You guys want to know all about heirloom beans, I hear ya! So I’m spilling them! …the beans that is. Har har. I can’t write about beans and not include at least one cheesy bean joke, come on! No fart jokes, I promise. I’m taking you through the basics of how to grow heirloom beans, from planting to harvesting and shucking, plus which varieties are my favorite, and how to cook heirloom beans.
It’s an illness, and I’ve seen a lot of people come down with it. Once you plant heirloom beans, you’re hooked, done for, you better make a LOT more room in your garden because you’re going to want to grow ALL the beautiful beans! It’s absolutely an addiction, and I’ve got it real bad.
Why grow heirloom beans?
1- It will make you a better gardener. Growing rare or heirloom varieties makes you pay more attention to your plants. You might only have a few precious seeds to plant so you’ll want to make sure they are healthy and have what they need. You’ll want to save your seeds, so you’ll learn about things like taxonomy and pollination.
2- It’s fun, it really is! Many heirloom varieties have incredible stories behind them, a form of edible, living history. Seeds smuggled into the country, sewn into the hem of a woman’s dress just so she could preserve her family heirloom variety. There are seeds that have been lost for years, only to be discovered in a tin can in someone’s attic (probably because there was no one who cared to grow them for generations).
3- It is vitally important! Something has happened to our modern food supply: it has been bred to be convenient, easy, and shippable. And in the process, we’ve bred the flavor right out of it. We want green beans without strings and apples that won’t bruise. We’ve lost an incredible amount of diversity in our food supply, not to mention taste, nutrition, and fun.
So, how do you get started?
If you’ve looked at any of the heirloom seed catalogs, chances are that you’ve already seen plenty of unique and diverse varieties, and shopping at these places is a great start. Companies like Seed Saver’s, Adaptive Seeds, and Baker Creek do a wonderful job of tracking down rare gems, growing them out, and then providing the seed for us to grow.
I think what’s really neat about growing rare things, especially beans, is the people that you can connect with. Some of the rarest and neatest varieties are hidden in personal collections, from which the owners are often willing to share. It’s kind of like baseball cards for gardeners, swapping seeds with other people who like to grow rare things is half the fun!
There are several rare seed and heirloom bean groups on Facebook. You can participate in seed swaps around the country and through people you connect with on social media. There is the seed yearbook from Seed Savers, which is like the classified ads of rare seeds- they have their regular sales catalog, but they also publish a phone book thick catalog where you can buy seed from individual people who have listed their offering. And I’ve seen the local nursery’s start to offer more unique selections as well, which I love to support.
How to Plant Heirloom Beans
Dried or Snap Beans
Bean varieties usually excel at one thing or the other, either being a tender fresh eating bean (a “snap” bean) or being a good bean for eating dried (a “dried” bean). However, there are varieties that can be dual purpose! You can usually tell what the bean is intended for by the picture the seed company used to advertise it. If your heirloom beans came from a friend, or a swap and you’re not sure of their intended use… well then you’ll just have to taste one and see!
Know What to Expect: Pole, Bush, or Half-Runner
For planting purposes you’ll want to know if the bean is “pole,” “bush,” or “half-runner.” Both snap beans and dried beans can be any one of those three types. Pole beans need something to grow up, bush beans don’t need anything fancy, and half-runners will sprawl all over and invade everyone else’s personal space if you don’t give them a short fence to climb! I find it’s common for half-runners to be labeled as bush beans… so don’t be surprised if you get a variety that you thought would be bush but it sprawls all over and makes a mess of your bean patch (happens to me literally every single year).
For my pole beans, I have some rusty old fence pieces and hog panels (stood up the tall way, with the longest side vertical) that I fasten to metal fence posts that driven into the ground. You can get creative with poles set up in a teepee shape, an arbor… anything that they can climb. Pole beans will climb very high if you let them, and I try to give my pole beans something at least 8-10 feet high to climb. Just make sure it’s sturdy, because at the height of Summer when the plants are loaded with big leaves and lots of beans, they can get quite heavy.
