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Beans - Bean there, Done that!

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beans007-230x153Beans have been one of the staple foods of Humankind since earliest civilisation. Broad (Fava) Beans are known to have been gathered and their cultivar selections raised from the Middle East through Afghanistan; the Himalayas to Thailand.

Even Indonesia from possibly as far back as 7,000 B.C. Beans have been found preserved in ancient Egyptian tombs. They are historically documented in European cultures for at least 2,000 B.C. The Native American Indians of both North and South America have always used them as a major food crop for many thousands of years.

Today the Common Bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) is the most frequently grown food crop in the home vegetable garden. Phaseolus coccineus, the Runner Bean, is amongst the most widely grown vining vegetable crops, too. Plus Beans are commercially grown very widely around the World.

When viewed collectively, Beans of all varieties are amongst the most widely grown of all consumable crops. Millions of tons of dried and fresh Beans are raised and exported annually. Top Bean producing countries include: Brazil, India, China, Myanmar, Mexico, USA, Kenya, Uganda, Argentina, Indonesia, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Egypt, Belgium and Morocco amongst many others.

Beans are one of the most nutritious of all the vegetables being high in complex carbohydrates, fiber, folate, iron and many minerals plus essential proteins. This means that Bean dishes are nearly a meal in themselves and is the reason they are so highly valued in vegetarian cooking or by anyone wishing to eat a healthy, sensible diet.

Most Beans are edible when harvested while quite young, especially Common Green, French Bush and some Soy Bean types. Usually the entire pod can be eaten. Otherwise they are consumed once mature and dried. Most Beans, especially Red Kidney Beans contain phytohaemagglutinin, a type of toxic Lectin. For this reason it is always best to cook Beans on the boil at 100C/212F degrees for 10 minutes and then disguard the water. Dried Beans can be soaked in hot or warm water for 5 hours and this water disguarded, but the boiling method works best. Under-cooking the Beans can actually increase their toxicity. Bean toxicity only lasts a few hours but can include diarrhea, nausea and vomiting and can aggravate those suffering from gout.  Fortunately, this toxicity is very low in Common Green “French’ Beans.

Beans will grow in a wide variety of soils from fairly heavy clay to nearly beach sand. They prefer a fairly rich loamy soil high in organic matter and minerals. If you plan to grow your Beans using a commercial granular plant food, try one higher in Phosphorous and Potash like 4-8-10. Homemade composts that are produced from fruit peelings, especially Banana skins, and untreated wood ashes are ideal to enrich the soil around Bean plants for this type of compost will be high in both Phosphorous and Potash.

Avoid heavy Nitrogen feeding when applying fertiliser to Beans. This is because Beans are a legume plant; which means they have the ability to pull Nitrogen out of the air as well as the soil and therefore need less Nitrogen to be present in the land: they make their own! While Beans thrive on commercial fertilizers, the same can also burn them at any stage of development if it comes in direct contact with the plant. High Nitrogen fertilisers can be particularly destructive as they can over-supply Nitrogen and toxify the Bean plants.

It is best, therefore to dig-in any commercial fertilizer very well in advance. Experienced Gardeners often dig a trench 4-6 inches/10-15cm deep, spread the fertilizer over the bottom of the trench, back fill the trench with 3 inches/7.5cm or more of soil, and plant the Beans above this level.

The trench is then filled to ground level or a little higher as the Beans grown; as they respond well to 'hilling' of soil piled up around their stems. They respond well to very well-aged compost used as hilling mulch piled up around their stems. But avoid all fresh manures as these are high in Nitrogen and are often acidic which will result in burning or possibly increase the chance of developing fungus diseases.

Beans love lime! On naturally acid land like most peaty or volcanic soils it is best to generously whiten the ground over any Bean patch with garden Lime, Dolomite or Dolomag Lime. Some Gardeners and Growers scatter a layer of soft limestone chip over the Bean bed and dig this in thoroughly prior to planting.

Many bacterial and fungal infections can affect Beans especially as they near maturity. This is often caused by thin, weak cell walls on the Bean plants that become an easy target for disease as they age and mature. Providing generous quantities of Lime throughout their growing cycle provides the extra Calcium and allows them to absorb the necessary trace minerals they need to stay healthy and strong.  Lime is to the Bean what milk is to the baby! A good Liming prior to planting and early on in the plants development will often insure a healthy and productive life!

