growing dry beans, with sarah kleeger of adaptive seeds
DRY BEANS have been a mainstay of my diet for decades; the pantry’s always stocked with multiple kinds. But as possibilities beyond the basic Navy, pinto, kidney or black have caught my fancy, the price per pound has gone up–and there’s often limited local availability. The solution to both issues: grow your own.
While browsing the seed catalogs, I fell into a motherlode at Adaptive Seeds out in Sweet Home, Oregon, plus a comprehensive how-to article on the topic, by Adaptive’s co-founder Sarah Kleeger, all the way down to an analysis on a farm scale of how much it cost in manpower hours and supplies to grow them.
Last year I intentionally grew dry beans for the first time in any semi-serious way, and it was so rewarding that this year the garden plan calls for more, more, more. Maybe you’ve been an accidental dry-bean grower like I had till then, leaving a tower of ‘Scarlet Runner’ standing until the big fat seeds spilled out onto the ground nearby, and were snatched by a marauding chipmunk and stashed somewhere. With Sarah’s help, we can do much better.
Listen to our conversation using the player below (or at this link) as you read along with the transcript below of the April 11, 2016 edition of my public-radio show. Also: I’ll buy a lucky reader some bean seeds; enter at the very bottom of the page.
my dry-bean growing q&a with sarah kleeger
Q. First, Sarah: a little about Adaptive, for those who don’t know it: You and your business partner and husband Andrew Still have been selling retail seeds grown organically since what, about 2009?
A. The 2009 catalog was the first, and we became certified organic since 2013.
Q. Are you a seed farm that just sells retail in the catalog, or so you sell wholesale, too?
A. We primarily sell retail-sized quantities, but we are starting to do some farmer-sized quantities—like 5 pounds of some of our beans, for example. And we also sell a limited amount of seed to other seed companies. Occasionally in the autumn, we’ll sell some excess crops that can be both food and seed to the local markets. But we’re definitely focusing on seed production at this point.
Q. Also perhaps having nothing to do with beans…what are the hot items from the 2016 catalog? I always ask people, because I know what I’m attracted to, but I don’t know what everyone else likes.
A. The ‘Candystick Dessert Delicata’ is one that has been pretty popular the last couple of years. It’s really delicious, sweet and productive—I think it’s just way better than all other Delicatas that are available for flavor, and I think it’s more beautiful. It’s got like a nice tan undercoat.
Our ‘Gulag Stars’ kale, and ‘Sutherland’ kale and ‘Madeley’ kale are near the top. I think we’re pretty well-known for our kale selection; it’s something we’re particularly passionate about. The ‘Madeley’ was not available last year and is back this year—and making a pretty good showing.
Q. Sarah, I am beginning to think you and Andrew are seed omnivores. [Laughter.] I think of Adaptive Seeds as having massive collections of kale varieties, and peppers, but now I realize you are knee deep in beans, too. How did that happen?
A. Adaptive Seeds started as something that grew organically out of this project that Andrew and I started about 10 years ago. We traveled Europe and collected a lot of varieties of seeds through what we called the Seed Ambassadors Project. A large percentage of the seeds we collected on that trip were dry beans.
Q. I didn’t know that; we’ve never talked about that before.
A. A lot of that is the foundation of our dry-bean collection, as well as the foundation of Adaptive Seeds in general. Dry beans are so great for seed savers, because they are largely self-pollinating, just like tomatoes. That was another thing that we brought back quite a few varieties of—tomatoes and dry beans.
We’ve had this really great and delicious chore of going from, “Oh, we have several hundred cultivars of these two types of things. What are the ones that are good enough to produce on scale, and distribute more widely?”
Q. So you didn’t suffer during the trials. [Laughter.]
A. Not one bit, though sometimes it took many growouts before we were even able to taste some of the varieties that we have, especially as far as dry beans go.
Q. So to be clear, the dry beans we’re talking about are botanically Phaseolus vulgaris – same genus and species and even sometimes the same variety as the “green beans” or “snap beans” we grow for fresh eating. The bean doesn’t know it’s a “dry bean” or a “snap bean,” does it?
