I suppose it’s because pole beans require some kind of scaffolding to climb on that they aren’t as popular as bush beans. Takes more work putting up the poles and you may have to buy them. But if you have tasted Kentucky Wonder pole beans cooked with bacon grease or a slab of real country-cured ham fat nestled among them, you know that they are so much more delectable than any bush bean that the extra work is worth it. I didn’t know that until I went south to Kentucky and tasted pole beans for the first time cooked as only my mother-in-law could cook them. I was hooked for life. The only advantage of bush-type string beans is that they come a little earlier, so we just eat peas until the Kentucky Wonders are ready. I think I have tried all the other pole string beans easily available and for my taste none of them are as good as Kentucky Wonder.
Actually you don’t need poles to grow pole beans. Plant them in your sweet corn patch. When the corn is about six inches tall, plant a bean seed next to each stalk. The corn will stay ahead of the beans in growth, tassel and throw its ears even though the vining beans all but hide the cornstalks. In fact, this is the answer for gardeners who figure they don’t have room enough for corn. The bean patch doubles as corn patch, and the beans, growing much taller up the stalks than bush beans produce just as many pods or more as the bush varieties.
But I prefer using poles—- surplus seedling and sapling trees I cut from the woods or branches from tree trimming or branches trimmed by wind and ice. The nasty winter just past (I hope) provided lots of bean poles in the midwest. It’s nice to have straight poles, but somewhat crooked ones will work too. I like mine about eight feet long.
Gardeners have various ways of setting up their bean scaffolds. Some space four poles about three feet apart and tie them together at that top to make a sort of teepee. I set a steel fencepost at each end of what will be a double row of beans and stretch a length of wire between the posts. Then I set two rows of poles about three feet apart sticking them into the ground as far as my strength will allow, and then leaning the poles inward from both rows and tying them, two together, on the wire. The wire is about five to six feet above the ground and the poles stick up another two feet or so above the wire. This generally means that you’ll need a step ladder to pick the beans at the top, but by providing that extra room for the vines to grow taller, you will get more beans. I space the poles about two feet apart in the row. Anchored in the ground and at the wire, the scaffolding withstands summer storms quite well. So far.
I plant the bean seeds on the inside and next to each row of poles about six inches apart in the row. As the beans grow up the poles, they make a sort of leafy tunnel which the kids used to love to hide in. Sometimes the first vines don’t want to twine themselves around the poles and I will wrap them a turn or two around to get them started. Interestingly, the vines always go counterclockwise around the poles, but I am told that in South America, they go around clockwise. Beats me.
When the bean plants are small, I weed between the rows, reaching in with the hoe from outside the poles. Some hand weeding is necessary at the base of the poles. Then I mulch the whole area with about six inches of last year’s tree leaves.
I know that people who favor what is referred to as French cooking like their string beans young and snappy-crisp and then steam-cooked only briefly. We do some that way too for “dilly beans,” that is, pickled with dill flavoring. But mostly we harvest the beans when the pods are about full-grown but have not developed much stringiness yet. With Kentucky Wonders, the pods will be about eight inches long. We break the pods into two to three inch pieces to fit better into canning jars. String beans are about the only vegetable we like better canned than frozen. As we break the pods, we can also strip off any fibrous strings that hang loose from the more mature pods but, ideally, the pods when harvested will not have pronounced strings yet. Unlike bush type string beans however, older pole beans with the main strings stripped off taste just as flavorful or more so than less mature pods. The beans from pods that are a little over-mature can be shelled out and cooked right along with the green pods. The advantage of the Kentucky Wonder is that it can be cooked thoroughly— a couple of minutes in a pressure cooker and then about ten minutes simmering, without losing its meaty texture. Therefore it is good for adding all kinds of flavorings to suit your taste and your recipes. Bacon and smoked ham juices, for example, saturate the thoroughly-cooked beans and give them their heavenly flavor. In fact, we think that our beans taste just as good when reheated for leftovers.
Pole lima beans have better flavor, we think, than bush limas, but are becoming almost an extinct species. The whole secret of a really tasty lima bean is to harvest it when the beans are very young— about the size of a fingernail. That can only be done by hand labor and is tedious work. Baby limas (bush type) don’t fill the bill either because even when small, they can quickly get too old and mealy for good taste.
The best bet is to grow a variety that has large beans but harvest them when still very small and tender. Of the few varieties offered today, the old King of the Garden comes closest to what I like. There used to be several better than that but have gone by the wayside in all the catalogs we check. We saved seed from two varieties that Burpee used to carry; the one has large, flat beans and is excellent harvested when very small. I can’t recall the name. The other one was Burpee’s Best, with a fatter and fleshier bean harder to shell out when very small. Sieva is still sold in some catalogs but is too mealy for our taste. Some speckled, brownish red varieties are offered but I don’t consider them true limas.
Pole limas are not as tempting to bugs as pole string beans. The latter should be planted consecutively, that is make two or three plantings about ten days to two weeks apart. Two rows about 25 feet long are plenty per planting for a family of four. One or two of the plantings will hopefully avoid the highest populations of pest bugs like bean beetles and leafhoppers. This will also mean a tender new crop coming along all summer.
When everything goes right with a planting, you have enough beans to eat now and can for later to make up for some losses in the other two. If all three plantings do well, call your nearest army to get rid of the surplus.
See also Gene’s Gardening In The Nude (or A New Use For Rhubarb)
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Image Credit: Sugar Creek Farm