Cooking,  Growing

Beans for drying: a discussion

Beans, sometimes called “pulses”, are the edible seeds of the legume family. In the UK the term ‘bean’ often includes the pods of the legume plant; runner beans and French beans are popular on allotments all over the country, but growing for eating the seed is less common.

I have become quite interested in growing bean seeds as they store well, are very low maintenance crops and are a good source of protein. Here I discuss our experiences so far of growing beans for drying and my plans to expand the varieties of beans for drying that we grow for 2020.

The nutrition of beans:
As we have become more self-sufficient we are eating more and more vegetarian food, although we do still eat meat 2-3 a few times a week. Beans are very nutritious. They are a great source of fibre, protein, carbohydrates as well as many vitamins. They are low in fat and practically free of saturated fat and cholesterol. Research even suggests that regularly eating beans can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and reduce blood pressure.

Beans are often an under-rated cooking ingredient in UK diets. At one time they were staple food as meat and dairy was largely unaffordable to most of the population. By Victorian times the wealthy were eating meat daily and beans became seen as a ‘poor man’s food’ or ‘animal feed’.  Haricot beans are still popular in the form of ‘baked beans’, however these are not well-suited to the British climate and are usually grown in the US or Canada.

On our allotment we have always grown broad beans, runner beans, French/dwarf climbing beans and, for probably the last 5 years, bollotti and butter beans, more specifically for the dried bean seeds.  From experimentation I have found that if you let runner and French beans go to seed the beans are actually pretty nice too. They have a strong flavour though so a bit an acquired taste. I like them made into ‘falafel’.
We try to get experimental with our dried bean crops. They really are a versatile ingredient.

Beetroot, butterbean & chilli scones topped with roasted butterbeans.

Growing beans:
Beans (legumes) form an important part of our crop rotation practice. Although we are now running our plots from a ‘no dig’ method, I still do rotate crops. This is because it can help to reduce the risk of pests/diseases that can build up through long term exposure of the ground to the types of same crops.  Crop rotation is quite a grey area and some people do grow beans in the same space year on year. Runner beans are actually a perennial crop so you can leave the roots in, mulch them well and if they avoid the frost they will grow back the next year. Because I like to rotate my crops, I don’t do this, but it certainly works!

Crop rotation is the practice of growing different types of crop species within a growing area over a period of time. Legumes usually form part of a crop rotation cycle due to their role in Nitrogen fixation. When non-leguminous crops are harvested they have reduced the Nitrogen content of the soil. Growing a legume crop can help to restore this balance. Legumes help leave usable Nitrogen in the soil even when they are harvested. This often gives them the name of ‘green manures’. Crop rotation can seem very complicated as there are many different patterns. At Don’t Crop Me Now we tend to follow a pattern of Potatoes, Brassicas, Roots (other), Legumes on a four year cycle. Potatoes are heavy feeders so like to follow Legumes! I try to leave the roots of the legumes in the ground after harvesting. Many argue that this allows the roots to ‘release’ the Nitrogen into the ground as the roots break down over winter.

The roots of legumes have nodules that contain specialised bacteria called Rhizobium that are able to extract Nitrogen gas from the air to turn into a form that the plant can easily access. Nitrogen is a critical element for plant growth and production. It is a major component of chlorophyll, the most important pigment needed for photosynthesis so pretty much essential for plant life! These specialised bacteria work with the plants to exchange nitrogen for their own nutrition. The bacteria found in legume plant roots are not the only type of bacteria that are extract Nitrogen from the air, some forms of free-living soil bacteria and aquatic bacteria do this too. However, incorporating legume plants into your growing plans can help to increase the Nitrogen content of your ground reducing the need to rely on using additional fertilisers

Beans are great plants to attract pollinating insects. Most legumes are pollinated by bees, but it has been estimated that there are over 100 species of Hymenoptera (sawflies, wasps, bees, and ants) that pollinate edible beans crops.

2020 plans:
In 2020 I am planning to expand the range of beans I grow for drying and wil be including:

* Jacob’s Cattle beans – a bicolour mottled bean that is a very old variety. Apparently the best for making traditional American style baked beans.

* Lima O Del Papa – a climbing bean that is bicoloured with a chestnut like flavour.

Do you grow beans for drying in the UK? What varieties have grown well? Do you have any recommendations?