Secret Garden

How to grow, harvest and enjoy more beans

Ever wondered what plant you can milk? The bean! Though, admittedly, you can make a “milk” from almonds, too, but it will take 4-7 years to get a good almond crop from a newly planted tree. When it comes to beans, you can have your “soy bean milk” in just 10-14 weeks from planting.

What plant can give you jelly, tofu, miso for a delicious soup, natto, extremely dry and uninteresting fake hamburgers but the most delicious soup you have ever eaten? Beans.

Beans have many health benefits, and come in thousands of varieties, shapes, colours, textures and tastes. You can eat them green, or used the dried bean, or, if really starving, the dried green bean American colonists called “leather britches” because they looked, tasted and had the texture of the same.

I don’t know my favourite bean … it changes too often. Tender white butter beans in vinaigrette over sourdough toast topped with avocado and finely chopped tomato and a little coriander is possibly the best breakfast in the world, but then a slow-cooked winter soup of root vegetable and dried beans might beat it. Or a cold summer soup of chopped tomato, chopped cucumber, garlic, basil and lightly cooked green beans might challenge them both for best bean dish in the world, or Mexican refried beans made with black pinto beans, or stuffed fried tofu, both crisp and silky, or a plate of stir-fried yard-long beans, topped with a few currants and pine nuts with garlic, olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.

Grow your own beans

Beans are easy to grow in almost any climate. First, choose your beans. Don’t buy seedlings from the garden centre. It will only save you a week’s growing at most and there will be little choice. Google “bean seeds Australia” and then browse through the many stunning catalogues that will give you pages of beans to try.

Buy at least six of them, ones suited to your area, be it cold or tropical. Plant in full sun. Water, feed, and as they grow keep them well mulched up to their first leaves so they don’t need as much water, and keep scattering on plant food, unless you have mulched with home-made compost which is about as a perfect a plant food as you can get. Give the climbers a trellis to grow on, or grow them the South American way, up corn stalks but only if the corn is as high as your knee when you plant the beans, as the beans may grow faster than the corn.

They will begin to bloom from 6-8 weeks depending on weather and climate. “First bloom” is the time to plant more bean seeds, and then more when those bloom, right to the beginning of autumn. This will mean you always have plenty of beans, succession after succession.

The only ways to get truly sweet, crisp, just picked beans is to grow your own …

Green beans are best eaten as small as you can bear to pick them, and before you can feel the seed inside them. Once you can feel that seed, they begin to toughen. Frozen beans are very young beans, but a frozen bean is invariably a soggy tasteless bean. But too many green beans sold as “fresh” have been picked too old, to get more of a crop per picking. The only ways to get truly sweet, crisp, just picked beans is to grow your own have a friend or neighbour grow their own who is prepared to share – perhaps in exchange for picking the beans every second day as bean plants do need daily picking. Or find them at a good farmer’s market where the farmer has true pride in their fresh crop.

If you neglect to pick every day, or take a few days off, or just forget you planted an extra row and find the beans extra-large, you can feed them to the chook or compost them, but they are even better if you then wait till they mature fully, till the bean seeds inside are fully grown and the bean itself dries out, stem and all. Pick the beans; shell them then dry save the seeds for cooking or planting or, preferably, both. You may find that if you’ve grown several varieties the next crop may resemble them both.

I always leave most of our trellis grown runner and other beans to go to seed. The leaves eventually wither, and the tough stems are left, twining around the trellis, liberally laden with dried beans. I pick them as I need them during winter for soups and stews and breakfast beans, then plant the ones still left in spring. But this does not work if you live in an area infested with rats, which may climb trellises and eat your beans, or if the plants will freeze or be damaged by high winds or storms.

Storing beans

The best way to store beans is to lay them out in a shaded but well-lit space on wood or paper something moisture-absorbing and let them dry fully before storing n glass or ceramic jars. If the beans are not fully dry, they can rot. If you are not sure if yours are dry enough, store them in old reused envelopes instead a handful in each envelope so they can keep on drying.

But never just think “beans”. Barletta beans, zebra beans, red beans to eat with rice, fat butter beans, the “beans of the moon” used for true paella, soybeans eaten slightly steamed, still green, the seeds inside just popped into your mouth and hundreds of others. Have fun, and deep delicious experimenting. Grow many, many kinds of beans. All will be magic.

Jackie French

Jackie French

Jackie French is a gardener, ecologist, honorary wombat, 2014-2015 Australian Children's laureate, 2015 Senior Australian of the year and passionate believer in the need for all humans to feel part of the earth around them, by understanding the plants that sustain us.

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