A. That’s correct—your mouth knows the difference way more than the plant does. We do have some other species of beans, but when we say “dry beans” colloquially, that means Phaseolus vulgaris.
Q. Some are especially good as dry beans, and productive for that use, and some are especially delicious as snap beans, and some have both qualities and are dual-purpose, yes? [See box below from Sarah on dual-purpose beans in particular.]
Q. In your dry bean listings in the catalog, you have like 15 kinds of bush dry beans, and maybe a half-dozen pole types—not counting the snap beans. It’s crazy!
A. It does change every year as we see what our customers respond to well, and what they don’t.
Q. Before we talk about how to grow and dry them, what about some of the standouts? You said you came back from Europe with so many more, and had to narrow it way down from like 100-plus.
What were you looking for? You didn’t want to have 15 that were all the same. What were the attributes that you were sought—color, texture, flavor?
A. The first thing is earliness. We wanted beans that would dry down reliably in our area. We focused on things that would mature in about 90 days. A huge percentage of what we had is longer-season than that—so right off the bat, that eliminated quite a few. We went for ones that are very unique and beautiful looking, as one of our key qualities—because why not have beautiful dry beans, when there are so many available?
Some of them, you look at them at them and it’s hard to believe. They can be like bright pink with dark purple splotches on them.
Q. It’s insane, isn’t it? The mosaics, or patterns on them.
A. That was the next one. Maybe concurrent with that, we looked at productivity. Some varieties really were amazing looking, but their yields were just too low to justify growing them on a scale to make available.
I guess I should also say that we do a certain amount of genetic-preservation work as well, so the beans that don’t make the cut for the catalog, we still do grow maybe 10 to 20 varieties per year just to keep them around, because we don’t know of other people who are doing that.
Q. I see. So in the background, there is keeping them vital and in good fresh supply.
So earliness—90ish days—and beautiful was important. They can have very different textures and flavors. Do you have favorites for culinary, on-the-tongue sort of standard?
A. I do, and it’s not very frequent that the best-tasting ones have the best agronomic traits, unfortunately. I guess this is really how things tend to go for heirloom varieties of anything.
Not speaking about beans specifically, but heirlooms tend to be lower-yielding, and more prone to disease—and unfortunately the same thing is true for heirloom beans. I would say there are a couple of exceptions. The first that comes to mind would be the ‘Titus’ cannellini that we offer [below].
It’s not from the Seed Ambassadors trip; it’s from some local seed savers. It’s just an amazing and delicious bean. I think a lot of people know cannellini beans, and they one of the specialty dry beans that’s more commonly available.
They’re just so delicious, and in the case of the ‘Titus’ cannellini, they’re early to mature for us, which is not common with cannellini beans in our area. Productive, pods don’t shatter—all of the things I want in a bean is in that one.
I’m really also partial to the Tiger’s Eye bean [above]. It’s beautiful and very delicious. From a growing perspective it offers a few more challenges on the farm scale, because pods mature over more of an indeterminate time period. So it’s better for people who can go pick the pods as they dry, as opposed to our farm method, which is pulling up entire plants.
Q. I read on the website that you grow bush beans on the farm, but you offer both bush and pole. Let’s talk about for the home gardener, and productivity—a teepee of pole beans versus X feet of row of bush. I’ve read that pole may be more productive for the small-space gardener.
A. I think that may be true if you are able to use a teepee system. In our farm system, we are able to do three rows of beans along a bed for the bush type, but for the pole type it’s just one row, and because of the trellis infrastructure it makes it a lot lower.
I haven’t fully evaluated the comparison, but the truth is that pole beans tend to be a much, much larger plant. They can grow up to 7 or 8 feet if you provide enough trellis, and they are producing beans all the way up. The other bonus is that you don’t have to bend over to pick them [laughter]….
Q. No crawling around like with most garden tasks. When you said a foot apart and three rows in the bed, you have 44-inch beds, I think.
