Saving Beans: The Untravelled Paths

Being a new-ish but passionate bean collector, I’ve saved a lot of beans in the last 4 years. A few years ago I also joined a bean savers forum, and have been able to learn from the masters there some nifty tips for success with bean seed saving. It’s amazing what you can learn from people who’ve saved thousands of kinds of beans! So I’ve written this blog for anyone who wants to try and save their own bean seeds, and to share some of the lesser known tricks of bean seed saving, even for people who may already be saving their bean seeds. It would seem like a pretty straightforward kind of seed to save, just dry the pods and shell them, right? Alas, things are not always so easy with the weather and other seasonal challenges. So, as in all things, there are some fantastic work arounds.

The first thing, which I mentioned in a previous blog about legumes, is to use transplants. Start your beans in pots 3 or 4 weeks ahead of time and set out transplants instead of seeds. This not only gives you an extra month of growth on the plants, it’s also easier for transplants to survive the vagaries of early summer weather than seeds. This really increases the success rates of bean plants and getting them all the way to mature seed.

Secondly, as bean plants move closer to seed maturity, and the season moves toward fall, sometimes the amount of rain increases – problematic for bean pods in the process of maturing as it can make them swell and split. The best thing to do if rains threaten, is to cut your pole bean plants at ground level and with bush bean plants, cut & hang them. Even if there isn’t excessive rain, maybe the season is winding down but your bean plants aren’t, if you cut the plants at ground level it will speed bean seed maturity nonetheless. By cutting the connection to the soil, and therefore to moisture, the pods will immediately divert all energy to maturing its seed. This applies especially if you have harvested fresh beans heavily from the vines and so the plants were later in forming the pods for seed saving. Cutting the vines at the ground is like presssing the ‘hurry up’ button.

Bean pods do not need to dry down and mature their seeds on the vines. Yes, as impossible as that seems, drying bean pods can be done in a sheltered location out of the ground, or even indoors. Personally, I try to keep the pods on the vines as long as possible, so I will pull the poles the vines are growing on out of the ground, and lean them in my protected carport – or even bring them in the house if they’re really precious to me. For bush beans, I will pull up the bushes with immature pods and hang them upside down under cover as well, either my sunroom or my carport. Sometimes I fashion a kind of DIY clothesline and hang the beans across it and wait for the pods to dry. If the temperatures are going to fall well below freeezing, I do bring them indoors. They would probably be fine if the bean seeds are very close to dry, but I don’t risk it. If we get a really warm spell after a frost I’ll put the poles with the drying vines back out into the sun and moving air (usually against my shed) – and this really has a drying effect. It’s a bit of a bother to do, but it’s worth it.

Some people pick the swollen but still green pods and lay them on newspaper indoors, particularly if they don’t have a large, protected space for the poles or hanging bushes. This works too. I do find it more ideal to dry them on the vines as a precaution, but I have used this method too and it worked perfectly. It is actually quite surprising how clearly immature bean pods can be picked, or pulled from the ground, and will still form perfect seeds. The key is that the seeds need to have started to swell in the pods – the pods themselves do not need to be dry whatsoever, they can still be quite green and fleshy. So long as you can see the beginning formation of seeds or bumps in the pod, there is hope that they will mature without issues. Of course, the longer you wait before pulling the vines or pods the better – this will obviously increase your likelihood of perfectly formed seed. But some years I have pulled pods that seemed much too immature, because frost was imminent and I would lose them for sure that way – and to my shock the seeds inside the indoor dried pods were just perfect.

If this seems difficult to imagine, the reason why this works is in the fact that bean seeds are able to germinate long before they actually dry. If you’ve ever had a lot of rain, and witnessed green bean pods get waterlogged, you may have seen some of the pods break open at the seam. Sometimes there will be bean sprouts poking out from the open seam, indicating that the beans, though very immature and fresh, were still old enough to germinate successfully and form a new plant. I have seen the same phenomenon in peas too. Legumes in general seem to possess the ability to mature fully off the plant because of this. I haven’t practiced this as much with pea vines, but I’m quite certain the same applies. Often times chipmunks late in the season will start to ravage my pea vines and I’ve pulled them all up and let them dry hung somewhere out of reach, and had perfectly formed dry peas seeds a couple weeks later.

When drying pods indoors, fans are incredibly helpful. I lay the pods on cardboard boxes flipped upside down, so they are off the ground with air both above and below. Running a fan on low across the drying pods will really speed up the dry down time. It can cut the time it takes in half, or even more. I like to create a wicking effect by using cardboard boxes, which also helps speed the drying down. With small amounts of pods, laying them under the fan vent on your stovetop overnight can dry things remarkaably quickly too. I prop the pods up really high so that they are right under the fan vent using buckets. The length of time it takes for the pods to dry indoors varies depending how immature they were – the more immature ones can take a few weeks indoors. An important point to remember –resist the temptation to shell your pods when they’re 3/4 dry! It’s very tempting, since part of the pod is at the crackle dry stage, and it will feel almost ready to be shelled – but it isn’t! For the highest quality seeds, you should wait as long as you possibly can until the pods are bone, bone dry. If you shell them before that point they will often wrinkle when they’re exposed to the air and even become a little misshapen – not an ideal situation! Sometimes the shell is crackle dry, but the seed inside is still needing to dry more. Trust me, it’s worth the wait!

So, if you have a frost that is imminent and you have beans still drying down, there is plenty of hope that your seeds can be rescued. Same goes for rain; if late summer brings a lot of rain, many bean varieties will soak up too much water. These simple tricks work wonders and come in handy in years when the weather is working against your bean saving efforts.

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