This year I am growing two heirloom, native North American varieties of pole beans, the Cherokee Trail of Tears Bean and the Hidatsa Shield Figure Bean. I purchased my seeds from Sarah Lawrance of Beat Greens here in Ottawa. Sarah grows organic heirloom veggie transplants and sells them at local craft fairs.
How to Grow Pole Beans
Soak bean seeds for 2-4 hours to hasten germination. Do not soak them any longer than this or the seeds may burst and split. Sow directly where you want them to grow once all danger of frost has passed. Plant seeds at a rate of about 6-8 seeds per teepee or approximately 6 inches or 15 centimetres apart. Beans prefer a rich, loose moist soil and need a minimum of six hours of sunlight per day. You can start pole beans indoors to get an early start but be very careful when transplanting as they do not like to have their roots disturbed. Use pots that biodegrade to avoid transplant shock. Pole beans can grow up to 10 feet/3 metres high so provide rough bamboo poles, doweling, lumber or even old rebar for them to climb.
In outdoor gardens, you can avoid supports and grow the beans like Native North Americans do, climbing up corn stalks while being shaded by squash. Known as the "Three Sisters" method, all three plants benefit from being planted close together in the garden - the corn and beans are shaded by the squash, to reduce the need for watering, while the beans climb the corn which in turn supports both crops against animal attacks. This system may be a little trickier in a container garden although a friend of mine reports that she has successfully grown corn on her balcony. This year I'm going with just two of the "Sisters", squash and pole beans (on bamboo poles) in the same container -- stay tuned for more details!
Keep in mind that pole beans do not mature all at once so you will need to keep picking them throughout the summer in order to keep them producing new beans. Many heirloom beans can be harvested both young, as fresh green `snap' beans or `haricots verts', and also when fully mature, just leave them to ripen and then dry, right on the plant, for soup or chili beans.
'Cherokee Trail of Tears' Bean - 85 days to maturity
An old native pole bean originally used by the Cherokee in North Carolina and Georgia and taken with them when they were driven out of their homelands by the US government, a forced march known as the 'Trail of Tears'. This bean has been passed on from generation to generation ever since and it's easy to see why the Cherokees valued it so much -- it is very prolific, producing beans over a long season. The plant has tall, purple flowers, and rounded 6 in./15 cm. green to purple bean pods. Tastes great as a snap bean, when harvested young, and rarely has any strings. The small, black, flavourful dried beans have a kidney-bean like texture and make great black bean soup or chili and they're also good with bacon and pork.
Hidatsa Shield Figure Bean - 90 days to maturity
Originally grown by the Hidatsa Indians of the Missouri River Valley of North Dakota, this is supposed to be one of the most flavourful dried beans you can grow. The beans themselves are beautiful, half tan and half white with wonderful orange-red speckles, rather like a pinto horse. They have a firm, dry texture when cooked, and will hold other flavours like onions and herbs well, but they are also very flavourful on their own. Excellent for soup or for baked beans. Very easy to grow and seeds germinate quickly. Very disease resistant and productive variety.