Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Beans: One of Three Sisters

Mmmm... fresh from the garden sweet peas! No, that was last week. Today we're talking about Beans!

Beans are more than good for your heart. They’re good for your garden too! Not only do they feed you, they feed the soil with their nitrogen rich roots. That’s why ancient agrarian civilizations planted beans along with corn and squash. This clever method of intercropping is called The Three Sisters. Corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb, the beans provide the much-needed nitrogen for the corn to grow tall and low-growing squash with its broad green leaves provides shade to keep the soil moist and weed free. Brilliant, yes?

Beans are a welcome addition to any urban garden because they're ready to harvest when your peas and radishes have all been eaten and your tomatoes and eggplants are still a month away from ripening. They are a perfect mid season crop that is super simple to grow. Their large seeds are easy to handle and they can be started indoors in early spring or direct sown in warm, moist soil after all danger of frost has passed - about 2 weeks post-last frost. Like, about now.

There are so many varieties to choose from: bush or pole, snap or shelling.
Pole beans, also known as runner beans, are very productive plants that are great space savers, but they need to climb up a trellis or some kind of string. You can also create a “tee pee” structure using three or four sticks or bamboo canes tied together at the top. Whatever method of trellising you choose, make sure it is in place at the time of planting so you don’t disturb the shallow roots as they get established.

Bush varieties are not quite as productive as pole beans but the 36-inch tall plants don’t need staking and are ready to harvest sooner. Plus they save space in your garden for other climbers like squash or cucumbers. If you are using a square foot gardening method, plant 4 or 5 beans in each square in a dice formation. Use good quality mulch on top of the soil to keep it moist and prevent slugs.

Snap beans are eaten when their seeds are small and the flesh of the bean is crunchy and full of juice. Shelling beans are grown for the bean inside the pod and usually dried and stored, except for lima or soya beans which can be eaten fresh. Yum!

I usually grow bush beans because I like them early but pole beans are very decorative, especially if you combine varieties for a pretty show of flowers. Try growing the classic Scarlet Runner with Trionfo Violeto for a gorgeous mix of bright red and deep purple flowers.

Beans are good companions for most other plants. They love well-drained soil in a good sunny spot but they can handle some afternoon shade. Make sure you harvest the beans when the leaves are dry. You are more likely to spread disease when the leaves are wet.

I like to harvest my beans when they are young and sweet, well before the bean inside starts to swell. If you harvest continuously the plant keeps producing. Talk about cost saving! If you allow the bean to mature on the plant it will stop producing which can be a good thing if you plan to save your seeds for next year.

Seed saving is easy, satisfying and cost effective as well. All you have to do is allow the beans to dry on the vine when the leaves start to yellow and productivity slows down. You can then cut the plant down at the base of the stem and hang it up to finish drying. Leave the roots in the ground to infuse the soil with nitrogen.

To find a good selection of bean seeds order online now from West Coast Seeds or Amishland, visit your local farmer’s market or if you're in the Greater Toronto Area, there's a lovely little store downtwon called Urban Harvest.

What beans will you be growing this year?

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