Beans are a standard in home gardens for good reason. They're easy to grow and quick to mature, making them the perfect introduction to gardening for kids and those who modestly refer to themselves as "black thumb" gardeners. Pole beans, with their wide variety of colors, shapes and growing habits, are quite literally at the high end of the home gardener's favorite vegetable.
Pole beans are nutritious and delicious. If you've only had store-bought "fresh" or commercially-canned string-type beans, you're in for a treat. Crisp and flavorful, whether lightly steamed or added raw to salads, there's nothing like fresh-from-the-garden green beans. They're also easy for the home canner to preserve or pickle, and entry-level seed savers often begin with beans dried on the vine.
Most people don't think of pole beans as ornamental plants, but several varieties add visual interest to your landscape and help restore depleted nutrients to your garden beds. Pole beans require less garden space than bush beans, though as their name implies, they need vertical support. Use your imagination when coming up with creative structures on which to trellis your bean plants! Later on, we'll provide some tips and inspiration from our gardening friends.
When, Where and How To Plant Pole Beans
Pole beans germinate quickly, in 7-21 days depending upon soil temperatures. They're ideal candidates for successive planting so you'll have fresh vegetables throughout the season. In other words, if you're late getting your garden started, you can turn to beans to give you a reason to get your hands in the dirt.
They don't transplant easily, so if you can't wait until average soil temperatures reach 65°F you'll need to use peat pots or discs to protect roots from shock.
Choose a spot with full sun, and prepare the soil with aged compost. Soil should remain moist but drain well, so avoid spots with high clay content.
Soak bean seeds for a few hours in room-temperature water to accelerate germination. Once you're ready to go, use your finger to poke a hole about one inch deep in the soil, and space your plantings four to six inches apart in rows 30-36 inches apart. Once you've dropped the seeds in the holes, cover loosely with soil and gently water.
Supporting Your Pole Beans
It's a good idea to set up your supportive structures before planting so as not to disturb developing plants. Pole beans send out curling tendrils to help them climb into the sunlight, and do best on surfaces that aren't too smooth. Use soft twine or gardening ties to secure vines to smoother surfaces.
Pole beans vary by type in their growing habits, so check instructions on the seed package before planning your support structures. Here are some popular methods for using pole beans to add dimension to your garden patch, edible accents to perennial and annual beds, and a touch of color to existing trellises and walls.
Staking: Bamboo poles, with their rough, intermittent rings, work very well for pole beans but you can use plastic garden poles, long willow branches, steel rods or decorative metal spirals (we recommend winding jute twine or masking tape on smooth surfaces to give pole beans something to "grab" onto) for vertical staking.
Teepees: Poles tied at the top and arranged in a "teepee" provide shade for more tender plants underneath. Plant beans at the base of each leg, following the previously mentioned guidelines.
Framed vertical strings and netting: Some gardeners build a semi-permanent framework from which jute or is secured at the top and bottom (think of a big, square harp). Others use the vertical frames to support garden netting, though wildlife and small pets can get entangled woven string or plastic material.
Garden structures: Do you have a wall or gazebo that needs dressing up? Tack or nail string vertically to exterior walls or tall fences, or plant pole beans next to wooden lattice privacy screen or arched gazebos.
Other structures our gardening clients have used include antique brass headboards, chain link fencing, water catchment system rain chains and even suspended glass doorway beads, like those popular in the 1960s! Experiment as you please, adding character and whimsy to your home landscape.
Be sure to check your seed packaging for your chosen variety's growing height before choosing and setting up your structural support.
Pole Bean Pests & Diseases
No plant is immune to problems, but pole beans are generally hardy. Their height tends to allow them to dry quickly after a rain.
Keep an eye out for the usual suspects in the pest gang, such as aphids and mites. Insects partial to beans include Mexican bean beetles and seedcorn maggots, but when beans are planted in optimal soil and sunny, warm locations, they're less likely to suffer infestation. Don't add too much organic matter once plants are established, don't let the soil dry up or water to stand around the roots.
