If you’ve been gardening for a while, you’ve probably heard that beans, peas, and other legumes are nitrogen-fixing, meaning that they add nitrogen to the soil as they grow. However, many gardeners are less aware of exactly how this process works.
This process is a symbiotic relationship between legumes and specific types of bacteria called Rhizobacteria. These bacteria cause legumes to grow nodules on their roots. The bacteria live on the nodules and get carbohydrates from the plants. In return, the bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that is accessible to the plants.
Why do I need to inoculate? Doesn’t this bacteria occur naturally?
Rhizobacteria do occur naturally in some soil. However, there may be little to none present, particularly if you haven’t grown legumes in that area for several years. Legumes perform better with more bacteria present.
If you’ve ever had legumes fail to thrive, a lack of rhizobacteria may be part of the problem. Adding inoculant will ensure that there’s enough present to perform nitrogen fixation.
Using legume inoculant can:
Improve vigor and health of legume plants.
Increase nitrogen available for other plants.
How do I inoculate my legumes?
Inoculating legume seeds is very simple. All you need to do is moisten your seeds and dust them with a bit of inoculant. You should plant them within 24 hours of inoculating.
We provide full instructions as well as more information on the Guard-N Inoculant we carry here.
The inoculant mix we carry at SESE contains Bradyrhizobium sp. (Vigna), Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar viceae, Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar phaseoli, and Bradyrhizobium japonicum. It can be used with:
Garden peas, including shelling, snap, and snow peas
Common beans such as snap beans
Vetch (Vicia sp.) including Hairy Vetch, but not Crown Vetch.
Late Spring Sale
We’re currently having a late spring sale. Our Guard-N Inoculant is 20% off! Order yours today to ensure that your beans, peas, peanuts, and other legumes thrive this season.
Beans seem like the ultimate beginner crop. They’re easy to grow and save seed from, they’re nitrogen fixing and unfussy about soil conditions, and there’s tons of varieties for gardeners to choose from. They’re also a great source of protein for those looking to produce more of their own diet. Beans are perfect until you come out to your garden to find all parts of the plant have been thoroughly chewed on.
Mexican bean beetles can become a huge problem for gardeners hoping for a great bean crop. You may first notice them by the damage done to the leaves of your plants. Bean beetles eat the leaves from the underside and leave them with a lace-like appearance. If left to continue they will eventually kill the plant. They also eat the beans and you may notice chunks missing from them or a brown, scabby spots.
The beetles themselves are easy to identify. They lay small yellow eggs in clusters glued to the underside of the leaves. The larvae are bright yellow and spiny and will stand out on your bean plants. As adults they look like a light orange colored ladybug and are in fact as species of ladybug. Note that other species of ladybug are beneficial and eat harmful insects and aphids.
There are several ways to combat bean beetles and what works well for one person may not work well for everyone. Every garden is unique.
Use Neem Oil
Neem oil can be purchased as an OMRI (Organic Materials Institute) certified pesticide or fungicide derived from neem seeds. It’s effective at combating Mexican Bean Beetles however it may harm beneficial insects in your bean patch as well.
Not the most fun option, but some people find hand picking to be effective. You can just smash the eggs and pick off the larvae and beetles and place them in a bucket of water and a little dish soap to kill them. However if the beetles are particularly abundant in your garden or you have a large bean patch it may be difficult to keep up with them.
Let Chickens Eat Them
Most of the time it’s good to keep your chickens out of the garden. You don’t want them eating your harvest or digging up seedlings in their quest for grubs. However if you have bean beetles you may want to let your chickens into your bean patch for a snack.
Install Row Cover
Although it may seem like a drastic and expensive option row cover is very effective if used from the start of the season. It can be used multiple years.
Use Milky Spore Powder
Milky Spore is a bacteria that kills Japanese beetles however some gardeners say that they’ve successfully used it to kill Mexican Bean Beetle larvae. Milky Spore Powder is OMRI certified and safe to use on organic gardens.
Plant Late or Early
Mexican bean beetles don’t hatch out in the early spring or fall so you may be able to get a crop in before or after they’re really an issue.
Try Different Varieties
Some varieties will attract more bean beetles than others. If you find one that’s a favorite you may be able to use it as a trap crop to draw the beetles away from your other varieties. You can burn your trap crop plants and the beetles on them.
Help Their Predators
There are many creatures that feed on Mexican bean beetles including toads, some birds, several species of parasitic wasp, tachinid flies, and spined soldier bugs. By creating habitat for them in your garden you may be able to reduce your bean beetle problem. Some insects like parasitic wasps and spined soldier bugs can also be purchased and released into your garden.
Don’t let bean beetles stop you from planting beans. There’s plenty of ways to combat bean beetles so you can still have an excellent harvest.
