If you like bush beans, try growing these other members of the legume family.
Pole beans like to send their vines up poles, strings or wire, but they don't like chicken wire or fences with a lot of horizontal wires or small mesh. Horizontal wires cause the vines to wind around each other and choke.
A pole diameter of 1 to 2 inches is good, and poles with rough surfaces are better than smooth ones. A good height for a pole is 6 to 7 feet. A variety like 'Kentucky Wonder' can easily grow to 13 feet if you let it, but who wants to harvest from a stepladder. By using 7-foot poles, the vines will head back down, and all the harvest will be within easy reach.
Short poles are okay, too. If you use stakes that are 4 feet high, your beans will grow quickly to the top of the stakes and then fall back down. However, the ease of planting and care will probably outweigh the occasional nuisance of harvesting in dense foliage.
Many gardeners grow pole beans up sturdy tepees. Simply hitch the tops of three 9-foot wooden poles together, spread out the bottoms 3 to 4 feet apart from each other and shove each pole in the ground 4 to 5 inches deep for support.
Plant five to six seeds around each pole 6 to 8 inches away from it. Firm the seeds into the soil, cover them with an inch of soil, and firm the soil again. If it's dry, make sure the soil stays moist until the bean seedlings are up. Later, thin, leaving only the healthiest three or four plants per pole. With this system, one ounce of seed is sufficient for four to five tepees.
You can put up these tepees in the garden or leave them on the lawn, clearing an area of sod for the seeds and poles. Kids love to play in the tepees, but they also provide a good, shady place for a cool-weather crop like lettuce.
A slightly different technique is to plant pole beans "Indian style." Indians planted corn and beans together using the cornstalks as poles. If you try this, plant the beans on the sunny, southern side of the cornfield on the outer rows. Plant one bean at every third stalk or so when the corn is 10 to 12 inches high. The beans don't get as much sunlight when grown this way, but they'll still produce. If you're growing sunflowers, they make good bean poles, too. In the beginning you may have to aim the tendrils of the vines toward the poles, strings or cornstalks. Once the vines get hooked, though, they'll do the rest of the climbing themselves.
Pole beans usually need a little extra fertilizer during the season because they produce over a longer period of time. Their water needs are greater than bush beans, too, because they're bigger, have more foliage and tend to dry out faster. A good time for side-dressing them with extra fertilizer is after the first pods develop. Use about a tablespoon of 5-10-10 fertilizer around each support, sprinkling it 3 to 4 inches away from the plant stems, then covering it with soil. (You don't need to side-dress if you're planting next to corn or sunflowers.) Be careful not to get any fertilizer on the plants or it will burn them. Well-aged compost or manure makes a good side-dressing, too. However, fresh compost or manure will burn the plants if you place it too close to them.
When you plant shell beans for winter storage, try positioning them between rows of winter squash. Plant the winter squash when the soil is really warm in rows (not hills) 10 to 12 feet apart, because the squash vines crawl all over the place. When the squash plants are just coming up, there will be lots of room between the rows. Plant the bean seeds in that space, in rows 2 feet wide or more. The beans grow quickly and shade the ground, helping to keep the weeds down. If you've prepared the soil well at the beginning of the season, these two crops will take care of themselves for the most part until harvest time. Of course, if it gets very dry, you'll need to water, but there's very little weeding or cultivating to do.
The squash vines sneak through and around the beans, but neither crop seems to mind the congestion a bit. Harvest both crops at the same time -- right around the time of the first fall frost.
Limas, like all beans, need warm soil temperature to germinate and full sun for best growth.
If you garden in a short-season climate, you may have to gamble a little and plant your lima beans early. If it works, you're ahead of the game. To get a jump on a short season, some people advise starting lima beans indoors in pots or flats to transplant later. However, bean roots are extremely sensitive and easily injured when transplanting. Instead, to speed up germination, try soaking lima bean seeds for an hour in 70° F water before planting. The water temperature is important. If a lima bean seed absorbs cold water as it starts to germinate, it suffers permanent injury. The chances of injuring lima bean seeds when you plant them in cool soil are greatly reduced if you soak the beans in warm water first.
Soak the beans only if you live in the North where you really need the jump on the season. You shouldn't soak any other bean seeds before planting because they may crack, and germination will be poor.
Article published on June 23, 2008.