In the summer of 2013, I grew 21 different bean varieties to see how well they would perform in my garden. I grew at least one square foot of each variety, nine seeds per square foot. The plots were scattered around my yard wherever I could eke out enough space (and set up a trellis for the pole varieties). Unfortunately, the environmental conditions differed greatly from plot to plot, particularly with regard to the amount of sun and soil quality. All varieties were irrigated by hand with a hose.
In addition to the beans for the variety trial, I also grew out eight square feet of segregating seeds from a common bean × tepary bean cross discovered by geneticist Carol Deppe, which she named Beefy Resilient Grex.
All of the beans were planted by hand. I examined each seed closely as I planted it to ensure that it matched the expected appearance for the variety, to cut down on possible contamination. I labeled each plot in the garden and also kept a separate record of which variety was planted in each plot. About two weeks after the initial planting, I observed which varieties appeared to have poor germination or were otherwise struggling due to environmental conditions, and I planted duplicate plots for those varieties in different locations.
My garden is in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a mild, dry summer. There is very little rain from May through October. Temperatures ranged between the 70s and 80s during the day, which is warmer than typical for the area, and generally sank into the 50s during the night. I began planting out seeds April 21, and I started harvesting my first dry beans by August 4. The Beefy Resilient Grex beans arrived in the mail later than the others and were planted May 31.
For taste comparisons, I harvested exactly one bean pod in the snap stage from each variety. I left the remainder of the pods to mature into dry beans so that I would have sufficient to plant in future years, should the variety prove promising. I do not eat "shelly" beans, so I did not compare the flavor of the beans in that stage. Also, to preserve my seed supply, I did not attempt to cook and eat any of the dry beans from the trial. However, I have tasted three of the varieties (Good Mother Stallard, Mayflower, and Rio Zape) as dry beans purchased commercially.
Three varieties (Dragon Tongue, Purple Podded Pole, and Rio Zape) were planted from seed I had saved from my 2012 growing season; the remaining varieties were acquired from commercial sources. The seed source for each variety is linked in its results section.
For the trial varieties, I harvested each dried pod individually with scissors and opened each one by hand to examine the beans inside. I carefully separated out and noted any pods containing seeds that appeared different from what I would have expected. There was quite a bit of variation observed, which is detailed in its own section.
The Beefy Resilient Grex plants were allowed to mature until all pods on each plant were dry, then the entire plant was harvested and all seeds for a single plant contained together in a zip-seal bag. Each bag was labeled with an identifying code and the date.
There did not appear to be any significant disease pressure on the beans this year. The main pest pressure in my yard is from snails and slugs that attack young plants as they sprout. There are also feral cats that dig up seeds after they are planted. I attempted to block the cats by placing wire mesh cages over the plots until the plants were several inches tall.
In the report that follows, I will describe how each variety performed with respect to yield, maturity, vigor, appearance, and of course flavor. Keep in mind that the flavor description is based upon a sample size of one pod. Similarly, the yield figure is highly influenced by the variation in the environmental conditions for each plot and is unlikely to be a reliable indication of the variety's true potential. Click on each individual variety to jump to its section, or continue to scroll down to read each report in alphabetical order.
Bean Variety Trial Results
[Jump to Introduction][Jump to Summary][Jump to Beefy Resilient Grex][Jump to Variation][Jump to Conclusion]
Bush - No vining habit
Short Pole - 1' to 3' vine
Pole - 3' to 6' vine
Tall Pole - Over 6' vine
Early - Dry harvest early August through late August
Midseason - Dry harvest late August through late September
Late - Dry harvest mid September through late October
Yield is the weight of the dry beans in grams. If the same variety was grown in multiple locations, the yield of the most successful plot is listed.
Flavor refers to the pod in the snap stage.
This variety was planted in one of the most hostile areas of the yard, and it did not get a replicated trial in a different location. Its main advantage is its early maturity.
Although this variety yielded well despite adverse environmental conditions, I was not impressed by its flavor as a snap bean. Perhaps it would taste better as a dry bean, but I am not partial to black beans in general, so it is not likely that I will grow this in the future.
As a purple podded bean, this variety is lovely to look at. However, the flavor was extremely disappointing, particularly compared to the other two purple varieties in the trial. I will not be growing this again.
This was one of my favorite varieties in 2012. It has wonderful flavor as a snap bean and sports large, attractive pods with dark purple stripes. The fresh yield is also substantial, though that is reflected poorly in the dry yield, as many of the beans inside the pods did not develop well in the trial plot.
