My Obsession with Growing Dried Heirloom Beans

by | Nov 3, 2021

Currently, I’m writing this after just harvesting the prettiest bowl of colorful, dried heirloom beans for Winter. Their unassuming browned pods are pried open to reveal what can only be described as treasure. No matter the size of your growing space, I hope you can squeeze just a plant or two to experience the magic of growing dried beans. In all honesty, it’s pretty difficult for small space of backyard gardeners like ourselves to grow enough dried beans to supply our pantry all Winter, but it’s still worth it to experience the beauty!

Why I love growing dried heirloom beans

Undeniable beauty. To hold beans in shades of red or pink, dappled with the prettiest patterns in your own hands is just plain FUN. Want to grow art? Grow dried, heirloom beans.

Flavor. Plant breeding for many years has been focused on what is marketable, high production, and dependable through growing and shipping (like breeding for disease resistance). Flavor is not the number one priority. Heirloom beans have a meatiness, a depth of flavor, and offer more variety in the kitchen.

Seed saving. While cross pollination can happen (it’s extremely rare with heirloom dried beans), it is one of the easiest seeds to save yourself. Heirloom beans are written histories in tangible bean form. They are from people who tended land and gardens, who said “these beans are worth saving”—-and continued through the ages. If we don’t save seed and continue to grow these varieties, they will disappear.

Here are just some of the beautiful heirloom dried beans you can grow. Each year I make sure to try a new variety because there are so many out there!

Dried Beans Versus Snap Beans

For the purpose of this article, I’m talking about “dried beans.” These would be beans that are specifically known as being ideal at their dried stage for culinary use. Great in soups, stews, cooked in water until an incredible broth is created. This is different from “snap beans” which are known for being ideal when eaten as a fresh, young, tender pod—which you might think of as a green bean.

In fact, some bean varieties can be grown as both a “snap” and “dried” bean. This usually means that, when young, you can pick the bean pod as a fresh eating bean (ie. green bean). Alternatively, you can wait until the pod has swelled and dried on the plant in order to save it as a dried bean. Not all beans can be grown as both, but you can read the description on the seed packet to find out.

Where to Buy Bean Seeds & What to Buy

There are soooo many great businesses selling heirloom dried beans. Be sure to check out my Where I Buy Seeds page to see a list of places that I have tried myself. A lot can be said about buying seeds from dependable and high quality seed sources!

More specifically, I can recommend Seed Saver’s Exchange and Adaptive seeds as some top sources to for heirloom dried bean seeds. Don’t be surprised when you open the package and the “seeds” look just like the dried beans you will eventually harvest—they are the same!

Here are some things to consider before selecting and buying dried bean varieties:

Is it a pole bean or bush bean? Check the description to see if the bean plant will need a trellis (pole bean) for climbing or if it will grow as a bush. Pole beans can be nice for small spaces, because they will grow vertically. Bush beans are smaller, more compact, but also might produce less beans per plant—-which means planting a higher number of plants or succession sowing more often.

What do you plan to cook or make? As you are shopping, you’ll undoubtedly be reading the seed descriptions. Some beans are noted for creamy soups while others might retain their shape more for baked beans or stews or marinated bean salads….

Scarlet Runner beans are vigorous climbers. Their red flowers are wonderful for attracting hummingbirds, and the dried beans are lovely purple and pink shades with speckles. Scarlet runner beans do make a delicious dried bean, but they are large and take a very long time to cook.

Growing Dried Beans

Once you have your seeds ready for sowing, you’ll need to decide when to sow and how to sow. Beans are fast growers, and they like warm weather (like the other plants on this list), so definitely don’t worry so much about getting them started really early indoors. Additionally, wait until all danger of frost has passed. You can actually see the frost damage that killed my beans one year here. There is an exception: runner beans! This family of perennial legumes actually does well when started in cooler weather. I’m not saying they like frost, but they could be the earliest bean you plant in early spring.

While many may soak their beans before planting, I do not. It’s pretty general practice in my garden to not soak seeds, except for sweet pea flowers (grow guide HERE) and beets (grow guide HERE). I just don’t think it truly saves time in a significant way. In fact, I actually had one bean seed packet say “do not soak” specifically.

I’ve gotten in the habit of both direct sowing AND transplanting my various bean plants. For the earliest round of sowing, I typically will start my beans in containers because this allows me to maximize my growing space for as long as possible before switching out plants. As the Summer progresses, I try and direct sow my beans for ease. Direct sowing is really simple unless you have pest problems (I do!). If you’d like to hear more about my direct sowing versus transplanting philosophy, check out What Does Direct Sowing Versus Transplanting Mean?

I follow the seed packet instructions for seed depth and space my plants anywhere between 4-6 inches apart. If I direct sow, I’ll plant 2-3 inches apart and see how the germination goes.

Some of my bush bean plants in the Summer garden. Dried heirloom beans that grow in a bush habit are great for practicing succession sowing.

Preparing Your Soil for Beans

Soil requirements for beans are also pretty easy. In fact, beans are a great crop to start growing in low quality soil if you are trying to build soil health over time. Keep in mind that if you plant them for this purpose, you might not get the greatest beans, but it’s still worth it IMHO. Bean roots will break up the soil, they are quick growing, known for being nitrogen fixers, and aren’t heavy feeders. Overall, I simply amend my garden soil according to How I Amend My Soil Organically and off I go!

