The Washington Post

The magic of pole beans

There are any number of designs for beanpoles. (Barbara Damrosch)

The magic beans that produced Jack’s beanstalk were magic indeed. Any plant that grew up above the clouds would be extraordinary, but especially a vine that normally could get only a foot or two off the ground without some means of support. Vines, by their nature, lift themselves up into the sunlight by twining around or clinging to more stout-stemmed specimens, such as trees. Non-vining climbers, such as roses, hook onto trunks and branches by means of their thorns.

A bean plant is the twining type of vine. With nothing to climb, but plenty of sunshine, it would happily crawl around the soil of your garden, producing pods, ensnaring the other crops and wrapping itself around any trowel, watering can or glove left in its path. So up it must go, under your strict command. The shorter bush-type beans stay put, but they don’t give you the wonderfully long harvest of vining beans, which can produce all summer long if you keep them picked.

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.” View Archive

The simplest bean support is a beanpole, which can be a wooden stick or dowel an inch or two in diameter. Sunk into the ground about 18 inches deep and set a foot apart in the row, each pole can support several vines from seeds sown around its base.

There’s nothing wrong with that method, but people love to be creative with bean structures. Bean teepees, made from three or four poles lashed together at the top, are popular. So are double rows of poles lashed at the top in pairs, with a horizontal pole connecting and stabilizing them. There’s even a version where the poles slant away from each other, attached at the top to a box frame.

In our garden we use two upright poles and a top bar made of galvanized metal electrical conduit. The horizontal bar is affixed to the poles with flexible wire. From the top bar we suspend lengths of strong, untreated, rough-textured twine, every two feet, tied at the bottom to short stakes hammered into the soil. Each string supports several vines.

There’s also the decorative way to go. My favorite bean system is a permanent wooden trellis, which could be a deer barrier or just an decorative feature of the garden that sets it apart but lets in plenty of light. Arches, arbors and pergolas can all be clothed in bean vines in summertime. Even the ones that don’t bear bright red flowers, the way scarlet runner beans do, make an attractive covering, for privacy or for shade.

How tall should a bean vine grow? Our conduit pipes are 10-footers, cut down to eight, then pounded into the ground so that they rise 61 / 2 feet. A healthy bean could easily grow higher, but unlike the giant in the tale of Jack, we can reach only so far.

Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”

Tip of the week

If your lawn is full of henbit and chickweed, spraying an herbicide will do little to help. Pull the plants before the seed ripens, put down crab grass preventer (corn gluten is an organic treatment) and plan to renovate your lawn in September. The weeds are simply filling a vacuum. Early fall is the optimum time to reseed with turf-type tall fescue grasses. Seed laid now will give a month of green but probably will perish in the heat of summer.

— Adrian Higgins



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