Broad Beans are planted in Autumn through Winter in moderate to warm climates and well into Spring in colder climates. They are very hardy to cold and extreme weather conditions so will withstand severe frosts. Wherever Winters are too severe, they are either protected under some sort of cover or started with protection as soon as the weather breaks in Late Winter.

The most important warm weather Beans are started once the weather really heats up in Spring through Early Summer. Common ‘Green’ or ‘French’ Beans, climbing Runner Beans and most other Bean seed should be planted in a very warm, sunny spot with good air circulation but sheltered from strong winds whenever possible. While Beans will survive in partial shade, they usually become spindly and unproductive. Full sunshine is best.

As mentioned earlier, Beans will grow in a variety of soils but prefer those that are loamy in texture with a bit of body to them, such as pasture land. The soil quality should retain moisture but drain well and be very deeply dug and well prepared and enriched well ahead of planting or sowing their seed. Most Beans also require a great deal of warmth in order to prosper, so always choose a warm position and if possible, angle the soil so that it slopes into the prevailing sunshine.

Beans also require a rather regular supply of moisture as they are developing. So take this requirement into account when deciding where to plant them. Be prepared to irrigate weekly if weather becomes dry. Alternatively hill and mulch them generously especially right after a substantial rainfall or irrigation to help retain extra water around their roots.

Sow Bean seed 1-2 inches/2.5-5cm deep and about 3-4 inches/7.5-10cm. apart. Rows should be 2ft./60cm apart and are best when running north/south. This allows maximum sunlight and air circulation to reach both sides of the plants. Climbing Beans are planted just the same but should be provided with a stout trellis or support upon which to climb. This should be fairly substantial as Climbing Beans can become rather heavy and vegetative at maturity, especially when wet with rainfall or saturated from overhead irrigation.

Sow the seed into well moistened ground and water-in the seed immediately after planting. Bean seeds are large and easy to handle. Under ideal conditions, they will germinate in about a week or sometimes less. Once the seed germinates, growth is usually rapid and often spectacular.

One of the bigger problems with growing Beans is their seed failing to germinate. Seed failure can come from sowing too deeply; sowing into very hard soil that has not been adequately cultivated; overly acid or excessively Nitrogen-enriched land; soil drying out before germination; or cold and wet weather conditions chilling the seed. But the most common reason for seed germination failure is over-watering during the germination period.

Once the Bean seed is sown in the soil, the seed capsule begins to absorb moisture around it and starts to swell. Soon the two halves of the Bean capsule elongate and begin to split open revealing the tiny seedling germ in the centre that will become the Bean plant. If excessive amounts of water enter the seed capsule and surround the very tender seedling germ as it begins to germinate in the soil; and if surrounding temperatures drop, this can easily chill the germ seedling which often causes it to rot or become diseased before it can even break the surface of the ground. Thus the seed never appears to germinate at all. And what seed does germinate often appears damaged, disfigured and distorted sometimes showing signs of rotting or fungal infection that will ultimately ruin the crop even if the seed sprouts.

The way around this problem is to always choose a warm piece of ground in a sheltered and sunny location. Make sure that air and soil temperatures are at least 16.5C/65F and preferably around 26.67C/80F which is ideal for Beans. Always plant Bean seed into very moist earth and water it in immediately after planting. But if at all possible, avoid watering the Bean bed again until the seedling leaves have broken ground. When confronted with a droughty and dry or possibly windy situation, it helps to soak the Bean seed in warm (not hot!) water for an hour prior to planting. Or wrap the Bean seed in very damp cotton cloth or wet paper towelling overnight prior to planting.

When attempting to grow warm weather Beans in cool climates or when contending with a short growing season, Bean seed can be sown into a bed specially prepared with a black plastic or weed mat overlay that will keep the soil temperature higher. Each seed or the entire bed can be covered with a cloche or tunnel house which will also elevate soil temperatures and keep the germinating seed drier. Or Bean seed can be sown into individual containers or peat pots and successfully germinated with bottom heat and/or in the heated glasshouse several weeks prior to planting outdoors. There is a bit of an art to this as Beans greatly resent any root disturbance.

Great care must be taken at the time of transplanting Bean seedlings. If their roots are disturbed or damaged at the time of transplanting this will often either kill them outright or they may remain permanently stunted and unproductive.  Bean seedlings usually transplant easily from peat pots. Or carefully slip each seedling plant with its root-ball intact from its container and carefully plant it into its final growing position, followed by a good soaking; this will usually be successful.

