crock Pot, Slow Cooker, or the West Bend Bean Pot WITHOUT precooking dry beans at a rapid boil for one to two hours. I am getting reports from a number of reliable sources who CAN 'bake' beans without this step. I am curious if our hard water is the cause of this problem here at my farm. If you have any experience to share about this, please use the CONTACT US icon at the top right corner of the page to let me know.
Sweet peas are planted early in the Spring here in the North. They may grow over the Winter in the South, or in some coastal areas. The seed part has quite a bit of carbohydrates, mostly as sugar, and some vitamins. There are eatable pod varieties which have more fiber than string beans, and some vitamins. I am too far North to grow Southern peas, or Cow peas, so I can't tell you much about them. For pea soup, late fully mature dry peas are simmered for hours.
Thomas Laxton is my favorite Heirloom sweet pea. It yields well, and is reliable. Here in Connecticut peas are planted as soon as the soil can be worked in April and are ready to pick in early July. They like cool, moist conditions. Peas can cross pollinate . You need to choose only one variety, if you plan to save seeds. Thomas Laxton vines needs some support. They can be picked again and again over a few weeks, like string beans. You don't need a long row, for a good crop. I don't know of a dual purpose pea, good both fresh and as a dry split pea for soup.