Gardening Tips: Bean There

Editor’s Note: The Spectator is reaching into Michelle Smith’s gardening column archive for some weekly advice that is as relevant now as when it was first written. This column was first published on 12 June 2019.


What to do this week

My plum and pear trees are blooming now and I am getting impatient to plant out the tomatoes. It is still too early yet, though, so I am sublimating the urge by getting a jump on planting the beans and potatoes. We are still likely to get patchy frost for another week inland but since beans and taters will stay underground for the first week, they should be fine.

Black Coco, Canadian Wild Goose, Hutterite Soup, King of the Early.

I plant quite a few different kinds of beans. Mostly I plant bush beans since the winds in Inverness County gust too strongly for any pole bean trellis other than the one strapped to the south wall of my house with old tractor fan belts. This is dedicated to growing out, in alternate years, seeds of heritage beans gifted to me by Cape Breton growers.

Some beans, like Blue Jay and Black Valentine are best for fresh eating. I grow these out only for seed every four years since I have already got the seed stock to where I want it in terms of disease resistance. I mostly plant a selection of dry beans. Partly for their cultural or historic value, but also because I love their many, bright colors. Pepas de Zapallo, or Tiger Eye is originally from Chile and looks quite psychedelic with its yellow background and maroon swirls. Mrocumiere, from Kenya, is a lovely shade of lilac. Not only that, but each bean shines in a different dish. Mrocumiere has a thin skin and creamy texture and is just right for dips. Littlefield’s Special and Maine Sunset hold their firm texture perfectly for baked beans. Monastery, once grown by the monks in Tracadie and collected by Bill Gunn in Antigonish, is a superb bean for chili.

Littlefield’s Special, Maine Sunset, Monastery, Tiger Eye.

To save beans for seed, the varieties should be planted at least 25 feet apart, farther if you have a healthy population of wild pollinators. This year, for the first time, I am experimenting with a plot of mixed beans destined for soup mix. Normally I grow all 16 varieties in different beds but down-sizing my garden this year means that I only have space for four proper growouts. If the motley bed generates a few crosses, it won’t matter in the soup; meanwhile, I will be reducing my stress by rotating the growouts on a four-year schedule. The beds of single varieties will generate seed as well as enough beans for chili and cassoulet.

Many of the beans I grow are dual purpose – fresh eating and dry beans. I am thinking of Thibodeau du Comte Beauce and Mrocumiere. If I decide I want some of these for fresh eating, I confine the picking to one section of the patch. If I eat the first fresh ones, the plant will usually not have enough time to set another bunch of fruit in time to mature before frost. Once, I tried to be clever and let the first ones go to seed, planning on eating the next fruit set as fresh. However, the beans were smarter than I was, and simply worked to rule, figuring they had already done their job of making seed and need make no further effort.

Mrocumiere, Yellow Arikara, Thibodeau Du Comte Beauce

If you plan on eating your whole harvest fresh, you can space the rows relatively close together to save space. If you want good seed stock from our Maritime climate, however, you should space the rows 3 feet apart for good air circulation. Especially at the tail end of the season, beans are very susceptible to fungal diseases and blights, but this is minimized if the leaf canopy between the rows does not touch. Try not to work in the bean bed when the leaves are wet, either from dew or rain, and that will help as well.

Beans should be planted about seven to eight beans per foot, no matter what size the bean. A pound of turtle beans will plant more row feet than the larger King of the Early. I grow enough beans that I weigh them out and then calculate how long the row should be. Turtle beans will plant 320 feet per pound. Kidney beans will plant only a third of that, at 110 feet. Monastery and Maine Sunset will plant a about 150 feet per pound.

If you are only planning a small row, but still want to save seed, be sure to save seed from at least 40 plants to prevent in-breeding depression and maintain a diverse population. That’s only five row feet which should not be too onerous, even for a home gardener.

Fresh or dry, beans are a wonderful, addition to the menu. Dry beans from the store are often several years old and can be tough and hard to cook. By contrast, dry beans you grow yourself will be more tender and take a lot less cooking time. I don’t even bother to soak mine overnight. Later in the fall, I will tell you the best way to finish drying down your beans and give you some tips for storage, but for now, it’s time to go get them in the ground!




Market gardener, farmer, workshop leader, seed-saver, political candidate and mother, Michelle Smith has spent over 30 years coping with the challenges of our bioregion and in the process has built a store of practical and technical knowledge. The Inverness resident has served on the board of Seeds of Diversity Canada and represented Alternative Producers with the Federation of Agriculture but can do nothing about her hair. She is pictured with a head of Club Wheat, a seed that shares her approach to hairdressing.