Issue #217 August/September 2006
By Barbara Pleasant
Experience the exceptional taste of garden-fresh green beans.
On any day of the year, you may find two types of fresh green beans at your local supermarket. The ones with round pods will be labeled “snap beans,” and those with flat pods will be sold as “pole beans.” With rare exceptions, these are poor excuses for green beans.
Bred to be tough enough for long-distance shipping, mass-produced green beans typically lack sweetness, have lost all hint of their inherent snap and often are tinged with off-flavors — eating them raw is a lot like chewing wet cardboard. But freshly harvested, garden-grown beans, or those purchased at your local farmers market, are wonderfully different — subtly sweet with a crisp, yet tender, texture.
“There aren’t that many people who have actually experienced a really good green bean,” says Ellen Polishuk, who manages 180 acres of sustainably grown vegetables at Potomac Vegetable Farms in Purcellville, Va.
Many people who don’t like vegetables do like green beans. Polishuk says her 9-year-old son prefers to eat them raw, while others love the meltingly rich flavor of pole beans cooked for hours or used in a savory casserole. Want to make a quick visit to green bean heaven? Sauté a freshly picked batch with olive oil, onions and garlic, then sprinkle chopped basil and parmesan cheese over the hot beans. One bite and you may never eat canned green beans again.
If you’re buying green beans from a local vendor, try to find one that sells them loose so you can handpick the best beans. Look for beans that snap when you bend them, are free of spots and bruises, and have a vivid color, velvety feel and firm texture.
Growing green beans provides endless opportunities to explore varieties with remarkable flavors, textures and colors that you’ll never find at the store. And while you might think it’s too late to grow your own crop this year, you can plant fast-growing beans eight to 10 weeks before your first fall frost. You’ll need a fast-maturing bush variety for fall planting, but fall-grown beans often are exceptionally sweet. Pest pressure on green beans declines in late summer too, and because green beans make only modest demands on the soil, they are a great follow-up crop to heavy feeders such as spinach, sweet corn or broccoli.
Easy-to-grow green beans ask only for abundant sun, warm soil and ample moisture to produce well. Check your seed packets for specific information on how deep to plant the seeds and how far apart to space them in your garden.
Green beans come in many shades of green, as well as yellow, purple and red. All are called “green” beans because they are picked and eaten at an immature stage, before the seeds have ripened completely. Nutritionally, green beans are a good source of fiber, as well as vitamins A and K; the latter improves blood clotting and helps build strong bones. Some types of green beans are at their best when harvested after the seeds are well-formed; these varieties are a good source of protein as well. Indeed, the hardest part of growing green beans is deciding which ones to grow.
Bush or Pole Beans?
Most gardeners begin by choosing between compact bush-type varieties and pole beans, which grow long vines that require a trellis (see “Choose the Right Trellis for Your Beans”). As a general rule, a good bush variety will produce 5 to 6 pounds of beans per 10 foot row, but pole beans are more space-efficient, producing 8 to 9 pounds in the same amount of space. Pole types tend to produce beans for a longer period of time, too, but the trade-off is that they usually require protection from damaging insects (see “Battling Mexican Bean Beetles”). On the other hand, when bush beans become heavily infested with bean beetles or another pest, you can simply harvest the beans, pull up the plants and start a new planting. Bush beans attract fewer pests when they are mulched, but mulches can invite problems with slugs. If you live in a slug-prone area, you have yet another reason to plant pole beans.
Many gardeners think that only pole varieties deliver great flavor, but this is not necessarily true, depending on your personal taste. For example, if you want crisp, tender snap beans for eating raw or as flash-cooked finger food, you’re more likely to find your dream beans among the bush varieties. On the other hand, if your ideal green beans are slow-cooked savory pods wrapped around buttery little beans, a muscular pole variety is a better choice. An in-between category — called half-runners — combines the growth habits of bush and pole beans, though there is nothing halfway about half-runners. Most half-runners require some support, but not as much as regular pole beans. In my garden, the vines climb at least 6 feet before curving back down toward the ground. (Most pole varieties have no trouble covering an 8 foot trellis.)
Why not begin with the end in mind? Pod characteristics including shape, size and stage of maturity help determine the best ways to cook and eat green beans. I’ve sorted them into three groups below, based on the nature of the pods.
