Can you think of a more useful plant for your edible garden that is easier to grow than the bean? It can be eaten as a tender green pod, or as a freshly-shelled bean, then stored dry for hearty eating later in the year, it can also be used as seed stock for replanting in the next season.

And if that wasn’t enough, beans are also an excellent source of protein and many other nutrients. I find it empowering that we can supply balanced meals completely out of our suburban kitchen gardens—protein and all.

Beans are frequently taken for granted, and often exist only in the background or as a condiment when we think of our favorite foods. But as a gardener, I became passionate about growing and eating beans last summer when I tried my legume growing experiment.

The revelation of their value in the home garden came when I cooked them as fresh shell beans. Growing up, our parents often lovingly reminisced about a dish from our home country of Chile called “porotitos granados”; it was a simple meal comprised of freshly shelled beans and tender corn cut from the cob, with fresh basil. They lamented that these were not available here in California (years ago).

So I was very excited to discover that one of our favorite vendors at the Mountain View Farmer’s Market (Iacopi Farms), offers seasonal specialty dried and fresh-shelled beans from late summer through early fall: Italian Butter Beans (runner cannellini), Cranberry Beans (the Italian variety are borlotti beans), and Gigante Beans, as well as Fava (broadbeans).

I bought some Cranberry beans to cook and planted some of them, out of curiosity. I also planted some Scarlet Runner beans from a packet of seeds (Rene’s Garden) because I heard that they have lovely flowers that attract humming birds and bees, as well as being edible. Both types have beautiful climbing vines that I loved displaying in my front yard, and it was a wonderful surprise to see their pods: the Scarlet Runner pods are huge, and tasty when young (cook them like green beans), and the Cranberry beans, big surprise, have ornamental cranberry and cream mottled pods.

Both are very good eaten as a freshly-shelled bean. That is, pick and shell the beans when they have fattened in the pod but before they begin to dry. The freshly-shelled beans are lovely and delicious. It only takes a few minutes to cook them in some boiling water until they are tender. They can be added to any dish, for example: soups, salads, and stews.

Saving Bean Seeds

To save the dried beans, simply let the pods dry on the vine. Then gather the pods and shell the beans. If they are not yet completely hard and dry, spread them out on a cookie sheet in a dry place safe from moisture for about a week or two. Then keep them in a jar or other container in a cool dry cupboard out of the light. The dried beans may be cooked and eaten, or they can be planted in the next growing season.

No wonder beans of various species have a long history in civilizations all over the globe, old world to new. According to Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo in Napa, CA the Scarlet Runner bean, is a very old variety with a long history in North America, having been cultivated in Mesoamerica and thought to have originated in Oaxaca.

From chickpeas (garbanzos) in the middle east, the blackeyed peas of Africa, the limas of the Americas, soybeans of Asia, all played an important nutritional role in supplying protein, especially if meat was scarce. As a result, beans have important roots in many regional culinary traditions, including the French flageolets and the Italian cannellini in Europe.

So Many Beautiful Heirloom Beans

It’s quite a revelation to cook with different varieties of freshly-dried beans, which are vastly different than the bags found at the supermarket where the beans may be several years old. As Sando points out, dried beans that are less than a year old taste better and take less time to cook. His informative book, Heirloom Beans demonstrates how varied beans are in flavor, texture, and versatility in cooking (the book includes lots of recipes).

I had no idea that there were so many types of beans, and I was amazed at how beautiful they are, with romantic histories and names like Yellow Indian Woman, Black Nightfall, Red Appaloosa, and Wren’s Egg. I’m enamored with their stories, and the fact that Sando is on a mission to discover heirloom beans grown in Latin America and other parts of the world and make them available here in the US, before they are completely lost and forgotten. He grows them at his farm in Napa, and sells them through his website and a few select stores.

I’m getting ready to plant several bean types this Spring for a big crop in our suburban garden. We prepped the side of our house, formerly a weedy dead zone, by sheet composting to expand our growing space. With so many beans to explore I’m sure my experiments with beans will keep me entertained and well-fed for years to come.