More than just a hill of beans: A bean for every gardener

Perhaps no other vegetable reflects the difference of cultures and regions in the Americas quite like the bean. Passed down from generation to generation, it is interesting to think that something as simple as a bean can be a symbol of cultural heritage and history. The fact that we say that something “doesn’t amount to a hill of beans” shows that sometimes we take this legume that originated in South America for granted.

Here in West Virginia, the bean of note is the half-runner — a sort of combination between vining pole beans and bush beans.

Most folks from outside of the region don’t understand the fascination. I have to say that I don’t, either.

Locals will tell you that they taste better than other beans, but I can’t tell the difference. Perhaps it is just my hatred of stringing the small beans (others are either stringless or much easier to string).

Green beans are popular in the Appalachian region, especially heirloom bean varieties that have been grown here for centuries. We really don’t grow much in the way of dry beans, like pinto or cranberry beans, but it is possible and there are folks starting to do it.

Go to places out west, especially the Southwest, and dry beans are the top choice. I’m looking forward to trying out a variety of bean I was given by a farmer in New Mexico — the bolita bean. It is the most popular bean in the area and is quite tasty. I would put it on par with the beloved pinto bean.

While we may not grow many dry beans, they sure have been a staple for the generations before us as an economical source of protein available at the store. My father would talk about my grandmother buying 25-pound sacks of pinto beans at the store to form the backbone of their diet. He half-jokingly says that for dinner (meaning lunch) that they would have “beans and taters” and then for supper they would have “taters and beans.”

Types of beans

First off, beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are not the same species as lima/butter beans (Phaseolus lunatus), fava (Vicia faba) or soy beans (Glycine max). Lima beans do come from the same region and are closely related (same genus), but soybeans are native to Asia and are a completely different genus and species. Fava beans (best served with a nice Chianti) are in the same genus as vetch.

Within the species we know as green beans and dry beans, there are several different types that you’ll want to know about when making a selection for the garden. Bush beans have short, compact growth while pole beans have long vines that need to be supported on a trellis. The trellis can be as simple as three poles or bamboo sticks tied together at the top in a “tepee” formation.

Pole beans usually produce a larger crop of beans than bush beans, but the trade-off is that it takes a little longer for them to mature (50 to 60 days, compared to 60 to 100 days, depending on the variety). Half-runner beans are a combination of these habits and are usually around 3 feet long.

Since bush beans grow so quickly, you can plant several batches of them through the summer beginning in May and going through July and August.

Common bush varieties used locally for snap beans are Blue Lake and Contender. There are a few other varieties from around the world that are popular. One of my favorites is Roma II — a wide, flat Italian variety that has good flavor. Common varieties of pole beans (sometimes called cornfield beans in this area) are Kentucky Wonder, McCaslan 42, Cherokee Trail of Tears and Logan Giant.

The most common half-runner beans are Mountaineer, Pink and White.

Of course, there are more variations in beans based on color (green, yellow or purple) and the shell (wax beans/greasy beans are smooth and look shiny).

While it was customary for many families in the region to grow dry or shell beans at one time, it is not common today. They would have been referred to as October beans or fall beans. As more and more people start to garden, though, I think it is time to re-examine growing dry beans. These are the beans that you store dry in the cupboard and cook in a pot for hours to make a bean soup (like many people in the area call pinto beans “soup beans”). It is possible to grow your own pinto beans or other dry variety in the garden. Such varieties include Cranberry, Jacob’s Cattle, Black Turtle, Calypso, navy and great northern.

To grow dry beans, you leave the pods on the vine to mature (they will change color) and dry out. It does take a lot longer to grow dry beans than snap beans, so you’ll need plenty of space since they’ll be in the garden a long time. There is an issue of late-season rains causing the beans not to dry or mold if there is a prolonged period of dampness.

Finding beans

Those who aren’t lucky enough to have beans passed down in their family or from friends will have to go about finding their own beans. Most garden centers will have a supply of common bean varieties. For more variety, you’ll want to turn to catalogs. You’ll find the most variety in heirloom catalogs, and there are a few that I think are good sources of beans. Baker Creek Heirlooms (rareseeds.com) has a good selection of many different types of beans, as does the Vermont Bean Seed Co. (vermontbean.com).

However, if you are looking for really interesting Appalachian heirloom varieties, I will suggest checking out the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, based in Berea, Kentucky. They collect seeds, specifically bean and tomato seeds, from families that have passed seeds down throughout generations in the hills and hollows of Appalachia. I love looking at all of the different varieties on their website (heirlooms.org) and have had a few different varieties. The website often tells the story of where the seeds come from and which family passed them down.

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