Beans, beans, the musical fruit; the more you eat, the more you toot. The more you toot, the better you feel. Let’s have beans for every meal!

Beans Vs. Grains

While grains – and especially wheat – are often touted as the staff of life, I suspect that it was beans that really formed the backbone of many ancient civilizations. Unlike grains, many beans could be eaten raw, fresh off the vine, shelled or dried. They stored exceptionally well and were higher in protein. In fact, many ancient beans survived because of their storage qualities. Beans provide the essential amino acid lysine, which is low in many grains. They are loaded with fiber, and in diets where fresh fruits and vegetables were available only at certain times of the year, beans helped keep our ancestors from constipation. In terms of yield, planting 500 grain plants (rice, barley, oats, wheat) will give you about 15 pounds of edible food. The same amount of bean plants yields closer to 85 pounds. The spacing for both kinds of plants is the same – about six inches.

There are thousands of bean varieties. When John Withee – the Bean Man – tried to find the Jacob’s Cattle beans he remembered from his childhood to grow in his 1960s garden, he was not at first successful. So he started looking, not only for Jacob’s Cattle but for other varieties he remembered. By the time he died, his seed collection contained 1186 different varieties. Withee was also the driving force for Wanigan Associates, a group dedicated to saving, growing and sharing heirloom beans. When John died, he left his bean collection to the Seedsaver’s Exchange, which took over the job of growing, maintaining and sharing beans from Withee’s collection.

Beans Around the World

You can find beans in nearly any color, in pole, half runner and bush varieties. They vary from the thin, square-podded mung bean of bean sprout fame to the dense green ovals of favas and the creamy ivory of the famed Tarbais pole bean. Each cuisine known to humans has examples of specific beans that are an integral component of a particular famed dish. The French have the aforementioned Tarbais, Cocc de Paimpol and Lingot du Nord. In Italy, you’ll find Fagioli Bianchi di Rotonda, Fagiolo Cannellino di Atina, romano and borlotto beans. The English have fava or broad beans and love their runner beans (Painted Lady, a bicolor red and white, has been around since 1596 and was named for Queen Elizabeth I). Fava beans are also associated with Mediterranean cookery, although they probably originated in Afghanistan or the Himalayas. Every Native American culture has its traditional beans, from the tepary and Anasazi beans of the southwest American deserts and the Arikara Dry Yellow grown by the Mandan and the Arikara tribes of the Missouri Valley, to the Mayflower of the Iroquois. Mung, winged and adzuki beans originated in the Far East. In Africa, people ate the Iru or African locust bean, African Yellow or bambara groundnut beans and cowpeas – which are beans despite the name. Within each country, state and region there are many other varieties grown and prized by individuals, families, clans, tribes and ethnic groups for their taste, storage qualities, drought resistance or just because they were pretty. In addition, beans are self-pollinating annuals, so keeping varieties true across the centuries was not nearly as difficult as preserving something like broccoli or squash. With the advent of hybrid beans, the number of available bean varieties expanded yet again.

How to Grow Beans

Beans are very easy to grow. Bush beans typically produce one crop, after which you can pull them for something else in the same space. Pole beans grown for dried beans basically just need to be planted, watered and harvested, but they do tie up the ground for the full season. Pole beans do require stakes or a trellis, but the extra work means a longer productive period for fresh snap or shell beans. It also means double the harvest (pound for pound) of fresh beans compared to bush beans as long as you keep the vines picked and well-watered. While beans fix nitrogen in the ground, they will do better with added compost. I’ve never really had any major problems with insect pests, although I understand people in parts of the country where bean beetles abound would tell a different story.

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