A. Yes, that’s correct.
Q. I tried growing dry beans last year. It was Theresa Pool of Prairie Road Organic Seed—do you know her?
Q. She said to try the ‘Hidatsa Shield’ pole beans. They grow them up tall red sorghum plants in sort of a riff off traditional Three Sisters polyculture—instead of up the corn, they use sorghum. I used teepees from 10-foot bamboo. They were very productive.
Do you have a general yield per whatever space? Per mile? [Laughter.] Because I was like, “Why didn’t I weigh my beans that I got off one teepee before I started eating them?” [Laughter.]
A. It’s so hard to have that self-restraint.
[Note: Experts estimate a wide range of potential yield, depending on where you grow dry beans, the variety, and the season’s conditions. For instance, Washington State University estimates a yield of 1.2 pounds per 10-foot row of bush types; another expert suggests planting 100-125 feet of dry beans for a bean-loving family of four.]
Q. When do you plant them, and how do you figure that out when your purpose is not for eating fresh, but for dry beans?
A. The important thing is, the earlier the better. I’m in Oregon; this is all based on that. For us that’s as soon as the ground can be worked and after the danger of frost is past. Our goal is that we’re sowing our beans around May 15. Usually we try really hard to be all the way done by June 1. There have been a couple of times when we have planted after that, with mixed results. We have successfully harvested dry beans planted as late as June 10 here.
Anything later than that in the Pacific Northwest, you risk the autumn rains coming and just turning everything to mold before you can harvest it. I think in some other areas, frost would be a larger threat; for us it’s mold.
Q. Right. Do you use inoculant, or added fertility? I know you practice organic methods.
A. We found that we have the best results when we treat our beans just like any other vegetable crop, so they get our standard fertility ration. That’s about 75 pounds of 4-4-4 organic fertilizer to a 200-foot-long bed that’s 45 inches wide.
We used to inoculate but one year we didn’t have it, and I went out and pulled up some plants and found that the root nodules were there anyway, so it seems like we can get by without doing it. I definitely recommend that people are new to growing beans get some inoculant, and it’s available from a lot of different sources.
Q. Same thing with peas, unless you have been growing them regularly.
So we have to weed the bed along the way.
And by the way, with the bush beans—how far are you spacing the seeds within the row? The rows are a foot apart, I know.
A. We’re just direct seeding with an Earthway seeder, and however it germinates is how we leave it. Ideally we would have 4 inches or so between plants. I’ve seen in other farmers’ fields beans just growing right on top of each other, and you can be just as successful and will get maybe even a similar yield—just fewer per plant.
But when you’re harvesting as we do by pulling the entire plant up, the fewer plants makes less back-breaking work in the fall.
Q. So let’s talk about that harvesting—how do I know when it’s time? With the pole beans, it was very obvious; they’re human-sized plants, and I’m standing there looking them in the eyeball and they’re looking like the pods are brown and brittle, but haven’t burst yet. I’m like, “OK, gotta do this now.” What about with bush plants?
A. It’s actually similar. The pods will turn brown and sort of leathery when the beans are dried down. Similarly the leaves will start to turn yellow and drop off. Depending on the variety—and this is something where you get to know your variety, which might take a season or two to know exactly when is the best time. Some plants will have all their beans ready at the same time, and they’ll also conveniently drop a lot of their leaves, without having the pods open.
A. Those are the best, and the least amount of work. It’s not very nuanced. There are other varieties—the more heirloom types, shall we say—that mature over a larger window, and keep a lot of green going, that may keep going till frost. Especially in areas where you get rain—you get rain predictably in August, don’t you?
Q. [Laughter.] Well, we used to; we haven’t lately. Predictably unpredictably.
Q. You have to watch out for that, if you’re going to bump into wet weather. Do you then pull the plants and put them somewhere under cover?
A. We definitely do as much as we are able. On our scale it can be pretty hard, and we have noticed that actually plants are a lot better at withstanding a few rains in a field than they are in a pile.
So definitely jumping the gun is not to be recommended at harvest time.
