Everything you ever wanted to know about pole beans

Over the years I’ve noticed that when I mention pole beans to fellow gardeners, their eyes glaze over. I understand – I felt the same way at one time. Most of the pole beans I grow need at least 8′ of pole above the ground. Who wants to go through the nuisance of putting up adequate support when you can simply plant bush beans and not be bothered?

This widespread attitude has resulted in the disappearance of many outstanding bean varieties from the seed catalogues, and, in the case of my locale, northern New England, the loss of what used to be a major piece of our gardening and food culture.

Some of the author’s pole bean varieties: clockwise from upper left, Blue Shacksamaxon, Dolloff, True Vermont Cranberry, Smith’s Vermont Cranberry.

I began collecting local vegetable varieties (popularly called “heirlooms”) here in northeastern Vermont around 1980 and putting them into the Seed Savers Exchange network. At the same time I was collecting stories about what people used to grow here, and researching varieties in the Seed Savers Exchange that had histories in northern Vermont and New Hampshire in order to bring them back if possible. What I found here were largely potatoes (mostly badly virus infected) and beans, with a few other odds and ends. Beans and potatoes were the primary staple vegetables for people in this area for nearly 200 years, until the late 20th century when eating industrialized food became the norm instead of subsistence gardening and farming.

The predominance of bush beans over pole beans now is due to the fact that bush beans are suited for mechanized growing and harvesting. They have been bred to their short stature from their long vining ancestors. Pole beans will not likely ever be a significant part of commercial bean growing, there is too much hand labor required to erect support, plant, cultivate and harvest. But, for those of us who grow beans without tractors, pole beans are an easy way to grow significant quantities of a staple food in a small space, and they offer flavors and textures that can’t be found in bush beans.

In my typically cool and wet growing season, bush beans are prone to disease, mold and rot as the pods fill out, get heavy and touch the ground. Properly supported pole beans hold their pods far above the ground where there is much better air circulation and solar exposure, so most years the pods dry down nicely on the vine without getting moldy. Finally, in terms of yield per square foot of garden space, for me bush beans don’t come close to the harvests I can get from pole beans. Over the years I’ve come to the point where I grow a few rare bush beans of local historical interest in order to keep the seed available, but, for our food needs, we rely on pole beans.

There are other species of long vining beans, of course, but my interest is mainly in Phaseolus vulgaris, the common bean. Runner (P. coccineus) and pole lima (P. lunatus ) beans can both be grown and used in a similar way, but I haven’t yet found any that are early enough to be productive in my short season and cold climate.

All Phaseoli species originated in the Americas. Some were domesticated and grown by Native Americans throughout the two continents. Many Phaseolus vulgaris varieties grown here now made the trip to Europe long ago and have come back again, but all have their origins in the breeding work of Native Americans.

The most common pole beans are full-on Jack-in-the-Beanstalk types that will climb 8-12 feet or more, but there is also a subcategory with more demure habits: short pole beans, known as twiners, half-runners, or cornfield beans. Twiners are generally 3-5′ tall, and are the type of beans to use in a three sisters planting (corn, beans, and squash grown together). Native Americans bred the twiners for climbing corn stalks. Full sized pole beans will overwhelm most corn, but the twiners are just right, as long as the corn is not a dwarf variety.

I won’t go into detail here about individual varieties, there are many hundreds in the Seed Saver’s Exchange network and other heritage plant networks, and there is a fabulous diversity amongst them. Many have amazing stories, and are uniquely adapted for specific climates, and for specific food preferences, for instance, beans for chili, beans to cook with rice, baked beans, beans as a green vegetable. For the permaculture garden, it is well worth it to do some research to find the varieties best suited for your climate and how you like to eat them. In other words, research to source the seeds, and trial them in your garden and kitchen.

When you find something good, commit to a long-term relationship: grow your own seed. Commercial seed sources cannot be relied upon to keep varieties available or alive. Plus, by joining and participating in a network like Seed Saver’s Exchange you will have access to the widest spectrum of varieties. Many pole bean varieties are at an “orphan” status, meaning that they are only being grown by a couple of gardeners (if that), and are thus in danger of extinction.

Saving bean seed is easy. If you’re growing beans for drying, you’re growing beans you can plant. The only difference is, for seed, you need to have a 20′ separation between varieties to maintain purity.

Beans appreciate loose, well drained soil. I do all my tilling by hand, and our gardens consist of permanent raised beds. To prepare for planting beans, I loosen the soil in the beds with a digging fork, and remove any weeds. I lay some compost onto the beds where they’re going to be planted, and work it into the soil lightly with the fork. Beans don’t require heavy feeding because they fix nitrogen in the soil, and I take advantage of this by using the same garden spot for heavy feeders like tomatoes the following season.

I don’t recommend teepees for pole beans, unless your priority is a children’s play area. Teepee support might work decently in a very dry climate, but that configuration doesn’t allow all the vines to get full sun, and it reduces air circulation around the plants and pods. As a result, the vines won’t be as productive, and it will be harder to get the pods dry for harvest. I prefer to set the poles in a row, about 8″ apart. For a long row, I run them along the north side of beds whose long dimensions run more or less east-west. This way, I can grow 2 rows of potatoes in the south portion of the bed. The beans and potatoes are good companions.

My favored means of support is ash poles for the tallest beans. I cut the poles when we cut firewood in late winter, or take the new growth off coppiced stumps of trees that have already been cut once. I look for more or less straight lengths of at least 12′, with a butt diameter of 1 1/2 to 2″ for the full sized pole beans. The ash poles are OK for two seasons, beyond that, they’re a gamble you don’t want to take. It’s very discouraging to have poles snap on you when they’re heavy with vines and bean pods.

