Beans - The Complete Guide to Growing Beans from Seed to Seed

Written by Chris Smith, author of The Whole Okra, Executive Director of The Utopian Seed Project and Communications Manager at Sow True Seed, follow him on Instagram at @blueandyellowmakes.

Beans, Phaseolus vulgaris

The common bean is perhaps the ultimate seed to seed crop. It is easy to grow, easy to keep the bean variety from cross pollinating with other varieties, and easy to save and store the seed. If you don’t do anything else this year, grow, eat and save some bean seeds.

As a member of the legume family, the common bean will fix nitrogen into your soil, even as it grows edible pods and develops storable and edible seeds. As a food source, beans have much to offer. They are high in protein, a good source of carbohydrates and fiber, and they have a low glycemic index.  

The sheer varietal choice makes beans exciting in of themselves, plus there is a great Appalachian tradition of beans to explore. When it comes to beans, there are a lot of different descriptions that go along with the beans!

Cherokee Wax Bean

A brief bean glossary of some common bean terms:

  • Snap Beans: The classic green bean offers a pod that is crunchy and will ‘snap’ when you bend it, if it’s flexible it’s likely to be tough. You can find stringless varieties, but it is the opinion of many that ‘stringed’ beans offer the best flavor.
  • Wax Beans: These beans are pale and yellow in color and generally have a milder flavor than green beans.
  • Purple Beans: Purple beans look great raw, but loose their color when cooked. They are fun in the garden and a favorite of children!
  • Cut-Shorts: These beans are so crammed into their pods, they end up with squared off edges, hence cut-shorts. They are renowned for their delicious flavor.
  • Greasy Beans: Heirloom favorites known for their hairless pods. This slickness gave rise to the name greasy beans.
  • Soup/Dry Beans: All beans can be dried for winter storage and soup, but some beans hold better flavor and mature to drying stage quicker and earn the title of soup bean.

  • Dragon Tongue Bean

    Bush beans vs pole beans

    Added to all this choice is the distinction between bush and pole beans. Bush beans have a more compact habit, although random vines can get excited and wander off. Bush beans also tend to mature at the same time, with one concentrated fruit set. This often makes bush beans good candidates for dried beans, where a single harvest is best for processing. Pole beans require some form of support, whether it is a trellis, a fence or a corn stalk. They can vary in height from 6ft to 20ft+ depending on variety. Pole beans will mature over time as they continue to grow and set flowers and pods. Pole beans are preferred for green beans to stagger the fresh harvest over time.

    Beans are a frost sensitive annual, but they can tolerate slighter cooler soil. Many people will risk an early planting of beans towards the end of April, sowing a quick maturing bush bean such as Provider (50 days to harvest) to get their first summer green beans as soon as possible. Bush beans are best sown in successions about two weeks apart to get a continual harvest throughout the season. Remember that if you want dry beans, or beans for seed saving, you’ll need the leave the plant in the ground for longer than you would for a green bean harvest.   

    Pole beans will keep on growing and producing over a longer harvest window and so tend to attract more pest problems. Mexican bean beetles are a common foe and will leave your leaves looking like they’re made from lace as the plants are rapidly defoliated. They can be squashed by hand in their larval stage, but constant vigilance is the key as populations can quickly run out of control.

    Saving bean seeds

    Bean flowers are perfect and self-fertile, meaning they can pollinate themselves. While bees will visit bean flowers, cross pollination does not happen very easily. Different bean varieties only need to be separated by 10-20ft to avoid cross-pollination. That means making sure your Cherokee Trail of Tears, or your Kentucky Wonder, stays true-to-type is very achievable even in a small garden.

    The seeds are ready to harvest when the pods are fully dry and brittle. It is best if this can happen on the vine. However, if heavy rains threaten a mostly dry seed set, pull the vines or pods and continue to dry under cover. Molding and re-hydration of the pod can negatively affect your seed crop.  

    Small amounts of pods can be hand shelled for seed saving. Make sure you label your different seed varieties. Larger quantities can be threshed (crushed to separate the pod from the seed) and then winnowed (using wind to blow the lighter pod debris or chaff from the heavier seed). At Sow True Seed we use a box fan to do our winnowing and it is very effective.

    Storing seeds requires a cool, dark and dry environment. Bean seeds can be assessed for moisture pretty easily. Place one seed on a solid surface and hit it with a hammer. If it shatters it is dry enough, if it smooshes it is not dry enough. Freezing is an effective tool to prevent bean weevils from destroying your seed crop, but even without freezing, bean seeds will store for 3-6 years.


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