While this variety tasted perfectly acceptable, and would probably be as good or better than anything from a typical supermarket, it couldn't hold a candle to Dragon Tongue, which is my bush snap bean standard. Oddly, though the site where I purchased the seeds states that it is grown as a snap bean, in appearance it is similar (or perhaps even identical) to Saint-Esprit a Oeil Rouge (Baker Creek), Bumble Bee (Seed Savers Exchange), and Soldier (Victory Seeds), all of which are touted as excellent dry beans. Unfortunately, it is generally used as a baking bean (like navy beans), whereas my bean cooking centers around Mexican-style refried beans (like pinto beans). I probably won't be growing this one again.
This variety has a beautiful gold color, though its yield suffered because it was grown in the harshest plot. It was remarkably early. If I were more into yellow beans, I would probably be raving about this one.
This is one of my favorite dry bean varieties. I was surprised to discover that it also tastes quite good as a snap bean. The yield was lower than I would have liked, but it is definitely worth giving another try. I also think it would make an excellent parent in a breeding program.
This variety is absolutely delicious as a dry bean, and as a bonus it is extremely attractive to look at. Unfortunately, though I tried growing it in three completely different locations in my yard, it had wimpy vines with a low yield in all three places. Maybe it needs a different climate or soil type. With so many other varieties I want to grow, I think I can live with buying this one commercially whenever I want to eat it.
Although the color of this variety is pretty, the maturity is so late that I don't think I'm likely to risk growing it. Beans that linger into the rainy season have a difficult time drying sufficiently to produce a good harvest; they are more likely to mold.
My flavor standard for pole snap beans from last year was Purple Podded Pole. I was impressed when this one tasted even better. The yield is also respectable. I'm definitely adding this to my seed collection.
This was my favorite snap pole bean last year. Not only are the purple pods quite striking to look at, they mature early and are flavorful. Since each long pod contains numerous seeds, the yield is high.
This is currently my absolute favorite dry bean variety. The yield of the trial plot is not representative of its actual potential; I received higher yields in other areas of the yard, but I harvested them for eating instead of weighing them.
This variety has attractively striped pods, and even the dry beans are pretty. It's advertised as being the best snap bean ever, and while I wouldn't necessarily go that far, it is definitely very good. I'm certainly planning to grow it again.
This variety has a beautiful dark red color, but aside from that I can't draw any conclusions about it at this point. It doesn't have particularly early or late maturity and the yield is not especially high.
Of all the varieties in the trial, this one displayed the most vigorous vines. It climbed up to the top of an 8-foot pergola and cascaded down the other side. It also produced a high yield. It has a late maturity, but the earliest of the beans were ready while the midseason varieties were being harvested; the same could not be said for the other late-maturing varieties that I grew. If the dry bean flavor turns out to be good, this could be an excellent staple.
The appearance of this variety doesn't particularly thrill me; the yellow is dull and washed out compared to the other gold varieties that I tried. However, its main advantage is that it is incredibly early. It was the first variety to begin producing flowers and one of the first to be completely harvested. It could be worth keeping around as a parent in a breeding program for that quality alone.
This variety has lovely red-streaked pods and equally pretty dry beans. It made a decent snap bean. As a cranberry bean, I expect that it will have good flavor as a dry bean as well. I intend to grow more of it next year.
I'm a huge fan of pinto-type beans, so I like this one based on appearance alone. I will probably continue to grow and increase it, at least until I have enough to try cooking as a dry bean.
Although the appearance of this bean is striking, the expression of the bold pattern seems to be greatly influenced by the environmental conditions in which it is grown, as I will detail in a later section. Since the main value in this variety is the novelty of the appearance, the lack of stability in producing the vibrant color and "eye" pattern is a major flaw. I'm undecided about attempting to grow this one again. It can produce an extremely high yield, so that is a point in its favor.
This variety has vigorous vines, but the maturity is excessively late. It also seems to produce long pods that don't fill with beans and end up wasting away, reducing the yield.
These round, dark red beans are striking. They may be worth growing just because they are so unusual. Although they taste fine as a snap bean, it seems a complete waste to eat them at that stage and miss out on the end result.
For a snap bean, I want a pod that is markedly sweet and has detectable flavor. If it tastes like crunchy water, it's useless to me. I also prefer that the pod is tender, not tough or stringy. After flavor, I look for a high yielding variety with early maturity. I prefer pole beans because that way the beans mature gradually so that I am not inundated with more than I can eat all at one time, and I can harvest most of them standing up rather than kneeling on the ground. The bean should remain in the snap stage for several days so that if I don't get a chance to harvest every day they will still be good. If the pod is attractive to look at while growing, that is an added bonus.
