Just what are “snap beans” anyway? “Snap beans” are words used by garden writers to denote what the rest of us call “string beans” or “green beans”. I can see the logic of calling them “snap beans” though: the strings have mostly been bred out of them so that you are not likely to encounter strings unless you let the beans become too overgrown and, as to “green beans” – well, some are purple and some are yellow, so “green beans” is somewhat of a misnomer. But whatever you call them, if you grow them yourself and pick them while they are young and tender, they will be vastly superior to the sad excuses-for-beans in supermarkets. Homegrown beans are actually delicious! That’s a strong word to use for a vegetable generally considered somewhat ordinary, but it’s true.
From a gardening standpoint, there are two main types of snap beans: bush beans and pole beans (more on this in a minute). From a cooking/eating standpoint, both bush and pole beans come in green, yellow, purple (although the purple ones turn green when cooked), and Romano beans – a broader, flatter bean, sometimes called “Italian green beans”. The Romanos tend to have a stronger and “beanier” flavor. Then there are yellow Romanos and purple ones too…. Yellow beans are also sometimes called “wax beans.”
I like variety in gardening (and eating), and I enjoy different colors too and I hope you will also, so for both bush and pole beans, besides selling the different colors individually, we will be selling “variety packs” with a small quantity of each color (and of Romanos), so that you can have the fun of growing some of each kind. These will be packaged separately rather than mixed together, so that you’ll know which is which. And since all snap beans are ideal for container-growing, I have the fun of selecting the very nicest varieties to sell at my website. Believe me, there are many lovely varieties of beans, so picking the ones I consider the “very best” is not an easy job. They’re all easy and fun to grow, and delicious when not allowed to become overgrown. This is really important if you want the very best beans: pick them while they are young and succulent. Also, if you allow the beans to become fully mature, the plants will stop producing new beans: just what you don’t want.
From a gardening standpoint, all the colors are treated alike, except that purple beans are said to be able to withstand colder soil than the rest. I have not experimented with this but have no particular reason to doubt it. In any case, if you are growing them in containers, cold soil isn’t going to be a problem. Containers warm up faster and – if you are at all worried about a container’s soil being too cold – you can pour a teakettle or two of hot water into the container (then wait until it cools off to plant the seeds, of course).
snap beans growing on strings and poles
You will need to decide whether you want to grow bush or pole beans, or both. Both are very well-suited for container-growing. Both have pretty flowers and are nice-looking plants. The advantage to bush beans is that they produce beans faster than pole beans, and they don’t need any support (trellis or poles). They’ll produce most of their beans in a relatively short period of time. Gardeners who plant bush beans therefore generally use succession plantings to have a supply of beans throughout the summer months. Bush beans grow quickly, only taking about 40 to 60 days to produce a crop, so you can fit several successive plantings into a summer in most areas.
Pole beans, first of all, require support – poles or a trellis. Pole beans can serve as a living curtain of shade if grown in front of hot, sunny windows (I’ve done this by stringing twine from nails in the roof overhang to bricks on the ground and letting the beans grow up the twine). They take longer than bush beans to start producing beans, but they will keep on producing beans throughout the summer and you’ll get more beans per square foot of planted area from pole beans (although I think succession plantings of bush beans can come close to matching pole beans’ production). We use a “bean teepee” – poles tied at the top – which can easily be put around a container. An alternative is any kind of trellising or nets, or letting them grow up string or twine.
We have been using pieces of rebar (concrete reinforcing rod) for our bean teepees. However, Bountiful Container suggests that you use wider poles – poles more than one inch in diameter. I think pieces of 1 ” x 2″ lumber would work well. The use of wider poles “produces a more concentrated growth pattern, with the full length of the vine condensed by the wide circles and the beans themselves bunched up thickly together, which is what you want when your space is limited.” This is an excellent idea to keep in mind. If the bean vines reach the top of the poles, trim them at the very tip to force them to put out new growth below. I think pole beans would happily grow forever (remember “Jack and the Beanstalk”?) but there’s no point in using poles higher than you can comfortably reach to pick the beans.
OK, now you’ve decided which kind of beans to plant – or decided to plant both. How do you plant them? First of all, snap beans are frost-tender (will not withstand temperatures below 32 F – or 0 C) and prefer warm weather. So wait until after your last frost and until the weather is reliably warm – maybe gambling by planting purple beans (only) a week or two before the last frost. I’ve always planted my beans directly outdoors and this is certainly easiest. Most of my gardening books say that they do not like to be transplanted, although I start lots of seeds indoors that theoretically do not like to be transplanted. However, I don’t see any reason to start beans indoors. They are large seeds, easy to handle, and very fast to sprout, and do just fine when planted directly outdoors.
Before sowing your bean seeds, it’s helpful to soak them in warm water for an hour or two to soften the seed coats. It’s also helpful to “inoculate” the beans. The inoculants are a bacteria that legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc.) need to both use nitrogen and actually add it to the soil. (They actually enrich the soil in which they are grown, which is an excellent feature of growing beans, of course.) While these bacteria do occur naturally in the soil, the use of an inoculant ensures that your beans will have the right bacteria and in sufficient amounts, and will allow them to produce more beans for you. This is particularly true for container gardeners who use sterilized potting soil and/or a soil-less mix. The inoculants come as either a black powder in which you dredge the bean seeds, or granules that you sprinkle in the planting holes before sowing the seeds. One type of inoculant will cover peas and all the commonly grown garden beans. They are quite inexpensive and should be available at your local garden center, as well as online.
