The All-American Vegetable

For inexpensive, easy-to-grow nutrition, look no further than the humble bean.

By William Woys Weaver


Another category of beans, one that traces its ancestry to South America, is the limas (Phaseolus lunatus). As a child, I hated lima beans because of their dry, mushy texture. But my mother cooked with canned limas—an unfair introduction to this type of bean. When I discovered ‘Dr. Martin’, a monstrous heirloom developed in the 1920s in Chester County, Pennsylvania, I was prepared for a disappointment. Instead, it turned into a lima bean epiphany.

In Peru, where ancient Andean farmers perfected lima beans, they were a food reserved for the Inca nobility. Growing the heirloom varieties revealed to me why this bean was once given such special status: Fresh, flavorful limas are indeed food for the gods. Did you know that you can pickle large white limas with hot peppers? Frozen succotash, move over! Like common garden beans, limas are grouped as either vining or bush varieties. They have one drawback: They grow best in regions with consistently warm nights (above 70°F), so trying to grow them in New England or the Upper Midwest is almost pointless.

A third category of beans commonly grown in gardens is the runner bean (Phaseolus coccineus). Unlike limas, runner beans are relatively cold-tolerant—so much so that they are popular garden beans in England. Runner beans are definitely climbers, and because they have such an abundance of flowers, they are often grown as ornamentals on fences. There are red-, white-, and pink-flowering varieties, all of which produce large seeds that can be harvested as fresh shelling beans or as dry beans. Runner beans can be planted earlier than other beans—about the same time as corn—so they are the first to produce, a good thing to know when planning a succession of crops.

Planting beans is simple. Most gardeners sow the seeds directly in the garden when the soil is warm enough to plant tomatoes. Another option is to start seeds about a month before the average last-frost date in a greenhouse in small individual pots. Move them outside once the soil warms. Contrary to conventional wisdom, they transplant easily, and by forcing them indoors, you can avoid plant loss from catbirds and crows, which relish the germinating beans in open ground.

Once established, thin bush bean seedlings to about 6 inches apart; keep them well watered during dry periods. Pole beans need support, and there are several techniques for dealing with this issue, from elaborate bamboo frameworks or tepees to strings anchored to a clothesline. Tall wire towers are my preference for trellising beans, because they are less likely to blow over during a gusty summer thunderstorm.

Bean pests? The most notorious is the Mexican bean beetle, a yellow, dark-speckled vegetarian cousin of the lady beetle that can do a lot of damage if allowed to run unchecked. This destructive pest originated in southern Mexico and first appeared in the West in the 1860s. By the 1920s, it had spread into the eastern United States. The beetle was unknown in colonial times, which is why the Indians could grow their beans to such perfection. Insecticidal soap will decimate the larvae (little yellow caterpillar-like crawlers found on the leaves). Mash the eggs when you see them—they can be found on the undersides of leaves. If you keep ahead of the beetles, as I have in my garden, the population eventually crashes. Last year, I saw no beetles in my garden, but this may have had something to do with the severity of the previous winter, which may have killed off hibernating adults.