growing (or just eating!) heirloom dry beans
SOME YEARS MY ‘SCARLET RUNNER’ BEANS—a pole variety and hummingbird favorite I’d never be without—finally peter out and then dry right on their bamboo teepees, when the fall is neither too wet nor complicated with an early frost. I always grab some of the big, flat purple-and-black-mottled seeds for next season’s planting, leaving the rest for whatever furry creature comes along to cache them for their own winter use.
But lately I’ve been thinking: Why not grow beans for drying (a.k.a. shelling beans)—or at least start experimenting with dry beans for cooking, and see if we can get you hooked?
how to grow beans
GROWING BEANS, whether for eating fresh or drying, is pretty easy, if you follow some basic tactics:
- Select a sunny spot with well-drained soil.
- Rotate the spot you grow your beans, ideally on a three-year schedule, to limit disease transmission.
- Keep the area free of weeds (especially when the seedlings are young).
- Use an inoculant rated for beans to get the seeds off to the best possible start.
- If using untreated seed (which I recommend!), don’t plant too early; a soil temperature of about 60 degrees is considered safe.
- Space bush bean seeds maybe 2-4 inches apart within a row, and rows about 2 feet apart. With pole beans, I plant several seeds at the base of each leg of a teepee or other structure (with the “hills” of seeds therefore no more than about 2½ feet apart). With a dibber or your finger, poke the seeds an inch deep in the soil, and cover them.
- Speaking of teepees, Theresa Podoll of Prairie Road Organic Seed recommends growing your pole beans up sorghum (a beautiful plant that the birds will also enjoy seed of). Like this. It’s like the Three Sisters tradition of Native American polyculture, but with two plants, and sorghum instead of corn, which also works. Theresa plants bean seeds an inch deep and 2-3 inches apart within the row, skipping the “hills.”
- Whatever support you use, pole beans grown vertically have the advantage of being up off the ground, better for drying compared to bush beans exposed to splashing in late rains.
- Never work in a row of beans in the early morning, or any other time the foliage is wet with dew or rain.
- If growing beans for fresh use, pick daily for maximum productivity, removing any that are peak size. For dry use—well, I bet you guess what the approach is there (tee hee, and see below).
How to Dry Beans
BUT WHEN are beans ready to be harvested for use dry? Some clues: “When at least 90 percent of leaves have fallen and pods are dry,” says Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ catalog.
The International Seed Saving Institute says that will be dry about six weeks after the fresh-eating stage.
“Allow beans to dry on the vine,” says Fedco Seeds, “until pressing them with your fingernail leaves no indentation.”
Everyone agrees: If wet or frosty weather threatens in the late going, pull the plants by firmly grasping the roots, and hang them to dry under cover.
This is actually the best way to harvest beans you want to use dried, anyhow—not a pod at a time. Even in a favorable season, it’s not a bad idea to hang them somewhere dry for a bit longer, anyhow, before separating the seeds.
When fully dried, on a big tarp you can “thresh” the seeds loose by beating the plants against the fabric. Or, slightly less chaotic, sit alongside the tarp and shell the seeds into a bowl, leaving the debris on the fabric. Primitive, but effective. And be sure to stash some seeds safely for next year’s crop!
Cooking Dry Beans
I EAT BEANS MOST EVERY DAY, and have all of my adult life. As a vegetarian for more than 30 years, they are a dietary foundation. But it gets boring with only pinto-navy-black, pinto-navy-black in the rotation (the most commonly available types whether dry or canned), so I’m thrilled to see the interest in heirlooms bring more types to market.
Whatever kind I cook, I follow the same basic practice: Soak overnight (changing the water at least once) and then simmer in fresh water (covering the beans by maybe an inch), to which I add bay leaf, a halved medium onion or two, a couple of whole cloves of garlic, and a carrot or two that I simply cut into big chunks. So simple. (With the onion and garlic, I even leave the skins on; I grew them organically and washed them, removing any soiled outer skin, so why not?)
An update on soaking, which apparently you can skip: Foodie headlines lately have debunked the soaking-is-required myth, so next batch, I’ll skip it, too–though old habits die hard, you know. The lowdown on why not to bother soaking dry beans before cooking.
Each variety—depending on its size, texture and how long it has been stored (meaning what percent moisture is in the bean before you cook it)—will take a different cooking time. Every batch of the same variety may even take a different cook time. Check regularly as the beans simmer until desired doneness is achieved. Could be 40 minutes, could be hours. If I am going to incorporate them into, say, a chili, I undercook them and let them finish in the chili sauce.
Cooked beans freeze well; I portion them into jars with cooking liquid so I always have a wonderful selection.
With some varieties like ‘Yellow Eye’ and the basic navy type and even the cranberry-style beans, I make my delicious baked beans (above). The recipe’s here.
ordering dry heirloom beans to eat
ordering dry heirloom bean seeds to grow
THOSE ARE ‘CHRISTMAS LIMA’ beans (soaking at top of page, and in the left-most little bowl in the photo just above). In the middle bowl: ‘Yellow Eye.’ In the right-hand bowl: ‘Good Mother Stallard.’