Pole bean leaves will yellow and dry toward the end of the plant's life cycle, but you might notice patterns of discoloration caused by any number of fungal or bacterial issues. Poorly-composted amendments and saturated soils encourage root rot.
Remove any affected plants, and if the problem is severe, make a note to plant beans in other areas of the garden and give the current spot a rest for two to three seasons. "Crop rotation", whether used in commercial fields or home gardens, breaks up the life cycle of pests and diseases specific to plant types.
Successive planting within a single season insures against "crop failure" while providing an abundant yield of fresh beans. Seed Needs selects varieties and strains resistant to disease and resilient to pest pressure.
Harvesting & storage
Many gardeners and culinary experts swear that pole beans are more flavorful than bush beans. We invite you to grow both and decide for yourself!
Pods develop from self-pollinated blossoms that wither on the bottom tips as they develop. Tiny pods grow up quickly, so be sure to check your pole beans daily. Pods are edible at any time but are best before they become tough and "lumpy" with their developing seeds.
Pole beans are best enjoyed fresh, but you can store them for about three days in your refrigerator's crisper drawer if you wrap them in a few layers of damp paper towel.
Freezing is the best way to preserve flavor and nutrition. Blanch them in boiling, salted water for two minutes (they'll turn a bright green), strain and then dunk the pods in an ice water bath to halt the cooking process. Pat them dry and arrange them on cookie sheets, pop the sheets in the freezer, and once frozen, package them into freezer bags.
Use your favorite canning recipe for long-term storage, or pickle them with herbs for fantastic salad or adult beverage garnish.
If you're interested in storing seeds for next season, select from disease-free, high-producing vines and leave a few of the largest pods alone to dry. Later, when that vine has finished its cycle, pick and shell the pods, and keep the dried beans in a paper envelope in a cool, dry location.
Pole beans grow well with most vegetables, especially corn. In fact, if you give corn a head start, pole beans will happily use the stalks as support. Corn is a heavy feeder, and legumes help counter nitrogen loss as root structures decay. Corn and bean roots also don't compete at the same soil depth.
Other bean-friendly plants include:
- Beets (the feeling isn't mutual; beans love them, but beets don't thrive nearby)
- Marigolds (they deter many pests, including the Mexican bean beetle)
- Potatoes (which also deter Mexican bean beetles)
- Summer savory
Avoid planting these near your beans:
- Sunflowers (a bummer, since one would think the stems would be great climbing structures, but sunflowers are Kryptonite to beans.)
- Members of the allium family, such as garlic, onions, leeks, and chives
After the Harvest: Rejuvenating Your Soil
All legumes, including pole beans, help fix nitrogen in the soil through beneficial bacteria called rhizobia, stored in nodules in the plant's root system. When each healthy bean plant's cycle is complete, don't pull the plants from the ground. Instead, cut the stems to within a couple inches from the soil surface, and let the roots and stem decay. This process releases nitrogen into your garden beds, helping to restore depleted nutrients for future and nearby plantings.
Favorite Pole Bean Varieties
Now that you know how easy it is to grow and use pole beans, why not pick out several varieties to add to your garden? From time-tested staples to dramatic heirlooms, pole beans come in many colors and shapes. Here are our three favorites, selected for quality, reliability, flavor, and flair.
Blue Lake pole beans are heavy-bearing, lack the "string" that runs the length of typical bean pods, and boasts slow-to-grow seeds. Delicious, meaty pods grow to about 6-7" long.
Kentucky Blue pole beans are a cross between popular Blue Lake and Kentucky Wonder varieties, developed for the Asian market with longer, straighter pods well-suited to pickling whole.
Scarlet Runner pole beans are worth growing for their spectacular blossoms alone, but their versatile fruits can be used when young as string-type beans, or their dark, mottled seeds harvested to use as an alternative to Lima beans.