Supporting Bean Plants

Depending on the type of bean you are growing, it might need some support, no support, or really tall supports! True to my cottage-esque style, I really like to make my own supports using pruned branches or sticks that I’ve gotten from around my own garden. Not only is this frugal, but it adds a rustic touch to the garden that I LOVE. One year I made a little criss-cross patterned trellis for my bush beans because I find that bush beans do benefit from some added support due to the weight of the beans. If you want to make my DIY bush bean trellis, watch this video of the process.

On the other hand, pole beans will need a taller trellis to climb on. You can see the more traditional trellis I used for my scarlet runner beans above, but you can also make a cute DIY pole bean trellis using branches or sticks. Watch us build a pole bean trellis over on YouTube.

As your dried beans are growing they don’t need any pruning or pinching. One of the greatest things about growing dried beans specifically, is that they can be left alone all season until the pods have dried for harvesting. How cool is that?!

This was my DIY bush bean grid that supported some dragon tongue beans. It worked so well to keep the heavily producing plants from falling over.

It’s so easy to harvest dried beans!

This is one crop that you don’t need to fuss over. You can let the beans grow and grow until they plump up and dry. Dried pods are fully brown (like the picture below). Some bean plants will die completely—the leaves will start to shrivel and brown as well as the beans—while others (typically pole beans) might continue to grow green and produce as the oldest beans begin to over-mature/plump/dry out. For instance, this happens with my scarlet runner beans. I’ll harvest them as they dry over the whole season because my scarlet runners produce all Summer.

Depending on how many beans you have to harvest, you can unshell dried beans right away or you can store them in a brown paper bag until you have the time to sit and remove the colorful beans from their pods. If you have only a few beans, you can remove the beans from their dried pods right then and put them in a bowl or jar UNCOVERED indoors. Even after removing the beans from their dried pods, I leave them in an open bowl, tray, or jar in a dry place indoors to fully dry out—-sometimes there’s still some moisture. Once fully dry and hard, transfer the beans to your airtight storage container (ie. a mason jar in your kitchen pantry).

If rain is in the forecast and you are worried about your dried beans getting moldy or ruined in the garden, you can choose to pull the entire plant and hang it upside down to dry. Although, this will only work if the beans are VERY close to being completely dry already.

Storing Your Homegrown Dried Beans

Proper storage starts with quality control. Essentially, as I am shelling my dried bean pods, I do a quality-control check. Basically, look over each bean as you are working. I don’t save any beans that look shriveled, broken, sprouted, or damaged in any way….just compost those! Why? If you keep beans that have a potential for rot, mold, or are sub-par, you could have trouble in storage that spreads to all the other beans and you’ll have to throw them all out!

Store your dried beans in an airtight container in a cool, dry closet or pantry. I simply use mason jars for storage so I can write the date harvested on the lids too.

This is a dried bean pod that I had harvested and kept in a brown paper bag until I had time to shell all of the beans.

What’s my favorite dried bean to grow?

Being completely honest, I haven’t grown enough and tasted enough dried beans side by side to truly have a strong opinion. Sometimes it’s hard to remember if a soup made with ‘rosso di lucca’ beans was better than another soup I made a year later with cranberry beans! It’s really because I have a small garden. I try a new bean each year, and I also am gradually building up my own seed stock.

So what can I say? Larger beans take longer to cook. My scarlet runner beans actually take several hours compared to smaller beans, which cook in 1-2 hours. Larger beans are meatier and add substantial bite to a dish. Smaller beans can cook up creamier and add body to soups. If I had to choose one type of dried bean to grow because of limited space, I’d probably go for a smaller dried bean for versatility. Seed packet descriptions often tout which beans are best for which culinary uses, so those are definitely worth a read!

How I like to Cook Dried Beans

The biggest tip I can give you for cooking dried beans is patience. This isn’t only for flavor, but also for safety. Dried beans need to be cooked until tender alllllll the way through because this makes them safe to consume (and arguably more delicious). There are substances in raw or undercooked beans that are harmful when eaten, so cooking thoroughly is a MUST. Always plan ahead and allow for hours to cook beans.

Have you heard of Rancho Gordo? It’s a business in Napa, California that specializes in heirloom dried beans for home cooks and chefs. They also provide a wonderful, free guide for cooking dried beans (HERE) along with a bean growing book: The 50 Best Beans to Grow, Cook, and Save).

That being said, there’s one recipe that is on repeat in my kitchen.  Joshua McFadden’s perfect shell beans recipe, adapted from his book Six Season: A New Way with Vegetables is fabulous! It’s versatile, and keeps things simple to honor the flavor of the beans. I’ve made this recipe using freshly shelled beans—-which are basically dried beans that aren’t actually “fully dried” but are plump and mature—and also with dried beans. 

As a final note on cooking with dried beans, I always soak my beans overnight before cooking. I know this is a debated topic, but I do it anyway.

Spent some time shelling these dried scarlet runner beans. While I love growing scarlet runner beans, they take what seems like forever to cook, and I find their size to be less suitable for soups. Not my top choice for cooking.

Homegrown Goodness

Know what else you need to go with your homegrown beans? Your own homegrown garlic of course! I’ve got a full garlic grow guide for you to take your garden-to-table game up a notch! 

Another great garden-to-table idea to complement your dried beans would be homegrown herbs. Two of my favorites to pair with beans in the kitchen are bay leaves and rosemary, which flourish in our Mediterranean climate and are evergreen here! These two herbs also made my 5 Herbs to NOT Grow From Seed list because they are best purchased at a nursery. 

So, there ya go! Armed with how to select, grow, harvest and cook your own dried heirloom beans, what’s stopping you now? Have fun!

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

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