When it comes to dry beans, I prefer a pinto type that will soften and mash easily when cooked, with unobtrusive skin. It should produce a richly flavored broth when boiled, and it should mesh well with onion, garlic, and cinnamon. I will occasionally use a kidney type that keeps its shape when cooked; it would have to stand up to very strong spices (such as used in chili). Growing beans for a dry harvest requires far more plants than necessary for a snap bean harvest, and so I must find space all over my (small) yard for them, wherever I can squeeze them in. It is inconvenient to attempt to set up trellises in so many locations, so I prefer that my dry beans have a bush habit if possible, or at least a very short pole habit that could be left to trail on the ground without taking up too much space. The variety should ideally mature to dryness before the rains start in October. Finally, I appreciate beans with an attractive appearance that can be displayed in glass jars in my kitchen. I prefer those with a mottled or striped pattern, for visual interest.
The three latest varieties were Tarahumara Cafe, Tarahumara Star, and Mountain Pima Plum. All of them had tall, vigorous vines that required trellising. Cafe began producing a few mature pods by the middle of September, while the other two varieties were barely beginning to produce flowers and scattered young pods. Cafe also produced a greater quantity of pods, resulting in a larger yield. Cafe might be worth growing again, but I fear the other two are simply too late to be practical.
The only varieties I have tasted dry are Good Mother Stallard, Mayflower, and Rio Zape. Of these three, Mayflower did not grow well for me. I am looking forward to growing increased quantities of Tarahumara Bakamina, Tarahumara Cafe, Tarahumara Capirame, and Tarahumara Frijol Enrayada so that I can judge their flavor as dry beans.
I ordered a packet of Beefy Resilient Grex (F3/F4) seeds from geneticist Carol Deppe. These seeds are the result of an accidental cross between the common bean Gaucho (a gold bean) and the tepary bean Black Mitla (a black bean). Tepary beans are a species reported to have strong drought tolerance and high nutritional value. The seeds in the packet displayed a wide range of colors, sizes, and patterns, and they are still segregatingthat is, the offspring will not necessarily resemble the parents.
I sorted the seeds into eight different categories and planted 6-9 seeds from each category (one square foot each). The seeds were all planted next to each other (to minimize environmental differences) on May 31. I watched the plants as they grew and used small tags to label plants with unusual pod colors, such as purple stripes. When all pods on a particular plant matured, I pulled up the entire plant and harvested the dry beans. I placed all seeds from each individual plant into a zip-seal plastic bag and labeled the bag with the bean category and the date harvested. Since the bags are labeled in chronological order by harvesting date, the lower numbers are earlier maturing than the higher numbers in any particular category.
I don't particularly like the flavor of black beans, so I didn't have high expectations for this category. That said, two stood out as potentially interesting. Black Big 2 resulted in slightly kidney-shaped beans that are a very dark brown rather than black, and Black Big 3 turned out to be a beautiful walnut brown color. Both had pods with purple streaks, which may be a good source of visual interest.
All of the seeds in the black pinto category resulted in black pinto seeds, so it seems to be a relatively stable phenotype. Black Pinto 1 and Black Pinto 5 had slight pink and purple markings on the pods to distinguish them, whereas the Black Pinto 3 seeds were largest in size.
As with the black big category above, I didn't have high hopes for this category. However, Black Small 3 had pods with beautiful dark pink streaks that eventually spread until the pods were a spectacular red-violet color. It also had a relatively high yield, though one plant is clearly not a large enough sample size to judge yield with any accuracy. I am hopeful that I may develop this into a snap variety to take advantage of the lovely pods.
I had pretty high expectations for this category, because I really like brown beans. The main flaw is that none of the beans have any distinctive patterning. Brown 1 and Brown 5 have lovely color, while Brown 6 has the largest seeds.
I was looking forward to the results of this category, because I prefer patterned seeds. Unfortunately, the speckling in the seeds that were planted generally didn't express in the offspring. Only Brown Pinto 4 displays a visible mottling, and even that is extremely subtle.
This turned out to be the most thrilling category for me. Although nearly half the plants produced boring black seeds, Burgundy 3, Burgundy 4, and Burgundy 9 have gorgeous dark brown seeds. Burgundy 5 produced stunning brown seeds with darker patterning that makes them appear to be antiqued. I don't think I've ever seen anything quite like it. Burgundy 7 seeds are also an attractive dark brown, and they have the flattened shape typical of tepary beans. I am hoping this appearance indicates that they have inherited a number of positive tepary bean traits, such as drought tolerance, though of course this isn't guaranteed.
