Planning Your Beans!
I seem to post about shelling beans a lot. Maybe that's because I'm passionate about them. Beans are nutritious, easily transportable, can be stored for a long time, and yield literally more than ten-fold per bean planted. What's not to like?!
While planning your summer garden, remember to put in some tall trellis or fence space for shelling beans. Many types, like borlotti beans, are wonderful to eat as rich Italian-style green beans, and then can be left to mature for yummy dry beans when you're tired of eating them fresh. Sure, you could freeze them, but if you are, like myself, one of the generation scarred by school cafeteria green beans, the idea of freezing and then actually EATING a green bean pod is anathema. Why not mature them for dry beans instead!
A single 10-foot row of heirloom pole beans will yield two large paper sacks of pods, shelling down to 1 - 1.25 quarts of dry beans under normal productivity conditions-- not super productive, not scraggly. While some years I got more than other years, the weather conditions, and my watering learning curve, have been such that I don't feel comfortable drawing any conclusions about the relative productivity of the different cultivars.
My results were in Cherry 3 bed of the Sunnyvale Community Garden, also known as the Sunnyvale Teaching & Demonstration garden. Types of beans were: True Red Cranberry, Borlotti, Good Mother Stallard, Hidatsa Shield. Most of these beans will not only climb a six-foot fence, they will noodle and doodle and swirl above it for a foot or so, before reluctantly dipping back down onto the fence for support.
If that sounds like too tall an order for you, many dry beans are semi-vining types that grow into a scant bush-like configuration and then send up several tendrils to a height of 3 - 5 feet. I've observed this with Repokob/Tiger-eye and Jacob's Gold. I still haven't figured out a favorite method for growing these. If I'm going to stake-and-string, or put up a trellis, I figure I might as well use full vining types and get more productivity out of the vertical space. On the other hand, they might be good candidates for growing with sunflowers or huge dahlias, since they won't overwhelm the host plant. Or if you have a minimal fence around the garden to keep out dogs and overly-helpful toddlers, these might be a good choice to grow up that fence!
At home, I grow scarlet runner beans up the carport supports of our mobile home. My favorite varieties are Scarlet Emperor (red/purple beans) and Painted Lady (white beans). Sometimes they will come back the next year, sometimes I need to replant-- I have not investigated this with any great diligence. One to two runner bean plants up an 8-foot high, 18" wide trellis will extend along string or plastic lattice between carport supports, and produce approximately 1 - 1.3 quarts of dry beans after shelling.
In my experience, if you have limited beaning opportunities, or limited time, the runner beans are the way to go. They are almost maintenance-free, the huge pods are easy to spot and pick, and they attract hummingbirds and native bees (who sometimes put on quite a show, doing aerial duels with each other over possession of a nice branch of flowers!). Runner beans always seem less "tame" than many cultivars, and they don't seem to know what to do with much fertilizer. Put them down in a nice heap of compost with a little sprinkled bone meal and a teensy pinch of greensand. When they have reached about six feet tall, refresh the compost a little, but do nothing else. Fertilizing, even with compost, in mid to late summer will cause a rush of new growth that is substantially weaker and sweeter than usual, and you will end up with a veritable plague of black aphids-- at least here in Sunnyvale. Nope, benign neglect but lots of water and partial shade is the recipe for success with these beans.
FYI, I have had issues with the harvested dry beans from the Sunnyvale Community Garden hosting bean weevils (Acanthoscelides obtectus). If you see tiny circles at the bottom of your jar of dry beans, you have bean weevils. Get rid of, or clean and refrigerate or freeze, the remaining beans, depending on your particular tolerance for such things. I have grown many types of beans at home (near Tasman & Lawrence) and haven't had any bean weevils. I do the lazy gardeners' method of letting the beans dry on the vine and waiting for almost all the leaves to fall (as long as no rain is coming) so I can see the pods easily. It may be that my lazy method provides enough exposure for the weevils to populate the beans. The jury is still out!