Beans are about as easy to grow as just sticking a seed into some soil in a plastic cup, setting it by the window and watering it a bit, and watch it emerge and grow - as most of us have discovered in kindergarten. The soil does not have to be particularly fertile either, since all beans belong to the legume family and live in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which 'fix' nitrogen from the air and make it available to their hosts.
And although there are dozens of different kinds of beans, they all adhere to only one of two lifestyles. Those that climb, and those which don't.
The climbers mature about two weeks later than the bush type beans, and they produce beans until the cold and wet of fall does them in. Bush beans have been developed for commercial growing, maturing two weeks sooner, with a single, short and concentrated harvest period. When sown at two week intervals beginning mid-May until the beginning of July, bush beans will also provide a continuous harvest until late fall.
Our own most favourite bean is "Blue Lake Bush" which has a very nice bushy habit and retains the long production period of the climbing types. It also has an excellent taste and texture. Both the climbing and bush types have this in common though; they require frequent picking to keep on producing beans. And picking on the young side is far better than when the beans begin to fill out. At that time the plant starts to produce hormones which prevent blooming to quicken the ripening process.
What is behind this is the prime imperative of all life - to perpetuate the species. As long as a plant is prevented from producing ripe seeds, it will keep on producing new fruit in order to fulfill its prime imperative. So, the more you pick, the more beans will follow. This holds true for all flowers and vegetables, by the way.
Beans need warm soil to germinate and grow. In cool soils - less than 60 degrees F. - they just sit there doing nothing and fall prey to insects and mould. The first sowing is best done at the beginning of a week-long spell of warm sunny weather. Sow beans one inch deep and two to three inches apart, in rows 12 inches apart. A three foot wide raised bed bearing three rows works out nicely for growing, cultivating and picking. Thin out to 8 inches apart when nicely established, and keep moist.
And that's about it - except for picking, picking, picking. Make sure that the plants are dry when picking, since most beans are subject to several diseases which are spread by touching the plants when harvesting. I've also found that using a small pair of gardening scissors to cut the stem of the bean pod cleanly when picking keeps the plants nice and healthy.
That leaves only the weeding. Tired of having to hoe and hoe the weeds all the time among the growing plants, and wanting to increase the poor organic content of the soil as much and as quickly as I could, it occurred to me that there might be a better way. Why not, I thought, use the weeds to full advantage and just shear them down to about 2 inches, so they would keep on growing, and use the shearings as an instant mulch? Since beans obtain their own nitrogen via their symbiotic bacteria, I thought that the beans would be an excellent test case and, albeit with much trepidation, I 'sacrificed' one bean bed to this never before tried experiment.
After the first shearing and a thin layer of weed mulch, it did not look like much, but, and thank God, it did not appear to have impeded the beans in any way whatsoever either. So I kept it up, and a few weeks later I had the most fabulous bean bed that I had ever seen in all my life. Here were my beans, standing thick and proud in a lovely bed of sheared "weed hay", exuding picture perfect health in all directions, and outshining the other normally weeded bean bed by a factor of at least 10 to 1. It also proved to be far more productive, and kept on producing beans a full month longer - long after the other bed had succumbed to the cold nights and rains of fall. And it was only near the very end of its much extended season, in the cold and wet of late fall, that I saw the first signs of the bean mosaic disease.
This was my first experiment of growing with weeds. Needless to say, and since it worked so fabulously well, all my bean beds got the weed mulch the next year - as well as the cucumber and the tomato beds, since I figured that these could easily hold their own against the weeds. And they did, and it worked super fabulously as well. It was a pure joy and delight to behold rows and rows of strappingly healthy plants standing proud in their neat beds of thick weed straw. And even the weed straw looked very good in its own right. The whole thing was a picture of sheer and profoundly satisfying beauty.
And I had far less weeding to do, far less watering due to far better moisture retention, far better soil temperature stability, and consequently far better growth, far better production, and far greater hardiness at the end of the season. And to top it all off, the weed mulch increased the quality and fertility of the soil very, very nicely.
The accepted wisdom is that weeds rob the crops of nutrients. This is not true. The nutrients used by the weeds don't go anywhere; not only are they returned immediately to the soil with the decay of the shearings, but the weeds also add the nutrients, and the highly complex organic material they have generated in their growth, to the soil. What we get, actually, is a substantial increase in the quality, friability and fertility of the soil, plus all the many benefits of an organic mulch - a mulch which is totally free and grows itself right where it is wanted.
The following year our whole one-acre garden got the weed mulch. Alas though, it did not work with the carrots and onions; the shearing among these slender plants took too much of a toll on them. We switched to a newspaper mulch for them instead, which also works great.
Next, we'll get rid of all the insect pests without poisons, and without any work.
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