Air and Soil Temperature
When planting, make sure it’s warm enough, as beans like fairly warm soil (75°F+ is ideal) to germinate. If it’s too cool, they’ll just rot in the soil. Definitely wait to plant bean seeds until after your last frost date. Not sure when that is? Find frost dates —> here.
Soil Quality & Inoculant
In my experience, beans aren’t too picky, and average soil quality and fertility will do fine. You may see something called “soil inoculant” for beans and peas for sale. This is a powdered bacteria that you sprinkle in the planting hole or roll your bean seeds in before planting. This is the bacteria that helps the bean plants by forming nodules on their roots and allowing the plants to take in and use nitrogen. Is it necessary? No. Is it helpful? Yes, it can be- especially if you’ve never grown beans in your garden before, or you have poor quality soil. It will help your plants to grow bigger, stronger, and produce more beans. Find soil inoculant —> here.
I used inoculant the first year or two I planted heirloom beans. The soil was very sandy, and I think the inoculant helped, because I was able to grow a lot of beautiful beans!
Planting Depth and Spacing
Beans are best planted directly into the ground rather than started inside and transplanted- they don’t transplant well, so don’t try this unless you’re a very experienced gardener.
Some people like to soak beans before planting, but I’ve never done this and don’t feel it’s necessary, at least in my climate. One reason I don’t like soaking beans is because it turns them into a grenade and you just pulled the pin. You must plant them immediately after soaking. If you’re going to soak your beans before planting, it is recommended to soak them in room temperature, non-chlorinated water for 8-12 hours (though less would be fine too) before planting. If you soak them for too long they will start to break down.
Plant both snap and pole beans 1-inch to 1.5-inches deep (I aim for closer to 1-inch). We often take a ruler out to the garden with us to make sure we’re getting the planting depth correct. Planting too deep can cause the beans to germinate slowly and increases the chance that they’ll rot in the ground.
Plant pole beans 6-inches apart and plant bush beans 4-inches apart in the row. Space the rows 18 to 24-inches apart. I prefer my rows to be 24-inches apart so it’s easier to walk between them for weeding, picking, and air circulation purposes.
It’s a good idea to water your bean seeds after planting. We use tripod sprinklers for most of our watering needs, which are nice because they will water a large area and the spray is light enough that it won’t disrupt the soil or the bean seeds underneath it.
Bean Diseases and Pests
This is an area where I don’t have a lot of experience, simply because I’ve never had a pest or disease problem with any of the beans I have grown (other than when the plants flop in the dirt and mold- but that’s my own fault!). Knocking on wood here.
I do have a few really great resources for you if you’re facing problems with your beans! For bean diseases, I recommend The Handbook of Bean Diseases, which is a free PDF with big photos so that you can easily identify whatever is infecting your bean crop. For pests, this is a comprehensive pest list courtesy of Virginia Tech. Good luck!
Also remember that bean plants are a tender tasty treat that rabbits and deer love, so don’t be surprised if your un-fenced beans plants get eaten before they even get started!
How to Harvest Heirloom Beans
Harvesting Snap Beans
If you’re growing snap beans, let ‘em grow and then pick them when they’re full grown and tender, but don’t let them get too big or they lose tenderness and the little bean seeds inside fill out and get tougher. The more you pick, the more they’ll produce! I usually have to pick beans every few days during the height of bean season.
Always use two hands to pick, otherwise you may rip the plant right out of the ground or at least break off part of the plant… I’ve done this too many times to count, and it usually induces swearing.
Beans produce most of the Summer for me in Zone 4, with a bit of a slow down when it gets too too hot. After picking, I bring the beans in the house and zhoosh them around in a big bowl of water to dislodge any dirt and debris. Then I drain them well and store in a zip top bag in the fridge for up to a week.
