Beans are a delightful staple of the summer garden. With little effort, plants yield quantities of fresh, crisp pods unequalled by supermarket produce. Left to dry on the plants, pods produce a rainbow of coloured beans that provide delicious healthy soups, stews and chilies throughout the year.
The common bean (Phaseolus vulgaris) originated in South and Central America. Bean seeds found in archeological sites in Peru and Mexico have been dated at 8,000 and 5,000 BC respectively. Beans spread to North America where, along with corn and squash, they became the Three Sisters of Life—the sustaining staple crops of indigenous Native Americans. Bean seeds were planted in each hill of corn to grow up the corn stalks. They were introduced to Europe and Asia at the time of the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century. While they were initially grown as an ornamental plant in Europe, they eventually became the mainstream food crop they are today.
Beans are typically divided into three categories, according to how they're eaten: string or snap beans, picked when the pods are young and the seeds immature; shell beans, harvested when the seeds have grown to full size and bulge inside the pods, but are still fresh and the pods still soft; and dry beans, picked when the pods are dry and papery and the seeds are dry inside. It's possible to eat the same bean variety in different ways'for example, all beans are edible when left to dry on the plant, but not all varieties have a good flavour when dried. Choose varieties recommended for your intended use.
Fresh beans are a good source of vitamins A and C, provide potassium and are low in calories. Dry beans are an almost perfect food—they're low in fat, high in fibre, rich in B vitamins and a good source of protein. (Cooked, dried beans served with grains or dairy products provide all the essential amino acids.) Studies show that regular consumption of dried beans helps to lower cholesterol; also their complex carbohydrates have less effect on blood sugar than those of other starchy foods, which makes them well-suited to people with diabetes.
The vines of pole beans need support. Install the support—ideally at least six feet (180 centimetres) tall—before seeds are planted; use a trellis, or make a fence with chicken wire or nylon netting strung between sturdy supporting poles set eight feet (240 centimetres) apart. Traditionally, thin 10-foot (three-metre) saplings were used.
Other options: hang strings from an overhead support, or tie three or more poles together to form a teepee. Use more poles if you want to create a great place for children to play. For example, 12 poles, each 10 to 15 feet long, can be lashed together to create a teepee six to eight feet in diameter. Leave a wide enough gap between two of the poles so kids can enter to play or you can enter to harvest.