Q. I want to talk about harvesting and drying and threshing: I cracked up at the close-up photo of a truck tire studded with bean seeds in its treads, with the caption:
“Tires double as threshing equipment & seed dispersal mechanism.”
[Laughter.] So what do I do? You said pull up the plants, and I want to get the soil off the roots—is that the idea?
A. That’s really important to get the soil off the roots, or it will be mixed in with your beans later. If you’re pulling the whole plant up, definitely take a minute to brush the soil off. We dry the plants on tarps for a couple of days in the sun, and then on our scale we drive on it with a pickup.
A. It’s pretty fun—but it’s hard on the transmission, I think. I think it’s worth it, though. On a smaller scale, you can dance on it, or put it through a wood chipper (that’s what we do for medium-sized lots).
Q. What kind of music if I’m going to dance on the pile? [Laughter.]
A. I think the beans like salsa. [Laughter.]
Q. All right, I’m there.
A. Whatever gets you moving. And we’ve even spent a lot of really nice evenings inside by the fire, cracking them open by hand. There is something really nice about that, really tactile.
Q. Where do you store them? In what conditions? I’m assuming it’s dry, dry, dry.
A. Yes, well-labeled, and dry, dry, dry. Sometimes we put things through the dehydrator just to make sure they’re extra-dry. We use buckets for our larger lots—or Rubbermaid totes. Buckets, bags, jars are all good. If it’s just for your own use, you could put them in a paper bag.
Q. If they’re really dry I put them in old canning jars, and then I can see which is which in the pantry.
A. And they’re beautiful, too.
Q. So beautiful. I’m so excited about this, and am going to have more teepees than last year—and also try some of the bush ones. Which are the bush ones to try? That ‘Titus’ cannellini that you mentioned?
A. Yes, and the ‘Brighstone’ [above] is one of the most productive or the most productive that we have. It’s a bit Pinto-looking, but instead of the brown markings they’re blue.
A. And it’s an earlier one. The ‘Titus’ cannellini and the ‘Brighstone’ are my two favorites from a growing perspective. The ‘Early Warwick’ is also excellent. If you can’t get your beans planted till the middle of June, the ‘Early Warwick’ is the one that will still produce.
sarah’s advice on dual-purpose beans
by Sarah Kleeger
‘IF YOU ARE trying to have a bean be dual-purpose, I think it is best to start with the type of bean that you are most interested in. If, for example, you are hoping to eat more as dry beans, then starting with a dry bean and eating a few fresh is the way to go. In general, the quality of the snap-bean stage will not be as good for varieties that have been selected as dry beans, as it is for beans that are supposed to be eaten as snap beans.
“If you are picking a dry-bean variety as a snap bean, it is important to harvest them young. This is when they are most tender and juicy.
“If you are mostly interested in snap beans but look forward to eating a few dry beans, then start with a snap bean and let a few dry down. It is usually better from a culinary standpoint to go in this direction–that is, to use snap-bean types for dry beans. Most snap-bean types have seeds that are smallish and boring to the eye–solid white, tan, or brown seeds–but once cooked and seasoned, they can be a fine addition to a meal. However, there are some modern small, white-seeded snap bean varieties that cook up with poor flavor and texture, so it is good to experiment a bit before committing to growing snap-bean types with dry beans as your end purpose.
In our experience ‘Alice Sunshine’ (bush snap), ‘Marvel of Piedmont’ (bush Romano, photo above in snap stage), and ‘Scalzo Italian’ (pole Romano) are the best for dual purpose, as they have a delicious and tender snap bean stage as well as larger, and/or more beautiful seeds, and are excellent both fresh and dry. These three varieties offer the best of both worlds, and are the ones we recommend above all others as dual-purpose beans.”
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I’LL BUY $25 in seeds from Adaptive for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comment box all the way down the page, after the last reader comment:
Are you a dry-bean eater, or grower, or both? Any favorites or ways you use them to share?
Me? I make many recipes with dry beans, and eat at least a portion most every day. I started growing them in earnest in 2015.
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. A winner will be picked at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, April 17. Good luck to all. US only.
(Photos from Adaptive Seeds, used with permission.)