Now is the time to plant beans: The soil and air temperatures have warmed up and the chance of frost or a freak hailstorm is a thing of the past. I've got my pots at the ready and a small patch set aside at the in-ground garden. All that remains is deciding which of the 30 or so varieties I've collected will make it into the soil.
When it comes to bean seeds, you see, I've got a bit of hoarding problem. It's not so much the flavour - I'm really not much of a bean eater - but the deluge of interesting varieties, each with their own captivating story. And I'm a sucker for a good story.
Since bean varieties number in the thousands, it should come as no surprise that there is a bean for every garden (and gardener). Container and balcony gardens fair best with bush beans, low-growing plants that don't require staking. My favorite is 'Royal Burgundy', an attractive variety that produces loads of tender, purple-podded snap beans. Try 'Tongue of Fire', 'Dragon's Tongue' or 'Cherokee Trail of Tears' if you prefer dual-purpose heirlooms that can be eaten young as snap beans or allowed to mature into tasty storage and soup beans.
Grow bush varieties in wide pots that are no less than 12 inches deep. Old metal washbasins and repurposed tote boxes and recycling bins are good choices. Bush beans only produce one crop and they do it all at once. Plant over several week-long intervals to stagger the harvest or all at once if you desire a glut worthy of canning.
Pole and runner beans, on the other hand, are the big fellas that require a trellis or staking system to provide vertical support. Despite their size, these tall plants are a decent space-saving option provided you have room for a large, 16-inch pot. Unlike bush varieties, they will keep rolling out the harvest straight through to fall. 'Trionfo Violetto' is an impressive all-purple Italian variety that turns out very slim pods, not unlike the green French filet types that cost an arm and a leg in gourmet food shops. Old-fashioned runner beans offer an ornamental option - their brightly hued flowers are edible along with the beans. Choose 'Scarlet' for loads of vibrant red blooms or 'Sunset' if you prefer soft pinky/peach. 'Golden Sunshine' is dramatic, with bright red flowers on gold foliage.
The coming summer is predicted to be very sunny, hot and arid. I'm taking advantage of this punishing weather to try my hand at 'Chinese Long' (a.k.a. 'Yard Long') beans, a Southeast Asian delicacy that produces pendulous, 18-inch beans with a pea-like flavour - even the leaves and stems are edible. Just about all beans grow best in the summer, with the exception of broad beans or favas, the only type that are started in the springtime. All other beans hate cold, wet weather - they'll rot in the ground if you set them out before the spring rains have let up. Before planting, soak your beans overnight and plant about an inch deep directly into their final growing spot outdoors. Soybeans are the exception to this rule - soaking them nearly always results in rot. Sow bush beans about three to four inches apart and double the spacing for pole or runner beans. It is not absolutely necessary, however; dipping the beans into a legume inoculant before planting can help to increase your yield.
Beans mature shockingly fast. Start picking snap beans daily about two months after planting and keep drying beans on the plant until the shells dry out.
Gayla Trail's new book is Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces . For more gardening tips, visit www.yougrowgirl.com.