Vertical Gardening: Growing Beans

Growing beans can be a space-saver in the world of vertical gardening.

Scarlet Runner Beans

As a group, pole beans are easy to grow and often produce bumper crops over a long season rather than in a single flush, as many bush beans do.

Illustration courtesy Storey Publishing

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In a very small footprint, you can take advantage of vertical gardening by planting vegetables that climb, ramble and twine toward the sun. Small, contained spaces also minimize weeding and pest control and maximize your harvest. Vertical Vegetables & Fruit (Storey Publishing, 2011), by Rhonda Massingham Hart, features gardening techniques that make efficient use of the space available, especially in a small yard. Use this passage to find out the not-so-secret secrets of growing beans vertically.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Vertical Vegetables & Fruit.

Growing beans

By the time Jack shinnied up the beanstalk, pole beans were already an established favorite among home gardeners. Not only are they easy to plant and grow; they also benefit the soil. Like all legumes, beans extract nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form that plant roots can absorb. This conversion is accomplished with the help of soil-dwelling microorganisms. With nitrogen being one of the three most heavily utilized elements of all green growing plants, this is no small claim to fame.

Many types of legumes are used as cover crops solely for their nitrogen-fixing ability, but anyone who has ever savored the fresh flavor of beans just plucked from the vine, lightly steamed and buttered, knows there are even more enjoyable rewards. As a group, pole beans are easy to grow and often produce bumper crops over a long season rather than in a single flush, as many bush beans do.

Beans may be used or preserved in a variety of ways with healthful, satisfying results. Pole beans, while generally bearing a little later than bush varieties, make up for their late start with extended harvest, bigger beans, and a more old-fashioned, “beany” taste.

A Web search for pole beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) turns up nearly three million websites vying to sing their praises. They come in an almost infinite array of colors, sizes, textures, and flavors. To simplify things, we’ll look at a few general categories — snap (green), French, shell, runner, Italian Rampicante (pole), lima, and asparagus (yard-long).

Snap beans

Snap beans are also called green beans, even when they’re not green. The term refers to their unripe state, not a specific color. Snap beans are harvested while the pods are narrow, smooth, and fleshy and the seeds inside are still undeveloped. The name snap comes from the crisp sound they make when broken in half.

Some varieties have a fibrous string running up the length of the bean, which is usually removed before eating, while others are stringless. Snap beans range from ordinary shades of green to creamy gold, mottled, or brash purple. There are many more varieties than we have room for here, but a few tried-and-true favorites deserve comment.

Stringed varieties

Blue Lake (OP, 63–75 days) was once the gold standard of homegrown pole beans, especially for canning. It is stringless right up to shelling stage. The 5- to 6-inch (15 cm) dark green pods are crisp, mild, and sweet-tasting. It is still a favorite for canning; good thing too, since it sets beans from the base of the plant to the tips of the vines in an almost continuous harvest. Other hybridized versions of Blue Lake also exist.

Kentucky Wonder, also called Old Homestead (OP, 67 days), is one of the oldest pole bean varieties grown because it is so reliable and adaptable. It is resistant to rust and produces a tremendous harvest of 8- to 9-inch (20–23 cm) beans.

Stringless varieties

Kentucky Blue (hybrid, 58 days, AAS 1991) combines the best of Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder. The 6- to 7-inch (15–18 cm) dark green pods are sweet and tender.

Kentucky Wonder Wax (OP, 65 days) produces butter yellow, 6- to 8-inch (15–20 cm) straight, almost stringless beans with fine flavor. It continues to flower until frost.

Purple Pod Pole (OP, 67 days) looks just like you’d think. Six-foot (2 m) vines generously produce old-fashioned-tasting beans. They are easy to see for harvest and look strange enough to entice kids to eat them (though they “magically” turn green when you cook them).

French beans

French or filet beans, also called haricots verts, are snap beans at their most delectable. Pods are harvested when they are one quarter inch (0.5 cm) or smaller in diameter.

Fortex (OP, 70 days) is a gourmet variety. Pods are longer than most, up to 10 inches (25 cm) long, but are best picked at 6 or 7 inches (15–18 cm) for the most delicate taste and texture.

Emerite (hybrid, 58 days) produces stringless beans that are perfection when 5 inches long, but remain exceptional up to 7 or 8 inches (18–20 cm) long. Yields of these fine-flavored beans are heavy, so pick early and often to keep the harvest coming.

Runner beans

Runner beans grow rampant vines, often very ornamental in appearance, that can reach lengths of almost 20 feet (6 m) in a single season. The pods generally become fibrous and tough if not harvested while still quite immature.

