Growing Shell Beans

Try growing your own shell beans (lima beans, runner beans, soup beans and cowpeas) for a wider variety of flavors than you’ll find in any grocery store.

  • Haricot rouge pods
    What beautiful red beans rest inside those dark pods! ‘Haricot Rouge de Burkina Faso’ is easy to grow and thrives in the heat.
  • Haricot rouge
    This pretty bean, ‘Haricot Rouge de Burkina Faso,’ is named for its place of origin, the West African country Burkina-Faso. It prospers even in harsh conditions.
  • Growing cowpeas
    Wait to harvest cowpeas until their pods have gone brown and crunchy. Then they’ll be easy to shell.
  • Penny Rile bean
    ‘Penny Rile’ is a productive cowpea. You’ll have meals on end from this one.

  • Haricot rouge pods
  • Haricot rouge
  • Growing cowpeas
  • Penny Rile bean

Few people think of the shell bean as an exciting food to grow. After all, beans are probably the cheapest source of protein available. So why go to all the effort of growing and shelling beans?

I grow shell beans for the same reason I grow salad greens: the opportunity to experience a wider palate of tastes, textures and appearances than you’d ever find in a supermarket. When you grow your own shell beans, you aren’t limited to the productivity-oriented varieties industrial farms favor. If you can pick your beans and eat them within hours, rather than the weeks it takes for commercial beans to be processed, they’ll taste better and retain more nutrients.

Beans also improve the soil in which they grow because of their symbiotic relationship with soil bacteria. Finally, there’s the cultural connection. The world of shell beans is tangled up in the history of humanity. Many varieties have been passed down from generation to generation, leaving family legends of Grandma’s shell bean or Uncle Roy’s lima. The names of strains reflect colorful histories: ‘Black Turtle,’ ‘Bohemian,’ ‘Old Timer,’ ‘Ozark Razorback.’ And who could resist grinning when eating a bean called ‘Greasy Grits’?

Types of Shell Beans

Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus) typically have half-moon-shaped pods with flat, gently rounded beans inside. Most cultivars grow vines, so they’ll need a support system. ‘Fordhook Giant’ is probably the best-known and most widely grown vining lima bean. It thrives throughout the United States, and produces generous yields of large beans. Another variety that grows well is ‘Dixie Speckled Butterpea.’ When you split open its modest green pods, you’ll be amazed to find that the beans are brightly speckled in burgundy and cream. The color is destroyed by cooking, but the look of the raw beans is so spectacular that you’ll treasure them for looks alone. There are also a few bush-type limas. ‘Henderson’s Bush Lima’ is an heirloom variety that grows no more than 18 inches high and yields well even in poor conditions. Its beans are the typical light green lima color.

Runner beans (Phaseolus coccinea) are more prominent in British gardens than American ones. Their big furry pods are often picked when young and tender, and used as green beans. At maturity, the pods swell with the huge beans held inside. The individual beans are amazing — a sort of bent lozenge shape, more than an inch and a half long, and colored hot pink with heavy burgundy speckling.

Soup beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are the most diverse of the shell bean types. They are “green beans” allowed to grow to maturity. As such, they come in a fascinating variety of colors, sizes and shapes.

Steve Clayton
1/15/2010 11:35:39 AM

Even though I rotate my plants on a 4-year cycle, "Aphid-borne Mosaic Virus" and "Witch's Broom Virus" are very common in my neighborhood (Tampa Bay Area, FL, USDA Zone 9b). When my beans get these viruses, I cut back (and burn!) the infected plant parts, then spray with Neem Oil, diluted in water (I'm sorry I don't remember the amount, but it is on all the bottles) and re-spray a week later. I never have another problem during the entire season after that! The nice thing is that the Neem Oil spray is it doesn't harm my pollinators - I have Honeybees when nobody else does! Additionally, it's great against fungi and mildew and relatively non-toxic to humans; I brush my teeth with a Neem toothpaste (best checkups in my life)!

1/14/2010 3:16:11 PM

We grew pinto beans on a cattle panel this summer. It was great fun! No work at all. They just grew til they died and then I picked the pods, shelled them, let the beans dry a few days and then put them in jars and just screwed the lid on. Very easy to "put up." You just cook them like you would any dried bean (soaking overnight). I just planted the beans I got at the grocery store (to cook). I don't know if this would work for every bean, but it worked for pintos. I'm planting more this summer! Lots more! JeannaMO

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