Beans ain’t beans!
Common names can lead to confusion in so many facets of home gardening. So much so that it would be impossible to find one that stands out however one of the worst would have to be ‘beans’. One thing we do know is that almost any vegetable given the name ‘bean’ will taste good and be healthy for you. Indeed they should be a main ingredient in all diets as they are so important in overall health and in fighting many of the modern diseases.
In the Scientific world most beans are classed as ‘Legumes’. This a generic name for an unusual group of plants that are very important for commercial and home horticultural as they fix Nitrogen from the air into the soil. As a group, all legumes are members of the family Fabaceae and most have the root nodules that are made up of symbiotic bacteria that help rejuvenate tired soil. In traditional farming legume crops were planted in a 1:2 year rotation with non fixing crops. They all have pods or fruits with two opposite seams and a single row of seeds.
Commercially grown legumes are spread across the full range of agricultural products. These include forage plants, pulses, beans, cut flowers, medicinal plants and even timber trees. Not all are foods crops and some are even poisonous (eg Wisteria) and others are simply grown for the express purpose of ploughing in as a green manure.
Some common varieties are: alfalfa, beech, peas, lentils, lupins, tamarind, locust, liquorice and peanut. The last one is interesting as in the west we class it as a nut but the rest of the world groups it in with peas and beans. In fact the Indonesian words are kacang tanah which literally mean ground bean.
Back to the main topic, beans. These are one of the easiest of all edible garden plants to grow thus making them the most rewarding for novice gardeners and thus also the most popular. The seeds are quite large and easy to handle, can be planted direct into the ground or as young plants. They will grow on a trellis, up walls, in pots or along the ground with little or no support. In general most will yield a good crop from each plant in one season and are happy in a wide range of climates from cool temperate to tropical.
The main variation in is what we actually harvest. In all forms the ‘bean’ is a classic kidney shaped seed with two cotyledons and a growing tip sitting between them. The cotyledons are the food for the young seeding and are what makes ‘beans’ so good for us. Many have very high levels of protein and are used as a meat replacement by vegetarians.
Beans can be divided into two main groups; those where the whole pod is eaten and those where we eat the seed. The first type are often called green beans as they are the green, immature pods although they can be green, yellow or even purple. Other names include ‘snap beans’, due to the sound the fresh young pods make when broken, or string beans due to the string running along one seam. Many modern cultivars are actually ‘stringless’. Cultivars include; green beans, round beans, flat beans, butter beans (yellow), snake or yardlong beans (up to 80cm long), winged beans and scarlet runner beans.
The other types of beans are referred to as ‘dry beans’ because they are harvested when the pods dry out and the seeds are released. Whereas the green beans are normally eaten fresh and lightly cooked, the dry beans are dried post harvest and then rehydrated prior to cooking. They are referred to as ‘nutrient dense’ and have one of the highest ratios of nutrient to calorie of all foods. Many people think of them as a new food but in reality they predate most written history and have been a staple part of the human diet sine day one.
Like ‘Green Beans’ the dry beans are really easy to grow and have high ‘per plant’ yields. They are closely related to the ‘pulses’ and are used in similar ways. In fact they are often swapped in recipes. Some of the most common beans are: Adzuki, Black, Kidney, Garbanzo, Pinto, Soy, Lima and Cannellini. Some of these are eaten young or green but still not with the pod. Soy beans are very good for human health and are an efficient way of getting protein. They are eaten in a multitude of ways one of which is steamed as young green pods. The beans are then squeezed out and eaten as a ‘bar snack’ They are called Endamame and are popping up in health shops, bars and even fast food outlets.
As one of the oldest food sources and still one of the easiest grown food plants there is a lack of acceptance by home gardeners. Most of these varieties are available as young plants during spring and early summer and if planted before Christmas will generally yield well before winter.