To be honest, I'm not into gold beans, so I wasn't sure any of these would appeal to me. Gold 7 produced the highest yield, so it may be worth pursuing. Gold 5 had distinctive, bright yellow pods, which differentiated it from all the other plants in the trial. It might be worth selecting this one for use as a snap bean.
About half of the plants produced gold seeds, which were relatively unimpressive. Tan 1, Tan 2, and Tan 5 are darker in color with intriguing reddish undertones. Tan 3 has a brown mottled pattern that gives it visual interest.
When I planted each seed for the variety trial, I examined it to be sure it was representative of the expected appearance for that variety. Even so, when I harvested the pods, some of the resulting beans did not look like the seeds that I planted. There are a number of possible reasons for such variation. It could be random chance without any environmental or genetic factors involved, it could be caused by differences in the growth environment (such as soil quality, amount of sun, drought stress, and so on), it could be a genetic mutation, it could have resulted from an accidental cross pollination in a previous generation, or it could have been my own error.
Another source of human error lies with the person responsible for packaging the seeds. Perhaps they were not sorted as carefully as they might have been. In particular, varieties that have similar appearances (such as a solid red bean and a red bean with a light swirl marking) might have gotten mixed in the packet, and I may not have noticed the difference.
In general, however, I do not believe that human error contributed much, if at all, to the variation that I observed.
I suspect that this is also the case for Rio Zape, though I am not entirely certain. Most of the seeds from the Rio Zape plants were purple with black stripes. However, some of the seeds came out black with purple specks. Would selectively planting the black seeds eventually result in a new Black Rio Zape variety? I tend to doubt it, but I would have to try it to be sure.
While I was observing my plants, however, I noticed that one appeared to have a significantly longer vine than the others. I staked that one plant, and the vine climbed to about three feet in heightstill not extremely tall, but noticeably taller than the surrounding plants. That one plant also matured much earlier than the ones around it. When I harvested the pods, I found that they were not the purple with black stripes of the other Rio Zape plants. Instead, they were gray with black stripes (right). I knew this could not be due to random chance or environmental effects; all of the beans on this one plant were gray, whereas none of the beans on the remaining plants were gray. I also did not think it likely that the difference was due to human error; not only had I examined each seed carefully when I planted this year, I had also done the same thing for the parent plants last year, and no differences had shown up back then. I concluded that some genetic factor must be at work.
My first assumption was that the parent plant last year had accidentally cross pollinated with another bean plant I had grown last year. Since this plant was taller than the surrounding plants, I guessed that it had cross pollinated with the only taller pole bean I had grown last year, Purple Podded Pole. That would make the "Tall Rio Zape" plant I observed an F1 hybrid.
As I did more research, though, I uncovered the fact that Rio Zape was originally a selection from a much more genetically diverse population called Hopi Purple String from Native Seeds/SEARCH. That Hopi Purple String population is mostly gray with black stripes, virtually identical to the plant I found in my garden, with a few of the Rio Zape type in the mix. Due to the discovery of that information, I revised my hypothesis to be that the gray color is a recessive trait that was almost (but not quite) eliminated when the Rio Zape purple color was selected. In other words, a small percentage of the Rio Zape seeds are still segregating for color.
In order to be completely certain, I manually cross pollinated Rio Zape and Purple Podded Pole. I hope to acquire some true hybrid seeds that I can plant out next year and compare to the growth habit of the plant that produced the gray seeds. Then I will have a better idea which hypothesis was correct. Regardless of the outcome, both parents in this cross are favorites of mine, so I am terribly excited to find out what their offspring will be like.
Another potentially interesting Rio Zape example is that, in a different section of the yard, I observed one plant maturing much more rapidly and with roughly twice as many pods as all the surrounding Rio Zape plants. The entire plant matured to complete dryness weeks before the surrounding plants produced even one mature pod. I collected all the seeds from that one early plant into a bag and labeled it so that I can plant it out again next year. Perhaps it is a mutation that makes the plant mature faster, or perhaps it is a hybrid. It may even be a random fluke with no genetic basis, though the huge difference between it and the plants around it makes me doubt that explanation. In any case, I hope to find out more about this "early" strain next year.
Since I have decided not to grow Mayflower again next year, and I am not particularly interested in white (or cream) beans, I might never learn any more about these anomalous seeds.
