05 October 2011

Why grow heirloom beans?

Timber Press
 Heirloom vegetables are more popular with chefs and gardeners every year. Heirlooms are touted by seed sellers, produce vendors and chefs as being superior to the new hybrid varieties.


Hybridized plants are crosses of two varieties. The seeds they produce will not grow into plants that are identical to the parents you had in your garden. By definition, heirloom varieties are open-pollinated.

One reason to grow heirloom varieties is that they taste better. Saving the seed from the best heirlooms in this year’s garden, and replanting them year after year is one way gardeners stay connected to their heritage. Plus, you can save the seed of the most disease and insect resistant plants.

There are thousands of bean varieties that can easily be grown in our zone 7 climate. The beauty of beans is that they need less supplemental nitrogen and water than most vegetables. The plants take nitrogen from the air and collect it in the roots, improving the soil in which they are grown.

Bean vines are grown on a trellis and bush beans are shrubby plants that need no support structure. If vining beans are grown close together they can cross-pollinate and create a new variety.

To grow beans to be used as dried beans over the winter, allow the seeds to mature and dry in the pods on the vine. Then, pull out the whole plant and put it in the shade to dry out for 2 weeks, bringing them inside or covering them if it rains. Store the beans in a paper bag after shelling.

Steve Sando started growing heirloom beans because he was tired of the same old beans available in plastic bags at the grocery store. He grew his hobby into an internationally successful company called Rancho Gordo (www.ranchogordo.com). At the website you can subscribe to their blog and newsletter, or you can friend them on Facebook to receive healthy bean recipes.


Sando maintains that freshly grown beans that have been dried less than 2 years are far superior food than the ones we usually eat. He started small, growing beans and saving seeds to plant the next year. Now, Rancho Gordo has boutique growers in CA and in Mexico.


In his newest book, “The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Book” Sando explains why we should eat heirloom beans, which ones to grow, and how to grow them.

A few favorite bean varieties –
Cranberry Beans – Cargamanto Colombiano cooks to a velvety texture with a thick, rich pot liquor. Tongues of Fire and Horto are varieties of cranberry beans.
-Seeds available from www.seedsavers.org and www.ranchogordo.com.

Yellow Eye Beans have a russet potato texture and are popular as baked beans. They are white with a yellow splotch around the eye.
-These are bush beans, available from www.victoryseeds.com.

Fall Bush Bean from Eastern KY is light yellow with red streaks. Eaten as a shell bean or dried rather than as a green bean.
-Seeds available from the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center at www.heirlooms.org.

Royalty Purple Pod beans turn green when cooked. Sando recommends Ayocote Morado.
-Seeds available from www.ranchogordo.com and www.sandhillpreservation.com.

Cherokee Trail of Tears pole beans grow purple-striped pods with shiny black beans.
-Available from www.heirloomseeds.com.

New Mexico Bolitas are pinkish-beige rounded beans grown by traditional Hispanics of northern New Mexico in irrigated plots. Early maturity and high yield pole bean.
-Available from www.nativeseeds.org.

“The Rancho Gordo Heirloom Bean Book”, by Steve Sando, is the story of Sando’s bean adventure and a catalog of beans sold by Rancho Gordo. Published 2011, 9-by-7 paperback, 180-pages, $20 list price at www.timberpress.com and $8 to 15 online.

For OK gardeners there is a helpful online conversation at http://tinyurl.com/3dgwjmz.

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