The Obsession with Growing Dried Heirloom Beans ~ Varieties, Growing, and Harvest
Writing this as I just harvested the prettiest bowl of colorful, dried heirloom beans for Winter. Their unassuming browned pods get 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 dried bean growing.
Related article: Fall & Winter Gardening Guide for Southern California
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.
Dried Beans Versus Snap Beans
Really quick, I wanted to say that, 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.
Fun fact: some bean varieties can be both known as a “snap” and “dried” bean. This usually means that, when young, you can pick the bean pod as a fresh eating bean or wait until the pod has swelled and dried on the plant in order to save as a dried bean.
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 I have personally tried, I trust, and I’ve had success with!
More specifically, I can recommend Seed Saver’s Exchange, Adaptive seeds, and Baker Creek as some top sources to start for dried, heirloom beans.
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….
Planting Dried Beans
Beans are fast growers and like heat (like the other plants on this list), so definitely don’t worry so much about getting them started really early indoors, and definitely wait until all danger of frost has passed. 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, I typically will start 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 for ease. Direct sowing is really simple unless you have pest problems (I do!), so 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.
Beans are one of those crops that don’t need pruning, don’t need pinching, and DRIED beans specifically can be left alone all season until the pods have dried for harvesting. How cool is that?!
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 it’s health over time (if you plant them for this purpose, you might not get great beans but it’s still worth it). The roots will break up the soil, it’s a quick crop, and they aren’t heavy feeders. I simply amend my garden soil according to How I Amend My Soil Organically and off I go!
When transplanting bean plants (or most transplants for that matter) I use a granular mycorrhizae from Plant Success Organics. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants roots in the soil. This creates a wider “web” in the soil for the root system to access nutrients, water, and help prevent transplant shock. I’ve been using mycorrhizae in my garden for a very long time with good results.
Supporting Bean Plants
As mentioned above, 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 build my DIY bush bean trellis, check out this article and make sure to watch the video tutorial linked there as well. Happy crafting!
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. 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 pick the dried bean pods and 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, 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 them upside down to dry—-this will only work if the beans are VERY close to be completely dry already.
For storage: as I am shelling my dried bean pods, I also do a quality-control check. 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!
What’s my favorite dried bean to grow?
Being completely honest, I haven’t grown enough and tasted enough 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, so I try a new one 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 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, after reading how The Butter Lab raved about Joshua McFadden’s perfect shell beans recipe, Adapted from his book Six Season: A New Way with Vegetables. I tried it for myself. It’s versatile and keeps things simple to honor the flavor of the produce. 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. I know “do beans need to be soaked overnight” is a debated topic, but I do it regardless for all my dried beans.
What else do 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!
If I’ve convinced you to give growing heirloom dried beans a try, can we also talk about some REALLY simple herbs you can grow at home that will make your dried beans taste even better? Two of my favorites 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 that you can check out and then head to your favorite nursery to buy your very own.
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!
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