Other species could certainly be used for poles, depending upon what you have available, though I would avoid poplar – it rots very quickly. Materials other than wood could be used as well, maybe some creative recycling of building materials, etc.

One place to look for pole material is under power lines. Our local electric utility doesn’t use herbicide under their power lines. Every few years a work crew goes through and cuts and chips all the tall brush and trees. Essentially, they coppice the trees, and 2 or 3 years after the cut, there are often a lot of perfect bean poles sprouting from the stumps.

So, how do you erect a 12′ pole so that it will stay up all season and hold the weight of your crop? A post hole digger is overkill for this application, and quite disruptive to the garden beds. I use a tool that was my grandfather’s – he called it a crowbar, but it’s not what most people think of as a crow bar – this bar is straight. It’s a long iron bar like a spudbar, but with a blunt point instead of a chisel end (see photo), and it has a slight taper from the blunt point to the top so that the bottom is the heaviest part. I call it a drop bar. It’s one of my most frequently used garden tools.

To make a hole for a pole, I simply go to the prepared garden bed, hold the bar straight above the spot where I want the pole to be, and drop it into the ground. I repeat this several times, and then drop it in and roll it around evenly after each drop to widen the hole as needed, and repeat the drop and roll until the hole is deep and wide enough. The depth should be a minimum of 10″. When the hole is ready, I drop the pole in, butt end down, and very lightly tamp around it. The soil should be compacted as little as possible. With a good deep hole, the pole will sit solidly with very little tamping.

When the poles are set, the beans can be sown. I usually put 6 or 7 seeds around each pole in a circle within a couple of inches of the pole. Once they start growing, the bean tendrils find the poles pretty easily, but sometimes it’s necessary to redirect them to the poles if they start to wander early in the season.

Beans are harvested and eaten at three different stages, depending on the variety: green pod, green shell and dry. Some pole bean varieties are multi-purpose and are good for all three uses.

Green pod is the stage most gardeners are familiar with – the immature pods before the beans fill out – string beans, snap beans, green beans, filet beans, etc.

Beans in the green shell stage
(shelly beans).

Green shell, or “shelly” beans are less familiar to most people, but as recently as the 1950s they were common in late summer and autumn in New England markets, sold in the pod. The pods are harvested when the beans are fully formed but not dry, and the greenness has begun to leave the pods. At this stage the pods are not eaten. The beans themselves are bigger than they would be if left to dry down and also generally don’t have the full color that they will have when dry. Like shelling peas, the beans are removed from the pods (shelled out), and can be used for baked beans, chili, or any dish for dry or canned beans, plus, they can be used as a green vegetable, for instance, sauteed or braised. One of the wonderful things about shell beans is that they cook quickly – no soaking or long cooking is necessary: they are not too far from “al dente” right out of the shell. They also have a certain sweetness that dry beans don’t have – they really are a delicacy fresh. To store them as “shellies” they need to be either frozen or pressure canned. The varieties good for shell beans usually are large seeded.

Dry beans are bean seeds, totally dried for storage. Properly dry, they can be kept at room temperature, or optimally, a little cooler and dryer, and in low light. I use glass jars – they don’t need to be absolutely sealed, but the container should be tight. For seed purposes, bean seed can be kept this way reliably about 3 years, after that, germination declines markedly.

To harvest pole beans for drying, when the pods have dried down and the beans have colored, I pick the pods on a good dry day, if possible, and put them into recycled large plastic net onion bags. Ideal conditions for picking are that the pods are getting brittle, but if conditions aren’t the best, they can still be harvested, for instance, if you expect frost or an extended period of rain. The more moisture in the pods, the fewer pods I put in each bag. I hang the bags initially in our breezeway, and then move them to the basement to hang from the rafters near the wood stove for their final drying. When they are fully dry, I put the pods in an old pillowcase, crush and stomp them until all the beans are out of the pods, shake them down, then remove the pods and debris. The last of the debris can be winnowed out in a shallow basket in a good wind, or in front of a fan; or you can leave a small amount of the debris in the beans for storage, and float it off in water as you use them.

Cooking dry beans, like setting poles for beans, is off-putting if you don’t have the right tools. A good pressure cooker (non-electric and stainless steel, NOT aluminum) is a must for anyone serious about growing, cooking and eating their own dry beans. With a pressure cooker, you don’t have to pre-soak them overnight, or at all. It takes about 50 minutes under pressure to get large sized beans soft, starting with unsoaked dry beans. In general, a pressure cooker takes about 25% as much fuel and 25% as much time as a regular lidded sauce pan to cook anything. In addition to being super energy efficient, a non-electric pressure cooker can be used in just about any kind of cooking situation you have – from regular kitchen stoves to open camp fires. We use our wood furnace when it’s running, and if it’s not hot enough to initially bring the cooker up to pressure, I heat the cooker up to pressure on the propane stove, and then put it on the wood heater. I prefer the inner-lid type of pressure cooker, they’re very safe and easy to clean, though they are hard to find in the US.

I hope you’ll consider adopting pole beans into your permaculture garden. Coming soon, a video showing how to set poles for bean support.

One Response to “Everything you ever wanted to know about pole beans”

  1. The Extreme Gardener: experiments in permaculture and other gardening adventures in Northeastern Vermont says:

    […] an article I wrote that appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of the Permaculture Activist, under the title “The […]

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