growing (or just eating!) heirloom dry beans

Christmas Lima heirloom beanSOME 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!

baked beans in bowl

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.

dried heirloom beans

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.’

  1. Emily says:

    I harvest my scarlet runner beans and usually end up with a cup or so of dried beans from the few plants that grow above my tomato trellis. They are a surprising addition to chili; guests wonder about these huge beans!

    I’m trying out more dried beans this year, even though per square foot they don’t produce quite as much as some other crops.

  2. Kristi says:

    Dried beans have been on my stove a lot recently, too. Please remind me how comforting wintertime dried beans are, when they are in competition with more glamorous veggies for springtime garden space?

  3. John says:

    I make use of dried beans as part of the coolers I make for my kids and they seem to love it. Of course, I add some sweeteners with it and natural flavourings to put a different spin to it.

    1. Margaret says:

      Hi, Kristi — and yes, I wonder if I will give up space but I am going to try to discipline myself. At $5+ a pound (plus shipping) for the most interesting heirloom dry beans, it would be a very good use of a garden teepee or row!

      Hi, John. Great idea, clever Dad and lucky kids to get such goodness. :)

  4. Hi Margaret,
    Great post! I love growing (and my family loves eating) beans. There was a show on NPR today with the author of the new cookbook Bean by Bean, who also recommended the fabulous Rancho Gordo. But, as you say, they are expensive. Better to grow your own–I mean, why grow stuff that’s cheap in the supermarket, like celery, when you can grow leeks and heirloom beans? My favorites are Trionfono violetto, which are not only tasty but a grow on a gorgeous vine.

  5. Our favorite dry bean is Cannellini. They don’t have the good looks of some of the others, but they grow reliably in our cooler summers and taste great. A local heirloom dry bean in northwest Washington State is the Rockwell.here is some info about them: http://willowoodfarm.net/rockwellbean.aspx. I’ve grown them a couple years now. It’s a very pretty bean that grows well in a cool summer climate.
    I would like to add that we eat a lot of our beans as fresh shelled rather than dried. During the late summer we shell out extra beans while they are fresh or semi-fresh, put them in zip lock bags as is into the freezer. Come winter we can pull out the beans, they are quicker to cook, and have that fresh flavor. We have stored cannellinis, flageolets, and fava beans this way.

  6. Laura says:

    Lovely post, Margaret.

    Lauren, just last summer I grew two varieties of French celery and they were a revelation (and I am not a supermarket celery fan).

  7. Margaret–still in the R&D stage with my vegetable garden (going in where my roses were for 20 years.)
    Reading some books–yours (old ‘A Way to Garden’). The comments from a fellow Pac NW person above were helpful.

    I’m not sure what I’ll buy–but it sure is fun just pronouncing all the names of the beans!

  8. Carole says:

    Just the inspiration I needed. I’ve been put in charge of a garden for children this year and the bean teepee will be a great addition.

  9. David says:

    Hey what a lovely blog.
    I grow a lot of heirloom seeds myself for our seed bank. It is at the experimental stage right now. But we would like to make it free. Love the blog post about your Heirloom beans :)

  10. Tracy says:

    Just received my order of Heirloom beans from Heritage Harvest Seeds in Carman, Manitoba, Canada. My first year trying to grow beans for drying. Can’t wait to see how my ‘Pepa de Zapallo, Snowcap, Flagg and True Cranberry turn out! What a timely, and great post!

    1. Margaret says:

      Good for you, Tracy — guess that “great minds think alike,” huh? :) Can’t wait to hear how you go with them. Thanks for saying hello.

  11. Thanks for sharing! I admit I am fascinated by dry beans. What interests me most about heirloom beans is the wide range of colors available, aside from the common black, white or red beans we find at the grocery stores and the great history behind some them. I must admit though, that growing dry beans in a small home garden is usually not practical, since the area required growing enough beans for storage is large but I really love to make a try.

    I actually host a weekly gardening link up every Friday on my blog. I’d love for you to drop by and join in.

  12. Becky says:

    I have seen a great collection of heirloom beans in the Seed Savers catalog, and I am visiting the farm in Decorah in July, so I will definitely check them out!

  13. Abby says:

    Dried scarlet runner beans are amazing! They have a special meaty texture and flavor. Worth growing just for the fall table – never mind the pretty flowers. I cook them gently in olive oil and garlic and herbs, adding water as needed.

    1. margaret says:

      I agree, Abby, and they are gorgeous and delicious. I have some maturing right now (I hope!). Thanks for the cooking ideas.

  14. LaRieta says:

    SMILES))) big smile on my face.
    I planted a heirloom bean this spring…Yellow Indian woman…(dry bean).
    I did not have a great amount of space, but I did plant a “fun “…
    They are very healthy plants, and I am excited about them..
    anybody else ever planted them?

  15. Sue Lisk says:

    I have been out looking at my scarlet runner bean tower and see some of the pods have turned brown but most are still green. I opened the green ones and see the beans look just like the ones in the brown pods. Are they good to dry or eat like that? I called cooperative extension and they had no idea. We have not had a frost here in Binghamton New York but I am sure we don’t have much time left before we do.I am worried I will lose the beans to the frost if I don’t do something.Love your blog and have your book!~ Sue Lisk

  16. Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern says:

    I just pigged on Yellow Indian Woman Beans from Rancho Gordo! They are the best beans I have ever eaten in my life! I can’t wait to try more heirloom beans. I would love to grow some, too. It’s a whole new world …

  17. Joanne Jackson says:

    I’ve been growing and eating a scarlet-flowered runner bean called Insuk’s Wang Kong, given to me by a gentleman in WA. The dried beans are very large and a purple/black color. Very meaty! I cook them by bring them to a boil in water to cover in a glass dutch oven then cooking for 1-2 hours in a 250 degree oven until soft. No soaking required.

  18. Annette says:

    I love to grow Scarlet Runner beans to attract hummingbirds AND for eating as dried beans. I grow them on the fence that surrounds my garden, so they don’t take up more than a few inches of garden space. The scarlet blossoms are really attractive and would be great in a flower garden. The dried beans are very tasty as well. I’ve used them in soups and other bean dishes.

  19. Charlotte says:

    It is beginning to rain here in the PAC Nw and my scarlet runner pods are large, well filled but still green. Can I pick and dry them while the pods are still green, or is there another solution? Thank you. This is my first garden in the pnw, so am learning.

  20. Linda Kiefer says:

    I grow pole beans on a six foot fence these days as I have limited space. I would recommend Painted Lady for a dry pole variety. The seeds a lima sized but with regular bean flavor and cook up very nicely. They are an old heirloom with red and white flowers. One warning, don’t make your teepees tall. Been there , done that. Picked beans off a step ladder that year!

  21. Anna says:

    I have a question… I am in Tuscany, Italy now (late November) and bought some fresh white beans. They look like they need no soaking and may require less cooking time. But I have never cooked such young beans before. Do you know anything about what’s the best (easiest, most straight-forward) method would be?

    1. margaret says:

      So they are fresh as in still in the pods and “raw” so to speak, not shelled and just beginning to dry a bit? Best to email me at awaytogarden at gmail so I see your reply.

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