Roots and Shoots: Layer on the Legumes

hyacinth bean vine

A hyacinth bean vine growing on an arbor trellis (Photo by P. Doan)

I’ve often thought about becoming a singly focused gardener and planting just one vegetable to try to become good at it. In a vegetable garden planted with multiple varieties of lettuces, greens, squashes, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans, carrots and other root vegetables, it’s constant work to diagnose and treat the pests and diseases, to manage the planting and picking schedule and the fertility requirements. 

For eating purposes, a diversity of vegetables is necessary, too, especially if there is more than one person to feed. My family would not be thrilled about being fed only cucumbers, for example, and the growing season covers a distinct period in our zone, omitting a lot of growing time. 

Beans, however, offer an exploration of flavor, expression in cooking and varieties for three seasons. As far as nutrition, the Leguminoseae family brings high levels of protein and fiber to the table. Most beans, which includes types of peas, average 12 to 18 grams of protein per cup; edamame (soybeans) tops the list with about 31. 

Grow beans from seed directly sown in the garden. They like regular garden soil with a pH of 6 to 7 and full sun. To maximize space, plant both bush beans and pole beans that will grow like vines on supports like a trellis or poles. 

Beans are self-fertilizing but visiting pollinators will increase the yields. From a 10-foot row of beans, a gardener can harvest about 5 pounds of shelled beans or 4 pounds of snap beans. With some varieties you can eat both the shell and the bean; other types are grown solely for the beans inside. (The pods make great compost.)

Beans are part of a well-known companion plant combination, the Three Sisters. Indigenous tribes in the Northeast developed this system of planting corn, beans and squash together. The corn seeds are planted in a circle with the bean seeds at the base of the stalks. Interplant the squash seeds. In this method, the beans use the corn stalks as their support and squash vines spread across the ground to suppress weeds. Each has a role in the success of the other. 

The other superpower of beans is fixing nitrogen in the soil. Back to science class: The plants convert nitrogen in the air to ammonia nitrogen that can be used as a nutrient, improving the soil as the plant grows and reducing the need for soil additives. 

Order an inoculant of rhizobia bacteria to ensure this process. Follow the directions on the package. Usually the seeds are soaked and allowed to dry before planting or the inoculant can be added to the planting hole with the seed. A general home garden inoculant is sufficient. Farmers and large-scale growers would use specialized inoculants for different types of beans or peas. 

Fava beans can be sown the earliest in spring and can go in the garden right about now, depending on your microclimate and soil moisture. Favas don’t like hot days and the Windsor variety that I prefer will be ready to eat in 10 weeks. Then I can pull the vines out and make space for squash or another heat-loving summer vegetable. 

Another must-have in the pole bean category is the scarlet runner bean. According to the Fedco Seeds catalog, this heirloom plant was grown by mid-18th century colonists and also appeared in Thomas Jefferson’s famous garden at Monticello. 

These beans will grow up to 12 feet tall and have lovely red flowers that hummingbirds enjoy, and produce beautiful purple and black beans for the table. Choose open pollinated seeds and dry and save beans as seed for next season.

Hyacinth bean vines make a landscape impact and are a must-have for edible gardening. They can prolifically produce purple flowers and purple bean pods that accent any area. I tried them on the same trellis as a honeysuckle but didn’t think through how much shade was there from the bush and they didn’t thrive. This year I’ll do it right and give them their own space. The beans must be boiled well to be edible but the flowers can be eaten raw or cooked. 

While there are too many wonderful legumes to cover in detail here, check out seed catalogs from Hudson Valley Seed, Fedco or other companies to peruse dozens of selections.

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