Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

The Tall and the Short of Beans

There are two main types of garden bean (which you may also know as green bean, wax bean, string bean, or snap bean): bush beans and pole beans.

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Bush bean

Bush beans (Phaseolus vulgaris nana) are the most popular in home gardens. They’re a non-climbing mutation of the original twining bean. Curiously, they were not developed for the family garden, but rather for commercial production, specifically to allow for mechanical harvesting. Their dense, low, bushy habit is ideal for harvesting machines… and they were further selected to produce their entire harvest all at once (if they produced a few beans here and there, machine harvesting wouldn’t be possible). For the poor home gardener, therefore, it’s either feast or famine: one week, you have enough beans to share with the food bank; the following week, nothing at all!

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Pole bean

Pole beans (P. vulgaris communis) have a different life strategy: they too produce an abundance of beans, but not all at once, rather gradually, over a very long season, from mid-summer until frost. The more often you harvest the pods (up to every two days), the more pole beans produce! However, they do need a support  they can twine around. A trellis, obelisk, teepee, etc. about 5 to 8 feet/1,5 to 2 m tall will do the trick. Even so, they require no more space in the garden that their dwarf brothers. As a result, you get three times more beans per square foot! And you don’t have to bend down to harvest them either! So, logically, pole beans would seem to the best choice for the home gardener.

Not so fast! Bush beans are usually earlier (50-60 days) than pole beans (65-75 days). So the wise gardener should consider planting a bit of both: a few bush beans for the first harvest and a few pole beans to feed your family for the rest of the season.

20150518CAnd don’t worry: you’ll find your favorite type of bean in both categories. Both bush and pole beans come in the full range of bean colors  green, yellow (wax beans), purple, and even speckled – and the full range of pod shapes (round or flattened) and sizes. So no more excuses: you need both types of beans for a productive vegetable garden!

Sow beans to about one inch deep (2-3 cm) when the soil has warmed up and there is no more risk of frost. In most areas, that would be… right about now!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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