Learn the ins and outs of growing dry beans and peas, including lima beans, runner beans, tepary beans, field peas and more. You’ll be surprised to learn that growing beans is a real snap.
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Dry beans and peas provide as much protein per serving as well-known protein powerhouses, such as eggs and cottage cheese, with the added benefits of fiber and an array of minerals. You could eat the dry seeds from any green bean or pea, but certain bean and pea varieties grown for their higher yields of flavorful, nutrient-dense seeds are a better use of garden space. When growing dry beans and peas in most climates, plant after your spring crops so they mature in dry fall weather. Legume flowers attract beneficial insects, and because of legume plants’ ability to obtain much of their nitrogen through partnerships with soil-dwelling bacteria, beans and peas remove fewer nutrients from the soil compared with most other crops.
Choosing varieties that suit your climate is key to growing dry beans and peas. Note that all dry bean and pea varieties can be harvested and cooked fresh as the seeds approach ripeness, or you can leave them to mature into their dry, easy-to-store form.
Soup peas (Pisum sativum) are a cool-weather crop cultivated like green shell peas, but starchy soup peas are smooth rather than wrinkled. These frost-tolerant peas should be planted quite early, in cool spring weather. Bush-type varieties, such as ‘Gold Harvest,’ form self-supporting blocks when grown in wide beds, but ‘Blue Pod Capucijners’ and other tall varieties will need a sturdy trellis. Soup peas grow best in cool northern climates, in slightly acidic to neutral soil with a pH from 5.5 to 7.0.
Traditional dry beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) look and grow like green snap beans, but the pods quickly become too tough and stringy to eat. Bush-type New England heirlooms, including ‘Kenearly Yellow Eye’ and ‘Jacob’s Cattle,’ tolerate cool soil conditions, so they are the best beans to grow where summers are short and cool. In warmer areas, bushy, black-and-white ‘Yin Yang’ (also known as ‘Calypso’) beans are as dependable as they are pretty. ‘Dwarf Horticultural’ beans can be sown after spring crops in areas with long summers. These and other true dry beans grow best in near-neutral soil with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0.
Many gardeners prefer to grow pole-type dry beans, which are grown up trellises or sown among knee-high sweet corn or sunflowers. Heirloom long-vined varieties — including intricately marked, brown-and-white ‘Hidatsa Shield’ and maroon-and-white ‘Good Mother Stallard’ — will eagerly scramble over drying corn in many climates. Where summer nights are warm and humid, ‘Turkey Craw’ and ‘Mayflower’ make outstanding cornfield beans provided they reach maturity in dry fall weather.
Runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) produce sweeter immature pods compared with other dry beans, and the plants’ showy flowers entice bumblebees. Runner beans benefit from cool nights and are easier to grow than lima beans in moderate climates. The dry seeds are big, colorful and meaty, resembling lima beans but possessing a sweeter flavor. ‘Scarlet Emperor’ bears purple-and-black seeds. The seeds of peach-blossomed ‘Sunset’ are almost entirely black, while those of ‘Streamline’ are speckled black and brown. Runner beans prefer soil with a near-neutral pH between 6.0 and 7.0.
Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus) thrive in warm, humid weather and are often resistant to pests that bother regular beans. Pole-type varieties, including ‘Christmas’ (‘Large Speckled Calico’) and white-seeded ‘King of the Garden,’ can return huge yields if supplied with a secure trellis. Bushy ‘Jackson Wonder’ can be grown as a dry bean, too. Dried limas are easier to shell than tender green ones. Lima beans favor slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5.
Cowpeas or crowder peas (Vigna unguiculata), collectively known as “Southern peas” or “field peas,” originated in Africa and have retained their need for warm weather. Glossy cowpea leaves are of no interest to common bean pests, and the purple blossoms set fruit even in humid heat, making this crop ideal for areas with hot, humid summers. ‘Early Scarlet’ and other bushy varieties set their pods high, which allows for easy picking, but you will get more peas per square foot via semi-vining varieties, such as ‘Pinkeye Purple Hull,’ ‘Mississippi Silver’ brown crowder and ‘Peking Black’ crowder. Small-seeded, almost-white ‘Zipper Cream’ is much-loved for its creamy culinary attributes and grows in a bush form. Cowpeas grow best in slightly acidic soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5.
Tepary beans (Phaseolus acutifolius) are native to the Southwest and Mexico, where they have been part of the traditional diet for thousands of years. Tepary beans are planted during the summer rainy season. They have smaller leaves than regular beans and adapt well to the alkaline soils found in many arid climates. Tolerant of heat and drought, tepary beans can produce well in any climate that has plenty of late-summer warmth and limited humidity. White-seeded ‘Tohono O’odham White’ and more colorful ‘Blue Speckled’ make excellent low-care crops in areas with hot summers. Tepary beans grow best in a neutral to alkaline soil with a pH near 7.0.
In early spring, sow soup peas in fertile beds four to six weeks before your last frost. All other dry beans and peas are warm-weather crops best sown in late spring and summer. Sow these seeds in fertile soil starting no earlier than two weeks after your last frost date. In areas with long summers, later plantings made in June may have the advantage of ripening during the typically dry weather of early fall, when scant rain reduces chances that pods will rot. In any climate, traditional dry beans with a bush habit can be planted up to 90 days before your first fall frost date.
