I’ve been growing beans now for a while. They are a big part of my diet, and the nitrogen-fixing bacteria many legumes (not just beans) have are a huge factor of garden design. It’s common practice for me to simply plant a load of beans and peas as soon as a bed is made, both to chop-and-drop but also to pull a good harvest from the first planting. Something I’m realizing, though, as my gardens and harvests get larger, is that harvesting legumes can be quite a time-consuming task. Consequently, I wanted to learn and share more about how to do it efficiently.
Before we begin, it’s probably relevant to make certain distinctions as to what sort of beans and peas I’m talking about here. Namely, green beans, sugar peas, and the rest of those pod-and-all legumes aren’t really part of this discussion. They are picked off the plant and eaten as is. However, other legumes—black, red, and white beans, as well as pigeon peas, chickpeas, and lentils—are generally dried on the plant, requiring shelling to get to the real harvest. These dried beans can be stored for a long time and contribute massively to a garden-based diet.
What I’ve realized as harvests have grown is that sitting to process a couple hundred pounds of beans by hand, the way I saw Mr. Joe from the down the street doing a few pounds of fresh garden peas in front of the TV, takes a tremendous amount of time. It’s not really feasible to individually shell thousands upon thousands of pods each time a cycle finishes. I wanted to know how to do it on a larger scale but still within the scope of a family farmer. To viably grow all (or most) of my own legumes, this knowledge, as well as some bean basics, seemed incredibly necessary.
So, I wanted to first get a reasonable grasp on how many bean plants I’d need to supply my wife and I, and incoming volunteers, enough to eat. To be honest, the numbers are a bit shattering. Dry beans do not come easily by the kilo. It takes roughly 40 productive plants to provide a kilo of dried beans or peas. Obviously, some are better, others worse, but I’m working with malleable ideas here.
Here are some basic thoughts I’ve found about growing beans:
• The growth time for most dried beans tends to be around four months, with the basic requirement of temperatures (for production) being between 15°C (60°F) and 27°C (80°F). With well-timed successions and crop rotations, this can result in several harvests per year. Where I live in Guatemala, the temperature is nearly always in that wheelhouse, so I can do even better.
• Bush beans should be planted roughly 8-10 centimeters apart, while pole beans (less common) require a little more distance, around 10-15 centimeters. They produce better in full sun and prefer soil that isn’t yet high in nitrogen. (High levels of nitrogen equate to more leaves and less beans.) Because they require so many plants and so much space to produce relevant harvests, they are not well-suited for container gardens.
• Beans partner well with several other plants, including corn, cucumbers and squashes, celery, strawberries, rosemary and potatoes. Vines are also happy to climb up sunflowers. On the other hand, they don’t mesh with onions or anything from the allium family. For annual gardens, locals traditionally used the milpa, the famous bean-squash-corn combination.
• Scarlet runner beans (three-meter vines) and pigeon peas (three-meter trees) are two high-producing perennial varieties to include for my region (Siberian/Russian peas are better for the cold). They’ll definitely factor in as long-term garden elements, but I’ll want annual varieties within the rotation as well. There are many types of dry beans available at the farmer’s markets here.
For me, hoping to get about half a kilo of beans a day, this equates to a lot of plants, an estimated 7300. The number seems hugely daunting. As well, growing one’s own dry beans seems to be roundly discouraged on traditional farming sites, as buying beans and peas is so cheap and less labor-intensive. But, I’m hard-headed, and I want to try and definitely want to know more about it. My idea, as is the idea of most budding permaculturalists I know, is to produce my own food, and I eat a lot of beans. That means I need to grow them.
The figure I found for planting annual bush beans, kidney and pinto and white, says about 600 plants per 10 square meters, theoretically resulting in around 10 kilos of dry beans. So, doing a little more math, it seems I’m figuring about 60 plants per square meter resulting in one kilo/two days of dried beans to eat. That equates to about 130 square meters of growing space needed annually to produce the prescribed beans. If I can grow three harvests a year, that means at any given time, I need roughly 45 square meters of beans on the go. That seems a little less daunting.
I will have plenty of pigeon peas planted around as nitrogen-fixers and chop-and-drop mulch in the food forest area, as well as teamed with comfrey as fertility-building borders. I’ll use scarlet runner beans to help with keeping vertical spaces productive, though they will be competing with at least two other perennial vines, passion fruit (a favorite of mine) and chayote, for the growing area. But, with that in mind, numbers become all the more reachable. I think I can do it.
Now, the real reason I began writing this article is that I recently harvested a load of pods from a couple of very successful pigeon pea trees I planted last year. Picking them was easy enough, but having to sit a shell even just a couple of kilos of peas takes ages. I wanted to know how to do it more efficiently, how to handle—as a small farmer with sparse equipment—a hundred kilos at a time. I like to think positively. I like to think that I’ll soon reach those lofty legume figures I’ve set, but when that day comes around, the thought of having to shell them all is just utterly horrifying.
The general rule I’ve followed for getting dried beans is to simply wait for them to mature on the plant. The skin of the pod goes leathery, often changing colors, and questionable beans can be left in trays to dry a little further. At times, in Guatemala, this can be challenging, as wet season can be extremely rainy and humid. Typically, however, the rains stop in for two or three weeks in July/August, a time referred to as the canícula, then it stops again for several months between November and April. With any luck, I could time the harvests for late July, November, and March, obviously with experimentation as to what timing works best.
Finally, the good news is that handling dried beans on this scale doesn’t require much in the way of equipment. “Thrashing” in the home-garden way merely calls for a tarp and some able feet. The dried beans are laid out and walked on (or I’ve seen people here hitting them with sticks as well). For smaller harvest, it’s also possible to put them in a sack and either give it a good beating or a frisky tumble. The beans and debris are then separated by putting them into large bowls and winnowing out the unwanted elements, including wrinkly or infested legumes.
Obviously, the choicest beans should be saved for the next crop, which in my case of thrice yearly, might be immediately, practicing some sort of sensible rotation to avoid diseases and pests. The rest, for eating, can be kept in airtight containers and stored in a cool, dry place for up to a few years. If weevils or bug infestations are possible, and eaters aren’t too squeamish, thrifty growers suggest storing the beans in the freezer to eliminate loss of the crop during storage. Some would say it’s added protein.
Anyhow, I envision a mixed bunch, included red, black, white, pinto, mung, pigeon pea, lentils, chickpeas, cowpeas, and scarlet runners as ten varieties to try for drying. That should keep meals interesting, diverse, and healthy. No doubt, it’ll also help to keep the gardens rich with nitrogen, vibrant with flowers, and abundant with harvests. In essence, this is how I hope to harvest enough dry beans and other legumes to feed a family.
Feature Photo: Scarlet Runner Bean (Courtesy of Kristine Paulus)