While beans may not possess the glamour of fresh summer tomatoes or the elusive flavor of dead-ripe melons, they are the real workhorses of any successful kitchen garden. Those that evolved here in the New World—green beans, limas, and runner beans, among others—are the most dependable and adaptable beans for American gardeners. They reward us with extraordinary payloads of high-protein food. Like other legumes, beans give back nitrogen to the soil, which is important for keeping this key plant nutrient in balance, especially in gardens where space is limited. Because beans bloom during the hottest part of the summer when many other plants take a rest, their flowers play an important role in attracting pollinators and other beneficial insects. Furthermore, the dead bean plants make excellent fall compost.
For many people turning to home gardening to make ends meet, beans are one of those basic food crops that help cut grocery bills. Some varieties are grown for their tender pods, harvested before the seeds inside begin to swell; other beans are shelled, the pods discarded, and the seeds eaten either fresh or dried. During the snowy days of winter, dried beans provide a vast array of recipe possibilities from bread and cassoulets to hearty salads and soups. And don’t forget refried beans and all those zesty dishes that Latino cooks prepare with this ancient vegetable.