The Kitchen Garden A to Z: Beans

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I’m working my way through my kitchen garden from A to Z. Here’s my guide to growing, harvesting, cooking, and preserving beans.

Remember Jack and the Beanstalk?

Young Jack traded his family’s cow for some “magic beans,” much to his mother’s chagrin. One bean grew into a great beanstalk that, after some zany hijinks involving a Jack and an Englishman-eating giant, brought Jack and his mother many riches.

Bean plants in a kitchen garden may not grow as big as Jack’s magic beanstalk, but they do grow quickly and produce prolifically. Vast riches come in the form of edible pods or seeds.

There are two main bean types: shell and snap. Shell beans, like pinto, kidney, and black, are eaten for their seeds. Snap beans, which are commonly known as green beans, are eaten for their pods.

Beans are easily preserved. Shell beans may be dried, while green beans may be frozen or canned using a pressure canner. Just like Jack’s goose that laid the golden eggs, a few bean plants in the kitchen garden will provide for you year-round.

Bean blossoms

Blossoms on a beanstalk.

Beans in the Garden

Bean plants can fit into just about any sunny space in the kitchen garden. Pole varieties grow vertically against a fence or up a trellis, saving you soil space. Bush varieties can be tucked in among heads of lettuce and cabbage as you harvest those earlier crops. Beans improve the soil by adding nitrogen and therefore make a great crop to grow after heavy feeders like tomatoes or peppers that deplete the soil of nutrients.

Planting beans: Beans are a warm weather crop, so wait to plant them until after the danger of frost has passed and the soil has reached a temperature of 60°F. But don’t worry about getting a late start. Bush bean varieties mature in less than 60 days, meaning that even in cooler climates like my Zone 5 you will be able to harvest plenty of beans during the growing season. One plant will produce around one pound of beans, which is enough for four servings.

Planting tips:

  • Direct sow bean seeds in the garden, rather than transplanting young plants.
  • Plant bean seeds one inch deep and four inches apart in rows, with about two feet between rows. In square-foot or grid-based gardens, allow four plants per square foot.
  • For successive harvests, direct sow bean seeds every two weeks up to 60 days before the first frost date (allow 65 days for pole varieties).
  • Provide vertical support, such as a trellis, for pole varieties by the time the first couple of leaves open on the seedlings.
  • Good companion plants for beans are beets, carrots, cauliflower, cucumber, and radishes.
  • Planting marigolds nearby helps repel nematodes and bean beetle, which may otherwise feast on your crop.
  • Avoid planting beans near onions or garlic.
  • Water plants weekly.

Harvesting beans: Harvest snap beans when the pods are slender and about the size of a small pencil before the seeds inside the pods form small bumps. Generally, a pod is ready to harvest about two weeks after the bloom. Pick young pods early and often for the best quality and to encourage the plant’s regrowth.

Harvest pods by pinching them off with your thumb and forefinger or using a small knife. Pulling on the pod may cause the plant to uproot.

Harvest shell beans to eat fresh when the pods are plump and the seeds are still tender. For dry beans, leave the pods on the plants until they are brown and dry and the seeds are hard. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to a year.

Eat or preserve fresh beans as soon as possible. They will keep for about a week in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator.

beans in the kitchen

Beans in the Kitchen

Cooking green beans: Fresh green beans can be boiled, blanched, or steamed and eaten on their own as a side dish. The trick is to cook them gently only until they are crisp-tender and remove them from the heat before they turn to mush. They also are great added to salads or stir-fries.

One of my favorite ways to enjoy fresh green beans in the summer is in a simple chopped salad with cherry tomatoes and cucumbers. To make the salad, cut the beans into 1-inch slices, blanch them in boiling water for about 4 minutes, and then plunge them into an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. Drain the cooled beans and combine them in a large salad bowl with equal amounts of halved cherry tomatoes and chopped cucumbers. Dress the salad simply with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper. If desired, add crumbled feta cheese, chopped fresh basil leaves, and/or pitted Kalamata olives. I like to call this salad “Summer in a Bowl.”

When I serve fresh green beans as a side-dish, I often cook them using a steam-sauté technique I first learned from How to Cook Without a Book by Pam Anderson. This method results in a much more flavorful dish than you would get from simply steaming the beans. I’ve included a recipe below.

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Preserving green beans: I have preserved green beans using both the pressure canning and freezing methods. Freezing is easier and doesn’t require use of a scary pressure canner (at least I find pressure canners to be kind of scary). You can find my step-by-step guide to freezing green beans here.

A recipe:

I’m unleashing my inner farmer in suburbia. Follow along as I raise my own food, create great meals, and tend to my five pet chickens.