THE MAGICAL FRUIT
Duh. It’s beans. And I have moderately controversial opinions about them. I think “Southern peas” are not worth growing in the Southern home garden. As much as I love to eat beans, I think we are kind of maybe not supposed to eat them as human beings, hence their magical fruiting tooting powers and the wildly endemic soy allergies amongst conscious eaters of the world. Despite professional opinions and implications made by their namesake, I think it is totally reasonable to grow snow peas and English peas in the Spring season down here in the deep South. Also, I think everyone with a home garden should be growing beans, if not for their own health, then certainly for the health of their gardens.
To the reasonably initiated gardener, it is common knowledge that legumes are nitrogen fixers. It is also common knowledge what a nitrogen fixer is, and that plants require nitrogen above all else when it comes to what plants crave. To the uninitiated, lucky you. You came here to learn and I came here to teach.
What is legume?
Legume is just a science name for beans and bean-like things including chickpeas, lentils, peanuts, and plenty more. It is not a plant family in the proper sense, but we had too much fun with etymology last month, so I will leave the semantics of leguminosae alone today.
What is nitrogen fixation?
Most nitrogen on planet Earth is nitrogen gas (N2), which most biological life is incapable of synthesizing and making use of. But all life depends on nitrogen for all sorts of biological functions, and is able to access and process it by way of ammonia (NH3). Nitrogen-fixing plants host bacteria in their roots which are capable of synthesizing unavailable N2 into available NH3, which thereafter becomes useful to plants, animals, insects, humans, and just, everything.
Why does my garden care?
Growing legumes in your garden brings bioavailable nitrogen into your garden’s soil ecosystem, minimizing—or if you are a perfect garden wizard, perhaps negating completely—the need to add additional nitrogen to your beds by way of fertilizer. It makes for an overall healthier and less dependent micro-universe for your plants to live in. And you still get to eat your beans too.
In terms of what beans to grow, and when and where, the number one factor—in my opinion—to take into consideration is whether the bean is a bush or pole variety. That is exactly what it sounds like. Pole varieties have upwards growing habits and require trellising or a fence or something to wrap around and grow upwards on. Bush varieties are, well, bushier, though truth told, many bush varieties still have climbing and vining tendencies. I am a general proponent of pole beans, because they can be grown at the edge of a garden, utilizing vertical space while minimizing horizontal space, expanding the capacity of your beds to hold more food for you. Also, pole beans as a general rule tend to be more productive, though they often take longer to begin producing fruit. Beyond the bush-versus-pole situation, choosing what to grow is simply a matter of timing and personal preference. So, without further ado, a quick look at who’s who and when they like to grow.
Plant March through May, August through September.
I put this in quotes because I am pretty sure there isn’t an actual word for these, but it includes basically everything that looks like green beans, including string beans, haricots verts, filet beans, and so on, often just sold in seed catalogs as “pole bean” or “bush bean.” I am a big fan of the yellow ones in particular, because they are easy to pick out on the vine/bush for harvest, and they’re cute besides.
Plant March through April, August through September.
I have little to say about lima beans. You know what they are. If you like them, grow them. Don’t let their reputation as a beloved Southern staple fool you, they will not set fruit effectively once it gets super hot outside. Don’t start them too late in the season.
Snow Peas and English peas
Plant March, September through January.
English peas and sweet peas are just slightly different varieties of what the common consumer calls green peas. Snow peas are the flat version of the same harvested and eaten before the seed grows up and gets round. As I stated above, other professional horticulture advisors are not big fans of growing peas in the spring, but I think they do fantastically in the early spring/summer as long as they are started before it gets real hot outside.
Plant April through August.
This includes a number of beans that happily grow in the deep summer heat, the most widely renowned being the black eyed pea, also known as the cowpea. These are all bean varieties that are generally eaten dry, and are very much food staples, but that I personally would not recommend for home growth, simply because the yield you will receive from a small home crop will not feel worth the trouble. That said, per the whole nitrogen fixing situation, planting a crop of nothing but Southern peas in your deep summer garden can prime your garden for future growth while also giving you a healthy crop of dry beans to store and eat at your leisure in the future.
Plant October through November.
They’re huge and very entertaining to grow. And so creamy in the mouth. Would recommend.
Plant April through July.
These are my actual favorite beans to grow in the universe. They are big fans of deep summer heat, produce prolifically, look incredible, and taste just like green beans, creating a novel experience without discomfiting the conservative palate. If you’re going to grow one bean this spring, this is the one.
Despite their reputation as a New Orleans food staple, red beans really aren’t fans of our humid weather and really don’t grow here reliably at all. Most red beans in the United States are grown in Minnesota and New York. I’m not saying you can’t try, I’m just saying you probably can’t do.
The world of legumes is far more vast than that which I have put before you just now. They truly are a magical fruit with so much to share, and I would encourage you to grow them for the sake of your garden and for the universe, even if they do make you toot. I do not even agree with the adage that the more you toot, the better you feel, but I do think the more you grow, the better your garden will feel.
illustrations by Rachel Speck