Plant bush beans about 4″ apart from each other (each way), so that you wind up with nine plants per square foot of surface area. Just draw a grid in your container by running your finger along in the soil, dividing each square foot of surface area into nine sections. Then put the beans in the middle of each section. For pole beans, plant about eight seeds per pole – in a circle around poles, or in a double line in front of a trellis. You may need to thin these down to about six plants per pole later. To plant the seeds, you just space them and then push them about one inch deep into the soil, smoothing the soil back over them. Keep the soil moist until they have sprouted. Then stand back and watch them grow!
Beans prefer to be evenly well-watered so don’t let your containers dry out between waterings. It’s very difficult (almost impossible) to over-water outdoor container plants so I wouldn’t worry about over-watering them (by contrast to indoor container plants which are easy to overwater). Although the beans will supply themselves with nitrogen if you have used inoculant, I recommend that you use a balanced fertilizer or plant food at least monthly on the beans, to ensure that they receive the other nutrients they need (particularly for container-grown plants). I have found that they do much, much better than unfertilized beans. I think this is essential if you’re using soil-less mix (Pro-Mix or the like) as your growing medium, and beneficial in all cases.
Beans are subject to some minor pests and at least one major pest. Flea beetles have been a minor pest of beans I’ve grown in the ground, but they have never found any container plants that I’ve grown. Mexican bean beetles are the major pest and they are horrid – their larvae will eat holes in your bean leaves until the leaves are skeletonized and the plant dies. (Knock on wood, we don’t seem to have them here, although I’ve had to cope with them in other places.) Here’s a picture of the eggs, larvae, and adults.
The first control measure is good garden clean-up each fall: don’t leave plant debris in your containers (or in your in-ground garden) as that will just be a home for overwintering bean beetles and other pests. The second control measure is to check the undersides of the leaves for the yellow eggs and crush them whenever you see them. Recommendations for other (and stronger) control measures can be found on the Gardens Alive! website.
Alternatively, you can cover bush bean plants with floating row cover (or nylon netting) to prevent the beetles from laying their eggs on your plants. Since beans don’t require insect pollination, you can leave the row cover on throughout their life cycle, only removing it to pick the beans. For containers that need floating row cover protection, I make a chicken-wire cage in the container and cover that with the row cover. However, I don’t need to use any insecticides or row cover on container-grown beans, and hopefully you won’t either. But it’s good to know what to do just in case.
Now you’ve got your beans! Lots of lovely beans. Please pick them when they’re young and tender. Just briefly steamed, they are lovely. They’re also great in a stir-fry or soup. If you have too many beans for eating fresh, they are very easily preserved by freezing and they keep their quality well: just cut or break the beans into pieces (or leave them whole) and briefly blanch them (drop them into boiling water). They only need to be blanched for about a minute or until the color changes from purple to green, or from green to the more vivid green that cooked beans have, or to a more vivid yellow in the case of yellow wax beans. Then dump them into a large bowl of cold water with ice cubes floating around to cool them quickly. Then drain in a colander, package in a freezer bag or container, label, and freeze. And that’s all there is to it.
You can easily save seeds from your (non-hybrid) beans, and I do save bean seeds. (I think most, possibly all, snap beans are open-pollinated, or non-hybrid.) Suzanne Ashworth (in her terrific book on seed saving entitled Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners) explains that bean flowers are “perfect” meaning that each flower has both male and female parts and pollinates itself: however, there is some (perhaps remote) possibility of insect pollination as well and, therefore, of varieties becoming crossed with each other (mixed up). If you intend to save the seeds in order to sell them or distribute them via The Seed-Savers Exchange, this would be a concern and measures to prevent it would be desirable. But if you just intend to save the seeds for your own use the following year, I don’t see it as a problem. Certainly, I’ve often saved bean seeds without any apparent mixing-up of varieties the following year.
To save the seeds is simplicity itself: you just let a few pods mature and dry on the vine before picking. When you have picked the yellowed and dried pods, then you open them and remove the beans (the seeds) inside. It’s a good idea to freeze the seeds for at least 48 hours to kill any possible insect eggs in or on them. Then allow them to warm to room temperature inside the container in which you froze them (so condensation won’t gather on the seeds), and then store the dry seeds in a cool dark place. Or, of course, you can take the simpler and easier alternative of buying your next year’s seeds from online seed retailers.
By the way, runner beans, the bean most grown in Great Britain, are a different species – Phaseolus coccineus. They have larger and more showy flowers, prefer cooler growing conditions, and are (to my American tastebuds at least) not as good to eat. They resemble (again, to me) an overgrown and tougher snap bean – this may be because I didn’t pick them young enough. I’ll be growing them again this coming summer, and will pick them younger. They are very useful for people who live in cool-summer areas and/or who want more decorative bean plants. There are other types of bean as well, such as the Asian yard-long beans or lima beans…. but this article is already too long and really only meant to describe snap beans. And so ends (at last!) this Plant Profile. There’s just a lot to be said about beans, I guess.