Scarlet Runner Beans (OP, 70–115 days) were cultivated as early as the 1600s. They grow quickly, reaching up to 18 feet (5.5 m) in length, and produce an abundance of beautiful scarlet flowers, followed by 8-inch-long (20 cm) beans. It is so stunning that people often grow it strictly as an ornamental, but the beans are good either as snap beans when young (about 70 days) or as shelled beans later in life (about 115 days). The more you pick the pods, the more flowers and beans keep coming.

Painted Lady (OP, 90 days), a variety similar to the above, dates back to 1827. Vines grow to 10 feet (3 m) long, sport scarlet and white flowers, and produce “delicious, dark brown mottled with creamy white beans,” 9 to 12 inches (23–30 cm) long, according to the Burpee seed catalog. I haven’t tried these yet, but that’s the problem with seed catalogs: There’s always something new to try!

Italian Rampicante (Pole)

Italian Rampicante (pole) or Romano beans are broad, flat, stringless, tender beans with a distinctive Old World “beany” flavor.

Romano Italian (hybrid, 70 days) reaches 5 feet (1.5 m) tall or better, but most pods grow low on the plant. Even so, yields are generous to the point of overwhelming. The meaty green pods have the best flavor and texture when they are about 4 inches (10 cm) long.

Meraviglia Venezia (OP, 55–60 days) sports flat, yellow, tender, stringless pods that grow to 10 inches (25 cm) or more. It is another heavy producer.

Golden of Bacau (OP, 60–70 days) produces 6- to 10-inch-long (15–25 cm), 1-inch-wide (2.5 cm), flat, golden Romano-type beans in abundance. With their remarkable sweet flavor, they are best eaten fresh but can be frozen.

Marengo (OP, 75 days) is a bright yellow variety, with bean pods slightly larger than other types. Pods form close together, from low on the vine to the tips.

Lima beans

Lima beans, also called butter beans, come in both large and “baby” types, referring to the size of the shelled seeds. The names give you some idea of what those seeds look like.

Christmas, also called Large Speckled Lima (OP, 80 days), tolerates hot weather and produces giant, healthy vines loaded with 5-inch (13 cm) pods of delicious, chestnut-flavored bean seeds.

Speckled Calico (hybrid, 80 days) produces large red and white beans with scrumptious, buttery flavor.

Florida Speckled Butter (OP, 85 days) has been popular since the 1840s, producing 10-foot-long (3 m) vines with clusters of bean pods, even in hot and/or humid weather. Beans are light tan with wine-colored flecks.

King of the Garden (OP, 88 days) grows to 5 feet (1.5 m) long and bears healthy yields of dark green, 8-inch (20 cm) pods. Each pod holds four to six large, richly flavored sweet beans.

Soybeans

Soybeans (Glycine max) aren’t true beans, per se, but with all the health benefits ascribed to them — high in protein, fiber, and isoflavone (believed by many to be a cancer fighter), as well as a source of calcium and B vitamins — this is as good a place as any to include them. Because they are an important commercial crop and therefore harvested by machine, breeding emphasis has been on bush varieties, so it’s harder to find vining types.

Soybeans are not recommended for raw eating but instead are best baked, steamed, or even boiled. The most popular home varieties now are edamame types, which are harvested green, instead of the more traditional shelled types. Shirofumi is a favorite for home gardens as it has a sweet, nutlike taste and a smooth (not grainy) texture. Vines grow to about 3 feet (1 m) and produce in 80 to 90 days.

Soybeans grow a little differently from true beans. They tolerate heat better than most beans (except lima, which love hot weather) and handle cool spells better than lima beans. In fact, they perform best when days are warm and nights are cool. Even the bush types grow larger and floppier than standard bush beans, and will need some support.

Site and soil requirements

Although beans are not fussy plants, they do have their preferences. Like many cultivated plants, they like a sunny spot and moisture- retentive but well-drained soil that is rich in humus. Do not plant them where water pools after a rain. If the soil has a drainage problem, correct it by incorporating organic matter, such as peat, compost, or rotted manure, or by planting the beans in containers. Don’t apply a nitrogen-heavy fertilizer unless soil tests confirm it’s needed, as too much nitrogen can prompt plants to produce excess vines and leaves and fewer, later bean pods.

If you garden in a short-season area, or just want to get a jump on the season, lay black or clear plastic over well-prepared soil several weeks prior to planting to help warm the soil. Turning in half-rotted compost a few weeks before planting is another heat-generating trick.

Although beans thrive in warm weather (70–80 degrees Fahrenheit [21–27 degrees Celsius]), hot, dry spells cause them to close up shop, at least temporarily. Above 95 degrees F (35 degrees C), they stop flowering and may drop existing blossoms, which slows future production of beans.

