If the last time that you tasted a lima bean was as a child, maybe it’s time to rediscover what you might be missing. Fresh, homegrown lima beans can change the mind of even the pickiest of eaters. Anyone who has grown a crop will tell you that there is nothing as good as a bowl of fresh, tender young green lima beans with a dab of sweet, organic butter and a pinch of sea salt.
Lima beans are often overlooked by home gardeners, especially in the North where their long growing season keeps them off of most gardeners’ must-grow list. But with a little forethought, this classic Southern vegetable can be enjoyed by gardeners in the North. The trick to success with this large bean is simple — choose short-season varieties, and start early.
1. Give lima beans a head start — sow them a few weeks early, indoors.
Choose varieties recommended for your area. Most Northern gardeners should choose short-season varieties, such as Fordhook 242, which requires 85 days to mature. Limas need at least 90-100 days of relatively warm weather to mature, but with nighttime temperatures in the mid-60s and daytime temperatures near 85 degrees F, the weather conditions alone deter most Northern gardeners from growing limas. By starting seeds early indoors, you can get a jump on the seasonal limitations. Sow the large seeds in individual pots, large enough so that the roots can grow well. I use 3-inch cell containers, but yogurt containers will do just as well. Calculate four to five weeks back from your frost-free date.
Note for outdoor sowing guidelines for those south of Washington, D.C.: You may sow seed directly into the ground outdoors if your soil temperature is above 65 degrees. Sow the large seeds when the soil is warm enough, and cover seeds with 1 inch of soil. Water well and protect from cool weather with straw or hay until the plants are taller than a soda can.
2. Transplant seedlings outdoors when temps are really warm.
Transplant seedlings outdoors when the soil and air temperatures are above 70 degrees, which in New England does not occur until mid- to late June. At this time, your plants will have formed runners, which you can pinch off if they become unruly, as the plants will form new runners. If raised in cell packs or individual pots, plants will transplant nicely without root damage. Plant seedlings closely into a prepared bed in a row as you will need to provide something for them to climb on — limas grow rampantly when established and can even outrun a common pole bean. You will need a sturdy trellis system or a mesh structure. Stakes and mesh should be at least 6 to 8 feet tall.
3. Keep plants well-watered and fertilized.
Keep lima bean plants well-watered and fertilized all summer long, and watch for flower buds that will begin to form near the end of July. I use a trench of manure under my seed, as well as granular, organic, well-balanced fertilizer applied biweekly (10-10-10). Limas love the heat, and plants will grow quickly in a hot and humid summer as long as temperatures stay below 95 degrees F.
4. Watch for flowers and then for pods.
Lima bean flowers are smaller than most bean varieties but just as beautiful. Small pods will form after the bees have pollinated the flowers, and within three weeks, hard, firm seed pods will become obvious on the vines.
5. Harvest pods at the right time — it’s not as easy as you may think.
Determining when lima beans should be picked can be very tricky. Pods that look mature may not have lima beans formed yet in them, while others may have seeds that are too mature and woody. Break a few pods open to see if the seeds have formed yet.
A lima bean seed pod with limas that are far too immature will be easy to evaluate if the pod is held up to the sky or the sun. Unlike peas, the pods are inedible and woody.
A mature pod may not look any thicker than an empty or immature pod, but when held to a bright light, you can easily see the mature lima beans inside. This one is ready to pick. Pods are stringy and it may take some skill to open a pod, but after you open a few, the rest will become easier.
6. Allow beans to dry for a second crop that can feed your family in the winter.
Green, fresh limas are the best for eating (and they are a vegetable rarely seen in markets), but if you get tired of eating them every week, you can allow the rest to dry. Dried limas store well in recycled jars and can be used in soups and stews.
At the end of the season, any remaining pods can be allowed to dry on the vines, the seeds harvested for winter dishes. Dry the large, pale seeds gently in the sun or on a dry table indoors, and then store dried seeds in a jar in a cool, dry place. Dried limas can be soaked overnight and then prepared as fresh beans or added to winter soups and stews — but fair warning — these may remind you of those mealy, large limas of your youth.
Photo credits: Matt Mattus
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