Tender snap beans are eaten fresh; you can also freeze or can them. They may be green, yellow or purple; some have streaks. They grow to finger length or as long as a yard, and some are flat. Good varieties of green pole beans include 'Kentucky Wonder', 'Blue Lake Pole' and 'Romano Pole'—a green Italian heirloom bean with flat pods, loved by bean connoisseurs. Also, the delicious pods of 'Fortex' grow 11 inches (28 centimetres) long but can be harvested at seven inches as a filet bean (see below). For bush beans, 'Blue Lake Bush' has a particularly fine flavour. 'Jade' is tender, sweet and a rich green colour. 'Provider' is the earliest of the green beans and is fairly tolerant of cool, unsettled weather. Good varieties of yellow beans, or wax beans as they're often called, are bush-types 'Beurre de Rocquencourt', 'Goldkist', 'Rocdor' and, in particular, 'Dragon Tongue''a beautiful old variety with flat pods streaked with bright purple. Its flavour is superior and even when harvested large, beans remain crisp, juicy and stringless.
Purple-podded snap beans (which turn green when cooked) have ornamental plants with pretty, light purple flowers. They tend to have fewer problems with insect pests than yellow or green beans. Good varieties are 'Royal Burgundy' and 'Purple Queen', both bush types.
Filet beans are green varieties of bush snap beans that you harvest when still small'often bite-size. Pick them when they're under one-quarter inch (.5 centimetre) in diameter, at least every other day, or they become tough and stringy. Good varieties include 'Fin des Bagnols', 'Triomphe de Farcy', 'Nickel' and 'Maxibel'. Filet beans aren't good candidates for canning or freezing.
Shell beans, picked when the seeds are bulging in the pods, are a gourmet food rarely available in North America unless you grow them yourself. You shell and prepare them like lima beans, but they're easier to grow. They can be easily canned or frozen for winter use. 'Tongue of Fire' has yellow pods streaked with red; the beans are superior in flavour and texture and can be eaten as snap beans when young. 'Cannellini, is a white-seeded variety that's traditionally used in minestrone soup.
Dry beans are picked when the pods are dry and papery, and the seeds dry inside. When you grow your own beans for drying, they're fresher than those in stores, which means they're tastier, more digestible and require less cooking time. Another advantage is the incredible variety, in a dazzling array of colours—white, black, beige, brown, green, red, yellow, pink, maroon, purple, and sometimes mottled, spotted or streaked with contrasting colours. Be sure to check the days to maturity in catalogues; some varieties take too long for short seasons.
As well as the traditional kidney, navy and pinto beans, there are literally hundreds of varieties to choose from. 'Midnight Black Turtle Soup' and 'Black Coco' are rich, flavourful black soup beans. 'Maine Yellow Eye' is popular for baked beans. And many are heritage beans passed down from generation to generation. Consider 'Jacob's Cattle' (or 'Trout') beans, white with deep red speckles. It's one of the earliest dry beans to mature.