Planting guidelines

Do not plant before the soil warms, as beans simply will not germinate in cold soil. Except for fava beans, a cool-growing (mostly bush variety) cousin, beans are warmhearted. Lima beans will not ever consider germinating in soil temperatures cooler than 65 degrees F (18 degrees C). Even when daytime temperatures are warm, be sure all danger of frost at night is past before planting.

While a planting depth of 1 inch (2.5 cm) is commonly recommended, poking the seeds down 2 inches (5 cm) may give a little added insurance against the odd extra-cool night. Space seeds 4 to 6 inches (10–15 cm) apart along a fence or A-frame trellis, or in groups of four or five at each foot of a tepee trellis. You will be thinning as the plants progress.

Be sure to leave enough room between rows or groups for you to work without catching or damaging the vines. Press the soil down gently but firmly, and soak it to be sure each seed has good contact with the moist soil.

If you prewarmed the soil with plastic, you can remove it at planting time or leave it in place as an inorganic mulch. Just plant right through it by cutting an X every 6 inches (15 cm) and pushing two seeds into the soil through each slit.

Plant lima bean seeds with the eye facing down. The first roots will emerge from here and will orient the young plants in the right direction.

Plant soybeans about 2 inches (5 cm) deep, spaced 4 to 5 inches (10–12 cm) apart, in rows about 2 feet (61 cm) apart. Be sure they are situated so they aren’t shaded by other plants or trellises.

Presprouting

Pole bean seeds germinate in 7 to 14 days, or sooner if presprouted. Presprouting may help you get a jump on a short growing season. Place bean seeds in a wet coffee filter or paper towel. Fold and place it in a plastic bag and let sit in windowsill for two days. Check carefully for roots to emerge. The germinating seeds must be handled with extreme care because any damage or bruising will injure the infant plants. As soon as the seeds have sprouted, follow outdoor planting directions.

Don’t wait until they develop long roots, as the plants will consider that a form of transplanting. Beans detest transplanting. So don’t bother to start beans indoors or waste your money on transplant seedlings. They will express their displeasure by growing into weak plants with sad harvests.

Training beans to grow up

Beans will twine around anything! Ten-foot (3 m) bean poles driven into the soil have long been a common sight in backyard gardens, but there are many other ways to support them. I knew a family who transformed an old swing set into a bean trellis and trained pole beans up the frame of an old playhouse!

Tepee trellises are a popular method for training pole beans. Especially in windy areas, it is a good idea to push the bottom end of the poles into the prepared soil for stability. Starting with the tripod described on page 20, position the poles in a 3-, 4-, or 5-foot-wide (1–2 m) circle, then add more poles until there are 6 to 12 inches (15–30 cm) between the feet. One to three vines can climb each leg of the tepee. A running tepee is also superb for pole beans. Again, space the feet of the poles 6 to 12 inches (15–30 cm) apart.

Just about any style of trellis with lots of narrow, vertical components (plant supports) works for beans. Twine or wire supports serve equally well on a fence or an A-frame. The slight slant of the A-frame allows the beans to hang down away from the foliage, which makes them a snap to pick from underneath. Commercial bean towers work fine if you use every other strand; otherwise they tend to crowd the vines.

The most important thing to consider when choosing a trellis for pole beans is that it is tall and sturdy enough for the variety you are growing. It is also important to have the trellis ready before you plant. Any poles or posts that extend beneath the soil line should go into the ground before the seeds do. Otherwise, you may accidentally damage tender seedling roots if you don’t get around to putting them in until later. In my garden, “later” is already overbooked!

Beans do not like to be overcrowded; they need ample space for roots and foliage to spread out and for adequate ventilation around foliage. Once the young plants have become established, thin them to the best two or three per pole or no more than one vine every 6 inches (15 cm) along a fence. Never pull up the castoffs; their roots may be intertwined with their neighbors. Instead, snip them off near the soil level with scissors to avoid disturbing other plant roots.

Weed with care to avoid damaging those delicate roots. Cultivate shallowly since the feeder roots are near the surface. Putting down a 4-inch (10 cm) layer of mulch after the seedlings have grown a foot (30 cm) or so tall will significantly cut down on weeding and will also help keep the roots cool and moist.

Read more: Learn more from Vertical Vegetables & Fruit in Vertical Gardening: Growing Cucumbers.

Reprtinted with permission from Vertical Vegetables & Fruit: Creative Gardening Techniques for Growing Up in Small Spaces by Rhonda Massingham Hart and published by Storey Publishing, 2011. Buy this book from our store: Vertical Vegetables & Fruit.