The Three Sisters Garden has gained some popularity in recent years and for good reason. Unlike conventional agriculture The Three Sisters Garden works with nature to provide for the crops needs, keep maintanence low, and keep soil fertility up without the addition of chemical fertilizers. It’s was perfect for the Native Americans and is perfect modern organic gardener.
Before the advent of large agricultural equipment these features weren’t just nice and environmentally friendly they were necessary. Imagine gardening without metal tools, sprinklers or hoses, or commercial garden additives nevermind tractors and cultivators. The traditional Three Sisters Garden was easy to grow and provided the basic staples of the Native American diet. Together corn, beans, and squash provided balanced nutrition.
To plant a Three Sisters Garden the traditional way you should prepare a fairly large space. Corn needs plenty of plants in one area as it’s wind pollinated. In some cultures the space was circular to help with pollination. The corn is planted in hills about 5 inches high, 18 inches across and 5 feet apart. The tops should be flat to prevent rain water run off. These hills allow the soil to warm more quickly in the spring and allow for better drainage. Traditionally it was common to add some fertility to each hill like fish or fish scraps before planting. Unless you fish a lot, compost or manure will do for the modern garden. If using manure mix it with the soil or bury slightly so it doesn’t burn the plants. Plant 4 corns seeds in a six inch square in each hill.
Three Sisters gardening often works best with flint, dent, or flour corn varieties as they are harvested at the end of the season. If you choose sweet corn you’ll have to carefully make your way through sprawling squash plants to reap your harvest. Alternatively you can plant sunflowers in place of corn which was also done by some native cultures.
You can find Southern Exposure’s flour, flint, and dent corn varieties here. Native American varieties include Hickory Cane Dent Corn and Cherokee White Flour though other varieties work well too.
Once the corn is 4 inches tall it’s time to plant the beans. This is also a good time to give your patch a good weeding before the plants get large. Then you can plant 4 beans in each hill placing them 3 inches away from the corn plants completing your original square. They’ll use the corn plants as living trellis and provide them with nitrogen throughout the growing season. Corn is a very heavy feeder so sustained nitrogen is essential to a good crop. In choosing bean varieties make sure you purchase pole beans not bush beans. It’s also a good idea to choose native or heirloom varieties unless your using sunflowers in place of corn. Some modern bean varieties have such big vines they can be too heavy for corn plants.
You’ll also want to consider whether you want green beans or drying beans. Some varieties are dual purpose. Most Native Americans planted and harvested their beans as drying beans so that they could be harvest in the fall and stored for winter use.
You can check out Southern Exposure’s pole beans here.
Once the beans have sprouted it’s time to weed again and then plant the squash. Planting squash too early can shade out beans before they have a chance to start climbing. The squash should be planted in the in new mounds identical to those that were for the corn and beans. Plant three seeds and thin to just two per hill. The squash vines ramble throughout the garden shading our weeds and keeping soil moist. This is particularly advantageous in areas prone to drought because corn also requires good moisture for good harvests. When the squash shows its first true leaves it’s probably time to weed again.
Choosing squash can be difficult because of the variety of options. Any vining plant (not bush) in the cucurbit family will do though most native american grew winter squash varieties and harvested all there crops in the fall for storage throughout the winter. At Southern Exposure our favorites tend to be moschata squash plants. These varieties are more resistant to the squash vine borer and can be harvested early and used in summer squash recipes or left to mature and harvested as winter squash for storage. Some people have also used cucumbers, watermelons, and gourds with great success. Just keep in mind with cucumbers and melons you’ll need to carefully make your way through your patch to harvest while the other plants are still growing.
You can find Southern Exposure’s winter squash here. Once again the moschata cultivars can be eaten early as summer squash or eaten as winter squash. These include varieties like Seminole Pumpkin, Tahitian Melon Winter Squash, Thai Kang Kob Pumpkin, and more.
While they are called Three Sisters Gardens many Native Americans included more than just three crops. For instance the Wampanoag people planted sunflowers on the North side of the garden so they wouldn’t shade the other crops but would help attract pollinators. Some cultures also incorporated pollinator plants like bee balm or other crops like tobacco or amaranth which is grown for its edible leaves and seeds.
Growing a three sisters garden can be an easy fun project for the organic gardener. It’s low maintenance and beautiful. Though most people don’t have to grow corns, beans, and squash as staples anymore it can be a great way to keep organic gardening techniques, cultural traditions, and seed saving alive and well.
If you’re having a hard time choosing plant varieties consider Southern Exposure’s Three Sisters Garden Package which includes Bloody Butcher Corn, Genuine Cornfield Beans, and Seminole Pumpkin Squash seeds plus a planting guide.