How to Harvest Dried Beans
For dried beans, just let ‘em grow… and that’s pretty much it. Literally just leave them alone and forget about them until the plants die and turn dry. If you’re growing bush dried beans, watch out that they don’t flop on the ground too much in the wet dirt, otherwise they rot. Sometimes I prop the plants up with rolled up pieces of fence and other random things laying around. It’s unsightly, but it saves the beans! Some varieties like to flop over more than others.
You can, and should pick dried beans as soon as the shell is papery and you can feel the beans rattling inside. In Fall, I pick dried beans a couple times a week, and especially if we have rain in the forecast. If it’s really wet out, sometimes the dried beans will sprout inside the shells, so I get them out of the elements and inside the house ASAP. I typically harvest them into paper grocery bags, where they’ll sit until I shuck them. If they are wet when you harvest them, make sure to lay them out somewhere (like the kitchen table) where the shells can dry first, before storing them, even in paper bags.
I keep my drying beans in the house, otherwise if they’re in a barn or garage the rodents may find them.
Some people will wait until all the beans on a plant are dry, then pull up the whole plant and hang it up to let the beans finish drying. I don’t do this because I am harvesting the bean pods individually as they dry, like a good little bean grower! I think it’s risky to leave dried bean pods on the plant for longer than needed.
You can pick the pods a little shy of being papery-dry in cases of emergency. Even if the pod is not quite papery-dry but has started to turn lighter in color, feels floppy, and the beans are fully formed inside, you can pick them. This should only be done if absolutely necessary, and as a last resort. This might happen the case of a terrible flood, or hard freeze. These acts of Nature would also be one of the few situations where pulling up the whole plant would be beneficial, just to save time if you’re scrambling to save your beans.
Once the dried bean pods are picked they’ll still need to dry out a little more, so don’t shuck them immediately and put the bean seeds in a closed container lest they mold. I leave the whole pods in paper bags and wait to shuck them until the middle of Winter. It’s the perfect cold-weather activity and something fun to look forward to during the “off season!” If you do shuck them early, just make sure to store the seeds in an open container for a few weeks to let them finish drying.
How to Store Dried Beans
Once the bean seeds are 100% completely and fully dried, I store them in airtight ziptop bead and craft bags. I use the small 2X3-inch bags for smaller quantities (these are also what I use for storing smaller seeds and when I trade with people during seed swaps). I like this brand because the opening flaps of the bags are offset, so you can open them quickly- trust me, this is important. For larger quantities of beans, I use larger 4X6-inch bags.
My Favorite Heirloom Bean Varieties
I’ve tried a LOT of different bean varieties over the years, and here are the ones I’ve settled on as my favorites… so far anyways. I’m always trying and taste testing new varieties, but these ones here are tried and true!
For green snap beans I’ve grown and loved “Jade” for many years, but I’m trying a few new ones this year that I’m excited about, so stay tuned! I do love that Jade freezes really well. (Bush-Snap) Seed widely available at many seed companies.
My favorite purple snap is “Velour.” This is a french style bean, or a filet bean, which means it’s more dainty and slender, and also quite tender. This bean has amazing flavor- the best purple bean I’ve had! If you like “Royal Burgundy,” a very popular purple bush bean, I beg you to try this one, as I think it is far superior! (Bush-Snap) Seed available at Territorial Seed, Johnny’s, Fedco, Park Seed, and others.
Beurre de Rocquencourt
My favorite yellow snap bean, the color is gorgeous and the taste is delicious! These beans get quite large. One thing I love about growing yellow beans is how easy they are to pick, they don’t disappear into a sea of green amongst the bean plant. This variety is fantastic for fresh eating, but it doesn’t freeze well. (Bush-Snap) Seed available at Adaptive Seed, and Baker Creek.
(The above three bean varieties, plus Tanya’s Pink Pod, are the four different colored beans pictured in the featured photo at the very top of this post!)
