In my garden, I love growing heirloom beans. Besides the wide range of varieties and sizes and colors that the bean world provides, they can further be divided into categories based on when they are picked. This week, I started to harvest my dried beans.
Green beans, or snap beans, are the type of bean most commonly grown in the garden. These are harvested at a young age, where the bean is just barely developed, and the shell is the main food item. Shelling beans are still young, but the bean has developed and is eaten fresh, with the shell discarded. Dried beans are beans that have completely developed and have dried out on the plant. When cooked, the shell is discarded and the seed becomes the type of beans that you use in chili, or burritos, or a billion other ways. These are the types of beans that are ready to harvest now.
The variety I’m working on harvesting now is Cherokee Trail of Tears, an heirloom black bean that I originally purchased from Baker Creek. This pole bean is said to have been brought from Tennessee by the Cherokee people as they were marched to Oklahoma by the Federal Government in 1839 over the infamous “Trail of Tears”. The vines produce beautiful pink flowers, which turn to beans that start green, then mature to purple, then dry to a deep grey-lavender. The bean seeds are a shiny black. I’ve grown them for many years, saving seed from each year. Occasionally, I get a white seed. Whether this is an anomaly, a genetic variation or reversion, I do not know, but its a fun surprise.
I grew these dried beans on two different types of trellis this year- the standard pole tee-pee, and an arbor made from sheets of concrete wire that spanned between two beds. The trellises were easy and cheap to make. I bent two of these wire concrete sheets, which I got from Home Depot and are less than $8, into a J. I anchored the flat side of one of the sheets to rebar poles I stuck into the bed, tied with twine, did the same on the opposite bed, then tied the overlapping curved part together where the 2 sheets met overhead. My goal was to have beans on both sides, but the rolly-pollies got to one bed, and I lost the entire planting. This growing method worked great, it took up limited square footage, and was very easy to harvest.
How to Harvest & Store Dried Beans:
You know that dried beans are ready to harvest when the outside shell is completely dry. When my beans start to reach this stage, and the leaves start falling from the plant, I shut off water to the bed, and let the beans dry completely on the vine. You can tell when they are ready by touching the pod: it will feel dry and crisp compared to a leathery feel. If you snapped the bean pod in half, it would shatter, not bend. The seeds should rattle a bit if you shake the pod.
Once the beans are dry, simply use your hands to pull the whole pod off the plant. I find that my beans don’t dry all at once, so I do two harvests. I’ll pick the ones that dry and come back later for the remainder. If you have a similar situation, I’d recommend doing the same instead of leaving the ones already dry on the plant. As they sit under the sun and continue to dry, they can shatter and open, sending the seeds flying. It’s a great adaptation for reseeding, but I’d rather harvest all that I can than have volunteer beans that will inevitably die in the frost.
One of the great and wonderful things about dry beans is you don’t have to rush with preserving or storing them. Unlike the majority of produce, you can leave them as is for weeks or even months. Once all have beans have been harvested, I’ll spend some time shelling. I sit in the shade with a beverage, or on the couch while watching a movie with a towel over my lap- splitting open the dry shell and letting the dry bean fall into a separate bowl. The shell will get tossed into a bucket for the compost, and the process is repeated. Over and over. The process can be meditative or tedious, depending on how your mood is that day. Its a great rainy day project.
Once the beans are shelled, I’ll winnow the seeds. This is simply a process of pouring the seeds from bowl to bowl, either outside if there is a breeze, or in front of a fan. This allows all the little bits of shell, known as chaff, to fly away. I set some seeds aside to plant for next year, then keep the rest stored in a half-gallon mason jar in the pantry, where they will sit until they get turned into a meal.
I’d love to know, did you grow any dried beans this year?