Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus) rarely win the vegetable popularity contest, but it is actually green beans that were voted the least popular vegetable with kids. Lima beans have been cultivated in their namesake Lima, Peru for over 600 years. Maybe lima beans deserve another look.
Another Look at Lima Beans
Lima beans, also known as butter beans and chad beans, grow much the same as green beans, they just tend to take longer to mature.
The smaller varieties are quicker, which is why you see "baby" lima beans for sale more often than the larger beans; there's a quicker turnover.
There are bush varieties and pole lima beans and, like green beans, the bush types will begin setting pods sooner. Bush lima beans also tend to set their entire crop at once, so you will only be able to harvest from them for a couple of weeks. If you can succession plant a row every 3 - 4 weeks, you will be able to prolong the harvest season. We like to plant both a row of bush beans and a seeding of a pole variety. That way we can start the season with the early maturing bush beans and continue harvesting throughout summer from the pole beans.
All varieties are high in protein as well as several vitamins and minerals. They can be used fresh, frozen or dried.
- Lima beans have the familiar compound leaves of 3, or trifoliate, with oval leaflets that are about 2 - 3 in. long.
- Flowers are white or yellow and form loose racemes or clusters. The resulting pods are curved and flatter than common green beans.
Breeders are continually working to improve yields and come up with shorter season varieties. Some are better for warm, long season climates and others excel in more temperate zones.
There are many heirloom varieties still being offered, which can perform as well as the "new and improved".
- 'Christmas' - Large, burgundy and white beans with a potato-like texture. Heirloom (90 days)
- 'Jackson Wonder Butterbean' - Buff-colored beans with burgundy speckles. Handles heat well Also good for shorter season. (66 days)
- 'King of the Garden' - The most commonly grown. Large white beans produced over a long season. (88 days)
- 'Henderson’s Bush' - Very old, very reliable variety with small white beans. Keeps producing for weeks. (65 days)
- 'Fordhook 242' - Heavy producer of medium sized green beans. Good choice for cooler climates. (72 days)
Growing Lima Beans
These are big seeds and they can be direct sown 1 - 2 in. deep. Space bush varieties about 4 - 6 in. apart, although you could also scatter the seeds in a wide row and thin, if necessary.
You'll need a spot with full sun, to get the most from your Lima beans. They need warm temperatures and a long day length. Full sun will also keep the vines dry and less prone to fungal problems. The size of the mature plants will depend on the variety you are growing. Pole varieties will climb at least 8 ft. Bush types grow 2 - 3 ft. tall and may need staking, when they are covered in pods.
There is wide fluctuation in the length of season needed to grow lima beans. Some bush varieties, like Fordhook, can begin producing in 60 days. The heat loving pole beans, like Christmas Lima, won't start setting pods until about 90 days. If you live in a short season area, these might not be the type for your garden. But you can always experiment and try starting the seeds indoors, as discussed below.
Begin harvesting when the pods feel full. They won't plump up like green beans, but you should still be able to see a slight bump. Hold the vine end when pulling off the pods or you could take a big section of vine with them.
As legumes, Lima beans don't need an overly rich soil or much supplemental fertilizer. The soil should be well draining and moderately rich in organic matter. Heavy clay soil can pose growing problems because lima beans have deep, expansive roots and they don't like to sit in wet soil. Soil pH should be in the neutral range of 6.0 to 6.8.
Lima beans can be a bit temperamental about temperature. They don't like extremes and grow best in climates that stay around 70 F. for several months. However they can handle warm temperatures better than prolonged cool temperature.
If you have a short season and want to grow pole limas, you should consider starting the seed indoors 3 - 4 weeks before your last frost date, in peat or paper pots. Or warm the soil in the spring with a layer of black plastic and then direct sow the seeds with some protection, like a row cover or a wind break of plastic or straw bales, around the seedlings. The soil needs to be at least 65 F., for good germination. If you are not pre-warming the soil, wait until 2-3 weeks after your last frost date, to direct seed.
Maintaining the Plants
Pole beans will need a sturdy support. The vines can easily grow 10 ft. or more and become heavy with pods. Plant 4 - 6 seeds on each side of a trellis or teepee.
Keep the soil moist until germination, then make sure the plants get at least 1 in. of water per week. In hot, dry weather, water more frequently to keep the ground cool, and mulch around the roots. Pay extra attention once the plants are in flower and start setting pods; they will drop them, if they experience a drought at this point.
Legumes generally do not need extra fertilizer, especially if the soil is already rich. However since Lima beans have a long growing season, it helps to give them a side dressing of compost or composted manure, or a dose of organic fertilizer, mid-season. These are slow releasing and will help the plants continue on for the rest of the season.
Pests & Problems
The usual bean pests will seek out your plants. Heading the list are bean beetles and aphids. Keep watch and tackle any problems while they are small. Many four-footed pest also love tender, young bean seedlings. Fencing is recommended. Groundhogs can defoliate entire teepees in a few minutes.
The biggest disease problem is root rot, which you should be able to avoid with well draining soil. If you have a particularly rainy season, be sure to turn off your automatic irrigation.
Read more about Daniel Gasteiger's experience growing pole lima beans in a container on his deck.