Supermarket green beans, as well as most canned green beans, have round, fleshy pods with only the slightest hints of seeds inside. As long as you pick the beans when they’re young, most of these modern bean varieties also are stringless, so you seldom have to remove the stringy seams of the pods before eating them. Exemplary stringless bush varieties include green-podded ‘Blue Lake,’‘Maxibel’ and ‘Provider,’ as well as ‘Golden Wax’ and many other yellow wax beans, plus ‘Royal Burgundy,’ which bears purple pods. (Wax beans are yellow or purple versions of green beans that generally have a less “velvety” texture.)
If you want a round-podded pole bean, ‘Kentucky Blue’ and ‘Fortex’ are good bets. Technically, ‘Maxibel’ (bush) and ‘Fortex’ are French filet beans, which are basically stringless, round-podded beans with slender pods. Most filet beans are not very productive, but ‘Maxibel’ and ‘Fortex’ are notable exceptions.
These and other round-podded beans are the best types for eating raw, or you can blanch them by plunging the beans into boiling water for 30 seconds, then cooling them in ice water — a process that stabilizes their vitamins and color (most purple-podded beans turn green when fully cooked). Handled this way, round-podded beans make great additions to salads (including pasta or potato salad), or you can pair them with a creamy dip for a light snack or appetizer. If you prefer your beans fully cooked, you won’t have to wait long for round-podded beans, which finish cooking after only 10 to 15 minutes at a slow simmer.
Two off-species of beans fit into the round-podded category: heat-tolerant yard-long or asparagus beans, which are the same species (Vigna unguiculata) as black-eyed peas and purple hull peas (a type of Southern field pea); and runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus), which are more popular for their pretty flowers than for their beans. Exuberant ‘Liana’ and other yard-long beans must have hot weather and a sturdy trellis, so they’re a great choice in climates where summers get so hot that regular beans drop their blossoms in protest. Runner beans prefer temperatures on the cool side, and the beans toughen up fast, so they must be picked when they’re young and tender. In warm climates, runner beans often bloom all summer, then wait until fall to begin setting pods.
The most famous of all flat-podded beans is ‘Romano,’ an Italian heirloom pole bean that has now been bred into bush forms including ‘Roma II’ and ‘Gina’ (green pods) and ‘Romano Gold’ (yellow pods). The majority of flat-podded green beans are pole beans, including heavy-bearing ‘Kwintus’ and many others. Seed catalogs often describe these varieties as stringless, but most of them do develop strings as the pods begin to mature. Their flavor and texture changes too — often for the better — so these beans can be taken in two different directions in the kitchen. You can pick very young pods and handle them like round-podded beans, or let them hang on the vine until the seeds begin to bump up. At this more advanced stage of ripeness, flat-podded beans deliver a meaty, yet tender, texture and satisfyingly rich flavor after they are simmered an hour or so. You can add bacon or other meat to slow-cooked green beans, or try chopped onion and salt and pepper for a vegetarian option.
If you want to can a bumper crop of beans, flat-podded beans’ tolerance of prolonged cooking counts in your favor. Because green beans are a low-acid food, they must be processed in a pressure canner; this process can seriously overcook more delicate round-podded beans. Flat-podded beans also can be blanched or fully cooked before being packed into freezer containers.
Early American Beans
Columbus and other early explorers found Native Americans planting beans in their corn gardens (where the corn stalks acted as natural trellises), and many older, shade-tolerant, long-vining bean varieties are still available from companies that sell heirloom seeds. Pole beans were especially popular among early settlers in the southern Appalachians, where family clans competed to grow the best possible green beans. In Berea, Ky., Bill Best has established the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center as a conservation hub for regional heirloom crops, with a special emphasis on green beans. These early American beans are picked when the pods are full with immature beans. Stringing the beans, which Best compares to a meditation session, is a mandatory step in their preparation.
To string beans before cooking, Best suggests starting at the tail end of the bean, snapping off the end and pulling the string along the inner curve of the bean. Then snap the stem end and pull the string from the bean’s outer edge. Remove any residual bits of string as you snap the beans into bite-sized pieces.