Rosso di Lucca
The dried beans are so beautiful with varying shades of pink, rose, and salmon with dark purple-brown stripes and speckles. These beans originated in Tuscany and have a rich delicious flavor, standing up to other strong Italian ingredients like olive oil and pungent herbs. I love these for minestrone soup and chili… anywhere you would use a kidney bean, these are fantastic! Bonus: they grow on sturdy plants that don’t tend to flop over and get covered with mud and rot! (Bush-Dried) Seed available at Adaptive Seed, Uprising Seed, Great Lakes Staple Seeds.
Eye of the Goat/Ojo de Cabra
These beans are velvety smooth, seriously so creamy! They have fantastic flavor all on their own and don’t need much else! They are a great choice for a bean side dish where they are the star, but I typically use them in soup and for refried beans. (Pole-Dried) Seed available at Siskiyou Seeds.
Good Mother Stallard
One of the first beans I ever grew, these beans are stunning with swirls of purple-y magenta on a background of white, in a way that reminds me of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. These are similar to Eye of the Goat in that they are nutty, full-flavored, and really don’t need much else. I’ve heard Good Mother Stallard referred to as “everybody’s favorite bean!” (Pole-Dried) Seed available at Baker Creek, Seed Savers, RH Shumway, and others.
Can’t Grow Your Own Heirloom Beans?
There are several places you can buy amazing varieties of dried heirlooms beans meant for eating (not planting) in large, one pound packages! They take the work out of it, yet you still get to have amazing heirloom beans! Anything from Rancho Gordo or Zursun brands are amazing, and Bob’s Red Mill has a great selection as well!. Find heirloom beans for eating –> here!
Heirloom Bean Odds and Ends
Saving Seeds to Plant: Do Beans Cross-Pollinate?
I get this question a lot! How do I grow and save seeds from so many different types of beans… don’t they cross-pollinate?
Bean flowers are perfect, meaning they have both male and female parts in one flower, and they are self-pollinating, but are occasionally pollinated by insects or bees.
How often beans are cross-pollinated is a hotly debated topic with a fairly complex answer- the reason is that it likely varies a lot depending on your location and the circumstances in and around your garden. Many people (myself included) claim that their beans almost never cross pollinate. It is rare that I even see a bee visit the bean flowers, and our honey bee hives are literally 10-feet away! This is probably because we live in a lush area with plenty of other flowers, and no one has to resort to getting their pollen and nectar from bean flowers (it’s not that desirable). If you live in a mountain or desert climate with few other flowers, you may experience up to 25% cross pollination in your beans (stats from my favorite book for everything seed-saving: Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth.)
If a bean flower becomes cross-pollinated, the bean and resulting seeds that form from it carry the cross unseen within them. The cross only becomes visibly apparent when those crossed seeds are grown out the following season. You may see differences in the plants themselves for starters, and later in the seed coat and bean shape. Remember that if you get some crossed seed, the parent of that seed is also not pure, which is why it is helpful to keep each year of seeds separate and labeled.
So how do you prevent cross-pollination of bean seeds? Bush bean plants can be caged with window screen or insect-netting. Pole beans will typically have their blossom’s bagged, using those little organza bags that people used to put wedding party favors in in the 90s… turns out they’re perfect for tying around a cluster of bean flowers!
The plants should be caged, or blossoms bagged once the flowers start to form, and the protection can be removed when you see the tiny little bean has formed. Once you remove the protection, make sure to tie a marker around the plant or flowers you’ve bagged, so you know which ones will be pure.
If you’re only planting one variety from each species, you need not worry about bagging or caging. This ensures that you will only get pure seed and is a sound practice that some people use. I don’t know any of these people… I mean, who is only planting one variety of bean?!
And don’t forget the power of isolation. Planting different varieties on opposite sides of the garden, or in different gardens can also be helpful for preventing, or at least reducing cross-pollination.