Harvest beans and peas for drying anytime after the pods have become leathery up to when they have dried to their mature colors. (For example, the pods of ‘Dwarf Horticultural’ beans turn ivory with red stripes when the seeds inside reach maturity, while the pods of ‘Pinkeye Purple Hull’ cowpeas turn dark purple.) You can harvest green beans and peas for fresh cooking sooner, but seeds you intend to store must be fully ripe.
Leave drying pods on the plants as long as you can, but harvest them before a period of prolonged rain. If damp weather sets in just when your beans should be drying, pull up the plants and hang them upside down in a dry place until the beans are dry enough to pick and sort. Collect drying pods from pole varieties and runner beans as they change to tan or brown, and let the pods dry until crisp in a shallow tray or box kept indoors.
Threshing, or “shelling,” is the process of removing bean seeds from the pods, and you can do it either by machine or by hand. On a home-garden scale, shell a large crop of dry beans or peas by placing the dry pods on a tarp and crushing them by walking over them. Gather the heavy seeds that drop from the pods, and remove debris by pouring the beans back and forth from one bowl into another in front of a fan for a few minutes. Another option for small harvests is to put the pods in a pillowcase, tie the pillowcase closed tightly, and tumble it in a warm (not hot) clothes dryer.
After shelling and winnowing out debris, place your beans or peas in open bowls, and let them dry at room temperature for two weeks, stirring often. When the seeds are hard and glossy, remove any shriveled beans (dumping the beans over a screen can help), and store your sorted beans in airtight containers. If you suspect bean weevils or other insects may be present in your stored beans or peas, keep the sealed containers in the freezer.
Select the largest, most perfect seeds from your stored beans to keep with your cache of garden seeds for replanting. Because the seeds of legumes are self-pollinating, varieties are not likely to cross provided varieties of the same species aren’t grown side by side. When stored in an airtight container in a cool, dark place, dry bean and pea seeds will remain viable for at least four years.
Brick-colored, black-spotted Mexican bean beetles often lay clusters of yellow eggs on leaves of P. vulgaris beans, and the eggs then hatch into yellow larvae that will rasp tissues from leaves. Handpick this pest in all life stages, and try spraying neem on the insects and the leaves they are eating to control light infestations. In large plantings of more than a quarter-acre, try releasing beneficial Pediobius wasps. Mexican bean beetles do not bother cowpeas and are only slightly keen on limas.
Night-feeding cutworms sometimes fell bean seedlings by severing them at the soil line. Diatomaceous earth (DE) sprinkled over the soil’s surface can help reduce losses.
Wait until foliage is dry to pick or weed beans, because bean rust and other leaf-spot diseases can spread between plants when the leaves are wet.
Dry beans and peas are naturally short-lived plants. Promptly pull up and compost any plants that are past their prime in order to interrupt the life cycles of pests and diseases.
If you’re tight on space, grow dry beans as a succession crop by planting them directly after you harvest spring crops.
Never soak bean seeds in water to speed germination, as this can seriously damage the growing bean embryo by depriving it of needed oxygen.
Go light with fertilizer, because overfed dry beans grow into monstrous plants that don’t produce well. Lima beans are especially sensitive to over-fertilization.
In a Three Sisters garden — which includes beans, squash, and corn or sunflowers — dry beans will work better than snap beans because they can be harvested late, requiring less disturbance of the squash vines.
If legume pods get so dry they shatter when you pick them, lightly dampen the plants with water before gathering, or harvest in the morning when plants are wet with dew.
Locate sources for the bean and pea varieties discussed in this article with our Seed and Plant Finder.
Dry beans and peas share an impressive nutritional profile: A 1-cup serving of cooked dry legumes provides about 15 grams of protein plus lots of manganese, fiber, B vitamins and iron. Rinse dry beans well in cool water before cooking. If using a pressure cooker, cook the rinsed beans for 15 to 30 minutes. If you plan to cook dry beans on the stovetop, soak them in room-temperature water for 6 to 12 hours, depending on size. Drain, then cook at a low simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Season slow-cooked beans generously with garlic, bay leaf or thyme. Cooked beans can be simmered for a warm soup or chili, marinated for salads, puréed into dips or spreads, or mashed for filling burritos or enchiladas.
Loosen well-drained soil to at least 12 inches deep. Mix in a 1-inch layer of mature compost and, if you have it, a spadeful of soil from a bed where the same species of beans or peas grew the year before (to help inoculate the soil with nitrogen-fixing bacteria). Plant seeds 1 inch deep and 3 inches apart. Do not thin soup peas, as these grow best when crowded. Thin bush beans to 4 to 6 inches apart; thin pole beans, limas and semi-vining cowpeas to 10 inches apart. Dry beans and peas bear all at once on spreading branches, so they need wider spacing than snap beans do.
When growing dry beans up cornstalks or sunflowers, wait until the support crop is 18 inches tall, and plant bean seeds on the sunniest side of the corn or sunflowers. As the support crop topples from the weight of the beans, you may need to install stakes to give wandering vines a place to twine. Four- or 5-foot-tall stakes placed every 2 feet in rows of semi-vining cowpeas will help support and boost the productivity of the plants, which often reach heights of 4 feet tall. Pole-type lima beans are a full-season crop that require a sturdy trellis at least 6 feet tall.
Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.