Early American beans are a diverse group that includes “cut-short” varieties — in which the beans are packed so tightly in the pods that they square off at the ends — and “greasy beans,” so-called because the absence of hairs on the pods gives them a glossy sheen. In North Carolina where I live, greasy beans are regional specialties that sell for premium prices at farmers markets. Like most other early American beans, greasies can be cooked whole like other green beans, harvested as “shellies” (nearly mature beans with prominent green seeds) or allowed to mature into dry beans that are removed from their pods before cooking.
Preserve heirloom green beans by freezing or canning (be sure to remove the strings first), or try a method used by early American settlers — dry them into “leather britches.” Before refrigeration, food was preserved by either drying it or storing it in a cool root cellar. By drying whole green beans into leather britches, people could enjoy them throughout the winter.
“Now leather britches are eaten ceremoniously at family reunions, or for Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s dinners. They are exceptionally good,” Best says. People used to string up green beans to dry using a needle and heavy thread, though Best prefers to dry the beans on a screen for several days. Once the beans are dry as leather, he stores the dried beans in the freezer.
Leather britches need to be soaked before cooking. Most old recipes suggest soaking them overnight, draining off the water, then simmering them for an hour, but Best likes to soak his beans overnight, followed by two more fresh-water soaks in the morning. After soaking, the beans are ready to be cooked as if they were fresh beans.
Whether you decide to grow your own green beans or purchase them from a local vendor, take time to enjoy the many shapes, colors and flavors of real green beans.
Choose the Right Trellis for Your Beans
Green beans twine their way up any trellis, then curve down when they reach the top. Be creative and resourceful when making a trellis for beans, but keep in mind these key points:
Posts. Tripod, quadpod or A-frame supports work better than upright posts because the increasing weight of the vines helps anchor them in place. When they’re loaded with top-heavy vines, trellises attached to vertical posts are easily blown over by strong gusts of wind.
Mesh. Instead of small-mesh plastic netting, use widely spaced string or 6-inch-mesh concrete reinforcing wire. You’ll cause less damage to the vines and drop fewer beans, because you can reach through the mesh to pick beans with both hands.
Space. If you have a small garden, try to use the space between beds for your bean trellis. In a row garden, plant beans in double rows and install a sturdy trellis down the center.
Height. It can be hard to pick beans from a trellis that’s taller than 6 feet, but you may want to go to an 8 foot trellis for long-vined varieties. Just use a ladder to harvest beans from the top of a tall trellis.
Battling Mexican Bean Beetles
If you grow beans, sooner or later your patch will be discovered by Mexican bean beetles (Epilachna varivestis). Cousins to beneficial lady beetles, Mexican bean beetle adults are about a half inch long, with black spots on their copper-colored backs. They lay clusters of bright yellow eggs, which hatch into spiny yellow larvae, on the undersides of bean leaves. The larvae scrape off leaf tissue, weakening and sometimes killing bean plants, while adults eat the leaves and pods.
In a home garden, the best control is to use fabric row covers to protect bush beans. “Beans are self-fertile, so you don’t have to remove the row covers to admit pollinators. You can wait until the beans are ready to pick,” says Dr. Kimberly Stoner, an entomologist with the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Conn. With pole beans, handpicking the pests and flicking them into a pail of soapy water is a time-consuming but effective control for Mexican bean beetles and Japanese beetles, which often enjoy bean leaves for breakfast.
If you have several plantings of beans to protect and are faced with a season-long battle with bean beetles, it may be worthwhile to buy and release a group of tiny, nonstinging Pediobius foveolatus wasps — natural predators that lay their eggs inside Mexican bean beetle larvae. This is not a fast solution to the problem, but as multiple generations of Pedio wasps increase through the summer, they gradually overtake Mexican bean beetles. The beetles also damage soybeans; in fact, a state-sponsored Pedio program in New Jersey, begun in 1980, has virtually eliminated the Mexican bean beetle as a destructive pest. Maryland also has a state-sponsored program, as well as an informative pamphlet available online that includes photos of the pests.
Park Seed Co.
1 Parkton Ave.
Greenwood, SC 29647
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
P.O. Box 460
Mineral, VA 23117
1033 Pilot Knob Cemetery Road
Berea, KY 40403
Territorial Seed Co.
P.O. Box 158
Cottage Grove, OR 97424
Vermont Bean Seed Co.
334 West Stroud St.
Randolph, WI 53956
P.O. Box 192
Molalla, OR 97038