Fans of pole beans will know that there's one golden rule when it comes to their cultivation: keep on picking the pods if you want more to follow! The reason for this oft-quoted piece of advice is that if pods are left to mature to produce viable seed the plant will think it has done its job and will cease to form any new pods. How frustrating, then, to return from a summer holiday only to discover a host of over-ripe pods and the death knell for your ambitions of pods aplenty. This has happened to me on more than one occasion.
So for those of you who only have to turn your back for a few days to find stubbornly despondent vines, this one's for you (although it might also be worthwhile reading our article Growing Better Beans). Beans grown for drying can be planted and pretty much forgotten (save for the usual watering and weeding of course!). All of the beans are then harvested in one go right at the end of the growing season when a satisfying round of shelling, drying and canning ensues. Use the beans in winter stews or resurrected for a reminder of summer's delicious glory.
What to grow
Climbing and pole beans and the pea bean are all suitable for growing for drying; you can even enjoy a limited harvest of fresh pods before leaving the remainder to mature and swell. My favorites for sheer good looks are the borlotti beans – look out for Italian-named varieties such as ‘Lingua di Fuoco' (Fire tongue) and ‘Centofiamme' (100 Flames). Another tried-and-tested variety for drying is runner bean ‘Czar' whose fat, creamy beans make excellent butter beans. Explore the seed catalogs, most of which will have a small selection of beans specifically recommended for the dry treatment.
Growing the beans
The secret with growing beans for drying is to make an early start as they require a long season. Sow beans under cover from mid-spring and outdoors into pre-warmed soil from late spring. You don't want to sow too early and threaten your plants with a late frost but, equally, don't leave it too late. Soil can be warmed up in advance by placing row covers over the ground a few weeks before planting out or sowing, or use layers of garden fleece to help recently planted beans find their feet.
I start my beans off in the greenhouse by sowing two seeds to a 7cm (3in) pot and thinning to leave the sturdiest seedling in each pot. If your seed is fresh and you have time you can usually get away with sowing one per pot, as most seeds usually germinate. Plant out the young plants once any danger of frost has passed. Seed sown directly outdoors should be sown against their supports.
Supports should always be in place before planting out and take the form of bamboo canes or similar set 30cm (12in) apart in a double row or as a wigwam of canes tied in together at the top. Wigwams are a good choice for windy sites as the wind tends to whistle round the structure rather than tearing it down. If you have the space and your garden is sheltered enough, your plants will get more room when grown against a double row of canes tied at the top using a horizontal cane.
Help newly planted or emerging seedlings find their feet by leaning them against their pole. It won't be long before they get a grip and race skywards. Keep beans watered over the summer and hoik out any weed you can get to.
Picking your beans
By all means pick a few pods fresh but leave plants well alone in good time to ensure they have a few months to mature and dry by fall. You will know the pods are making good progress when they swell. Soon after, the pods will turn a pale straw color as they start to dry out towards the end of summer or early fall.
You can pick dried-out pods as they appear, taking them inside to a dry place to continue drying. Easier is to lift out the plants in one go (leave the roots in the ground as they are a valuable source of nitrogen). The timing for this depends on your local climate. Warm, dry climates will see pods successfully drying out on the plant – the beans then just have to be shelled. In damper temperate climates the fate of your beans lies in what sort of season you're having. If the temperature is cooling off rapidly and it's wet, bring the vines indoors in good time and hang them up somewhere warm and dry to finish drying (a greenhouse is perfect). You don't want the beans to get frosted, so at the very latest bring them in before any chance of frost.
Once pods are dry (the beans should rattle in the pods) they can be shelled into trays and placed in a warm place to continue drying. The beans should ultimately be light and hollow-sounding when tapped, at which point they can be decanted into glass jars for storage in a cool, dark place. Mason jars are perfect for this purpose.
Eating the beans
Dried beans contain high amounts of lectin, a natural chemical which can cause stomach upsets. Don't let this put you off – prepare your dried beans before cooking and they will be divine, not beastly! Soak the beans overnight or for at least eight hours then place into cool water. Bring the water up to a vigorous boil and boil like this for ten minute before turning down the heat and simmering till soft.
Home-dried beans take much less cooking time than shop-bought beans and as a result they taste all the better for it. Use the beans in stews, casseroles, soups, tagines and other fulsome dishes. When it's cold outside and you're hankering after a taste of summer, your beans will be there to step in like protein-packed heroes.