Of course, this is only something to consider if you plan to save your seed for replanting or trading. If you’re growing them simply to eat, whether snap or dried, you don’t have to worry about any of this!
Greasy Beans, Shelly Beans, and Long Beans
You might run across something called “Greasy” beans, which are a league of their own! Greasy beans are typically snap beans and they get their name because they lack the fuzziness that most bean pods have and therefore appear shiny. They have a tough string along the edge of the pod that needs to be removed, and they usually require a longer cooking time, but they make up for that with their rich, nutty flavor and deep history!
“Long” beans or “Chinese Noodle” beans are another fun one! The beans come in all different colors, and grow to over a foot long- they’re really stunning and a great conversation starter. If I’m being honest, I haven’t cared much for the taste of these types, but they are really fun to grow.
“Shelly” beans are basically any bean that you let grow, then pick and shuck at the stage when the seeds inside the bean are swollen and very mature, but before the bean seed has dried. Some varieties are better for “Shellies” than others, and sometimes the information on the package will indicate if its a good shelling bean or not. As the name implies, you shuck or “shell” these beans, then cook up the bean seeds, and they’re delicious!
How to Cook Heirloom Beans
How to Cook Heirloom Snap Beans
The ways to cook snap beans are ENDLESS. You cook heirloom snap beans pretty much the same way you would cook regular old run of the mill green beans from the store- the only difference is since they are so fresh and tender, they don’t need to be cooked as long, and you definitely don’t want to cook them until they are mush. Respect the bean.
Toss them in olive oil and roast in the oven until turning golden, or lightly steam them, then sauté with cherry tomatoes and top with crushed walnuts and a squeeze of lemon- those are my two favorite ways to have them. Beautiful multi-colored snap beans make a fantastic addition to a veggie tray alongside my French Onion & Herb Dip.
How to Cook Heirloom Dried Beans
These take a little more finesse. The problem with giving instructions on how to cook dried beans, is that all dried beans are different and they will take as long as they’ll take- you have to work on their schedule.
General rule of thumb is that you should allow at least two hours of cook time for dried beans.
To soak or not to soak? Reasons to soak: if your dried beans are very old, this will help speed up the cooking process, and soaking beans helps to reduce some of the anti-nutrients and makes them more digestible. A big reason not to soak is that many claim the flavor of pre-soaked beans isn’t as rich. It’s really up to you! When I soak beans, I soak them for 24 hours, and change the water a few times during that period. Or sometimes I only soak them for a few hours because I’m a poor planner!
Beans will swell at least double their size when cooked, which will hopefully help you estimate how much to cook.
Place the beans in a saucepan and add water until they are covered by at least several inches. I like to cook with the lid cockeyed on the pan, to let some of the steam and heat out, but not all of it. My seasoning of choice for cooking most beans is a slice of yellow onion, a couple cloves of garlic, and a bay leaf.
Cook the beans on a gentle simmer, checking on them every 20 minutes or so to make sure that the water hasn’t evaporated too much. Add small amounts of water if needed so that the beans are always submerged in liquid. The ultimate bean goal is that when they are tender and finished cooking, there will be just enough liquid, or “pot liquor” to cover them, but not much more. Cooking beans is a bit of an art in this way.
To salt or not? This is one of the most hotly debated topics in the bean world, with some claiming that salting the beans at the beginning of cooking will make them tough. Others reject this statement as nonsense! I wait until they are almost done cooking and salt them to taste towards the end… better safe than sorry!
I’ll often make beans a few hours ahead of the main meal, just so that I know they’ll be done in time. I rarely find that they take more than two hours though. Always cook your beans first separately before adding them to something like a soup or chili. You’ll be blown away at how rich and tasty homegrown and heirloom beans are, worlds better than any store-bought or canned bean you’ve ever had!
I hope this helps you to grow some amazing heirloom beans! If I’ve missed anything, you have questions, or you have any great tips or tricks for growing great beans, please feel free to add them in the comments!
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