Bean roots remain easily damaged throughout their development. They put down an anchoring root system that spread away from the plant and also fine feeder roots nearer the surface. These can be easily damaged through cultivation. So it is very important to cultivate, weed and work around Bean plants very carefully. A good way to avoid damaging these roots and protect them from drying out is by mounding soil around the plants and mulching.

There are over 4,000 Bean varieties. They are part of the Fabaceae (Leguminosae) Family commonly known as the Bean, Legume or Pea Family of plants. This includes: Broad Beans, Chickpeas (Garbanzo Beans), Common Bean (French, Green, Gold, Purple, Runner, Yellow, edible Beans, etc.), Lentil, Lupin, Peas, Pulses, Soy Bean, Vetches and many other lesser know Legumes. Almost all of these are consumed by Humankind as well as their domesticated and herding animals.

Of greatest importance for most Gardeners are the European/Asian native Broad ‘Fava’ Beans (Phaseolus lunatus), and the American native Runner Beans (Phaseolus coccineus) and edible ‘Green’ Beans also known as Common or “French’ Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). Amongst the Common Beans alone are included: Anasazi (Aztec), Black, Borlotti, Common, Cranberry, Golden, Green, Kidney, Navy (Haircot), Pink, Pinto, Popping, Purple, Red, Shell, Yellow, White and within each of those varieties are many cultivars and locally grown varieties.

Because most Beans have a fairly exploratory and extensive root system and demand a lot of strong sunlight, they almost always produce their best crops when planted in the open ground outdoors in full sunshine. But Common Bush Beans and to a lesser extent Runner Beans, especially Scarlet Runner, can be successfully grown in container gardens. They do their best when sown direct where they are meant to produce their crops in raised planter boxes or larger containers and tubs. While they will easily sprout in smaller pots, they soon out-grow them; becoming top-heavy and often drying out and collapsing before many Beans are produced. Scarlet Runner and its many cultivars make an excellent edible ornamental flowering vine in the container garden. While crops will be reduced from what would be expected in the open ground, they often flower quite well on somewhat shorter vines and still produce at least a few edible pods.

Most edible bush and vining Beans can be easily grown within a glasshouse environment. These usually do their best when sown directly where they are meant to grow in open beds under glass.  Glasshouse Beans often become somewhat stretched and larger than when grown outdoors. They are also somewhat more vegetatively tender so much more vulnerable to predation from a variety of disease and insect pests. But glasshouse production does increase the length that Beans can be commercially or privately produced. With some careful planning, fresh Beans of many varieties can be successfully harvested through glasshouse production combined with outdoor cultivation for almost every month of the year.

Experienced Gardeners all know the great tradition of the ‘Three Sisters’. This is a botanical legendary lesson passed down through the Generations that started in very ancient times with our Native American gardening ancestors. The Three Sisters are: Beans, Corn and Squash. These are companion plants grown together as the main crop and harvest of the Summer and Autumn garden. Christopher Columbus and early European Explorers first noticed this planting combination and in later years it saved the lives of early Colonists to the Americas.

This combination of compatible or ‘companion’ vegetables can be scaled back to work in gardens of almost any size. The original Native American method was to plant open field gardens in a clustered or checkerboard pattern. Corn seed, enough to produce upwards of 10 or more plants, was planted in circular patches. Around the outer edge of each Corn patch, Climbing Bean seed was planted. In between the Beans and Corn were planted the seeds of Pumpkins and Squash.

As the Corn grew, the Climbing Beans used the Corn canes as their vining support. The Beans being legumes, produced valuable Nitrogen that helped make the Corn foliage grow much better. The patches of Beans and Corn provided a little shading and wind shelter for the Pumpkins and Squash. Plus the Beans helped provide Nitrogen for leafy and strong growth in the Squash vines that made them extra lush. The lush, robust and somewhat prickly Pumpkin and Squash foliage and stems became quite dense and made a natural barrier that stopped predation from animals and made it more difficult for birds to land. Most importantly, this dense vining groundcover shaded the ground so maintained a more even soil temperature and helped retain valuable ground moisture essential to the success of the Bean and Corn crops. Even today, and through many thousands of years in gardening evolution, the immortal Three Sisters are an unbeatable and unrivalled combination.

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dale-john 01-100x66 Dale Harvey and John Newton met in Melbourne Australia in 1981. Since then they both have supported each others careers while also building and maintaining their own. Read about how they were able to turn their joint careers into one and creating a dream of a better world starting in their own local community.

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