These may have been a case of human error, in which the wrong seed was included in the Capirame packet. I thought that I inspected each one closely during planting, but Capirame suffers from a condition called Post Harvest Darkening, in which the beans gradually turn brown. To illustrate, the seeds remaining in my original Capirame packet have darkened considerably. The Post Harvest Darkening may have made it difficult to distinguish between a cream (brown) Capirame and a pink seed of some other variety.
However, the combination of both a different color and a different size leads me to think that it was not simply a sorting error. I would like to believe that I would have caught the difference at planting time. Instead, I think that the seeds from Native Seeds/SEARCH come from populations with a great deal of genetic diversity, as in the case of Hopi Purple String mentioned above. I suspect that the pink version is not currently a separate variety, but rather an example of the genetic diversity included within the seeds called Capirame. If so, selecting for Pink Capirame might lead to the development of a new variety, as the selection from Hopi Purple String led to Rio Zape.
While that could certainly be the case, I noticed that a similar pale-with-dark-speckles bean shows up in the photo on the vendor website, where it is surrounded by more "ideal" Purple Ojos beans. That one bean really stands out as different in such a picture, and it makes me wonder if the difference could be genetic in nature. It doesn't appear to occur with the same frequency as the speckled Good Mother Stallard variant. Additionally, I never find it mixed in pods alongside purple beans, the way I do with Good Mother Stallard. When I find the speckled Purple Ojos, the pod contains only speckled beans.
Thus, I suspect that this is potentially another example of the considerable genetic diversity contained within the Native Seeds/SEARCH variety collection. If so, selecting for the speckled seeds would be an interesting experiment.
In this instance, since I can state with reasonable certainty that I did not plant any striped seeds, I suspect that these beans are hybrids with some other variety in the vendor's collectionpossibly something along the lines of Tarahumara Ojo de Cabra. In fact, judging by the solid brown bean that looks suspiciously like Cafe along with the Ojo de Cabra beans in the vendor's picture, I would hazard a guess that the two are grown quite close to each other, to the point that they are easily mixed during harvest. If so, an accidental cross is within the realm of possibility.
The Ojo de Cabra beans are described as having purple striped pods, whereas the pods on my Cafe vines are mostly green with just a faint pink blush, so they are definitely different. I am hoping that I can grow out the striped seeds and perhaps select for a new variety. I don't know how many of the nine seeds that I planted were responsible for the striped beans, but of the total resulting yield of 367g, 110g came from the solid brown beans while 257g were striped, which means it is definitely no slouch in the yield department.
At first I wondered if it was just an environmental effect, as with Purple Ojos. The difference, however, was so considerable that I dismissed the possibility. Next I wondered if it was an accidental seed mixup. It should be clear, though, that it is highly unlikely I could look into a packet of seeds and mistake the blue-gray version for the pinto version, no matter how zoned out I may have been when planting. There is just no way I would have overlooked such a difference. Thus, I concluded that the seed I planted was probably a hybrid between Frijol Enrayada and something else.
After scouring the vendor website, I decided that the most likely candidate was Tarahumara Gray Star. Some (though not all) of the beans pictured on the Gray Star page share the dark coloring and brown stripe of the beans that I harvested. In any case, I am definitely going to be planting these out again next year to see what kind of offspring they produce.
Although I am not going to carry out such a large variety trial next year, I will continue to grow out the seeds from the Beefy Resilient Grex trial until I obtain some stable lines. I am also going to be planting out some of the anomalous seeds mentioned in the section on variation to see how well they perform and whether they segregate for any interesting traits. In addition, I have already started buying a few new beans to try along with my standard varieties to see how well they compare.
Last year I wrote about my tomato variety trial, and while that was certainly fun, it is more difficult to grow tomatoes here because of the perpetual problems with early blight, the enormous amount of space (and water!) even a single tomato plant needs in order to thrive, not to mention birds that like to feed on the developing fruit just before I was going to pick it. I have found growing beans to be much more satisfying. They can be crammed into tiny available spaces in the garden, they have pretty flowers at the beginning of the season, often decorative pods while they grow, and then they can either be eaten fresh or left to dry, which results in colorful seeds that can be stored practically indefinitely without any effort on my part. No canning required!
If anyone else is interested in growing heirloom beans, there are many seed sources out there, several of which I have linked in the variety trial results section. Also, for anyone curious about the possibility of cross pollinating beans to obtain a brand new variety, there is a wonderful publication put out by Michigan State University that serves as a step-by-step pictorial guide to crossing beans.
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