Two Sisters: Growing Corn and Shell Beans at Home

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Corn and beans, grown together for generations, can be enjoyed fresh in the garden or together on your table.
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Plant corn in clusters of four and then thin them to three to save space and promote pollination.
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Pole beans, such as these 'Rattlesnake' beans, can gain support from a trellis.

Corn and beans have long been related — in history, in the garden, and in the kitchen. As two of the “three sisters,” as Native Americans call them, they coexist happily. Vining beans climb cornstalks, while big leaves of squash carpet the ground below. Modern gardeners tend to give each one its own bed, and most plant sweet corn instead of the flint and flour corns traditionally used in three sisters growing strategies. However, varieties of corn and beans have long been intertwined. It’s a treat to have them together in the summertime, such as in these sweet corn and shell bean recipes.

Summer Fresh Corn Chowder Recipe

Rainbow Succotash Salad Recipe

Summer Chili Recipe with Fresh Shell Beans

Growing Corn at Home

Americans do love their sweet corn varieties. Summer meals leave indelible memories of munching on the ears with butter running down your chin. The whole experience of corn can be an outdoor one if you plan it right. Pick it and shuck it outside so the silks and husks don’t mess up the kitchen. Roast it in the coals of a backyard fire or on a grill, brushed with herb butter and wrapped in foil. Or, soak the freshly picked ears in water, grill until done, husk them hot, and then butter and season them. You can toss all the residue on the compost pile. We’ve even stood in our corn patch and eaten it raw — it’s that tender and sweet when it’s just harvested.

Corn is a handsome plant, and you can landscape with it as if it were a little forest. Plant it in a fertile bed along a fence to lash the stalks to as they grow. That will keep them erect and provide a windbreak for the yard.

Corn is usually direct-sown, but in Maine we get a jump on the short season by germinating the seeds indoors in soil blocks. Although corn can tolerate some cool, moist spring weather, modern varieties don’t germinate well in those conditions. So we transplant the seedlings into the garden when they’re just a few inches tall, in tight clusters of four plants. We space the clusters 18 inches apart. Then, we thin them to three as soon as it’s clear which plant in the group is weakest. We cut it carefully, just under its roots. (Pulling it up would disrupt the others.) This scheme saves space and facilitates pollination because corn is wind-pollinated. Corn’s a heavy feeder, so we add lots of compost or well-rotted manure to the bed in fall before planting.

When the silks turn dark, start pinching the tips of the ears, which go from pointed to rounded as the kernels mature. Peel back a leaf to see whether the kernels have sized up. Puncture one with a fingernail to see whether it oozes its sweet, milky juice.

We enjoy planting several sweet corn varieties in succession to stretch out the harvest, starting with the early ‘Sugar Buns,’ then moving on to a great open-pollinated variety called ‘Double Standard,’ followed by the bicolored ‘Delectable,’ and then the old-fashioned white ‘Silver Queen.’ We prefer the flavor of these to the modern super-sweets.

To remove kernels from the cob, we hold the ears upright, pointed end up, and slice downward with a heavy knife. The kernels go into soup or chowder, salsa, soufflé, shepherd’s pie, a mixed vegetable medley, pancakes, or cornmeal muffins. One of our favorites is creamed corn, made by simmering the kernels in a little cream in the place of butter. When we have more corn than we can eat, we blanch the ears for a minute or two in boiling water, cut off the kernels, and freeze them in 8-ounce portions for winter dishes.

What Are Shell Beans?

Shell beans are a gardener’s secret delight; they’re rarely available fresh in markets. Frozen lima beans are often the only shell beans people know. The term generally refers to a stage between snap beans and dried beans, when the seeds have swelled to fill the pod but have not yet turned hard. As a result, they cook quickly. While they may absorb some water in the process, they don’t expand nearly as much as dried beans, so instead of doubling in size, they might go from, say, 3 pounds of raw shell beans to 4 pounds cooked. Like any bean, they’re usually direct-sown when the ground has warmed up and the danger of frost has passed. Legumes supply some of their own fertility (through nitrogen fixation) and are easy to grow. For a big batch of beans to dry and freeze, grow the bush type in rows. These are short-vined and bear heavily over a short period of time. To get a steady supply throughout summer, grow the long-vined pole beans, so named because of their need for support. You can grow them on individual wooden or bamboo poles, on pole tipis, on a vertical trellis of metal or nylon mesh, or even on a fence. But keep up with picking, or they’ll stop making pods.

A shell bean can be any variety, even one grown for ornament, such as ‘Scarlet Runner’ with its gorgeous red flowers. Some varieties are traditionally favored for shell bean use because the pods tend to be easy to open. Many are red-streaked, such as the heirloom ‘Rattlesnake,’ ‘Tongue of Fire,’ ‘French Horticultural,’ and ‘Vermont Cranberry,’ an old bush type. Flageolet beans are often cooked at the shell stage, as are many Italian types, such as cannellini and borlotti beans. If you have a long, hot summer, you can grow limas — ‘King of the Garden’ is a favorite.

For even cooking, pick a batch of shell beans at the same degree of maturity. Test them by pressing a few beans with your finger to see whether they’ve softened. They’re delicious served with butter or with garlic and olive oil. Make a bean salad with them, dressed with vinaigrette and some minced onion or shallots. They’re wonderful with other summer vegetables in soups, such as minestrone, or puréed with lots of garlic for a spread or dip.

Use your corn grown at home and your fresh shell beans in these summertime sweet corn recipes and shell bean recipes.

Summer Fresh Corn Chowder Recipe

Rainbow Succotash Salad Recipe

Summer Chili Recipe with Fresh Shell Beans

Barbara Damrosch enjoys fresh summer corn and beans right in the garden at her home, Four Season Farm, in Maine. She’s the author of The Garden Primer and co-author of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook, both available at the MOTHER EARTH NEWS bookstore.