Lima Bean Plant Profile

Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus)
Joseph De Leo/Getty Images

Lima beans, also known as butter beans and chad beans, grow in much the same way as green beans, although they 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.

Lima beans have the familiar compound leaves found on other beans— three, or trifoliate, oval leaflets that are about 2 to 3 inches long. Flowers are white or yellow and form loose clusters. The resulting pods are curved and flatter than common green beans.

Lima beans have been cultivated in their namesake Lima, Peru, for over 600 years. All varieties are high in protein as well as several vitamins and minerals. They can be used fresh, frozen, or dried.

Botanical Name Phaseolus lunatus
Common Name  Lima beans, butter beans
Plant Type Annual vegetable
Mature Size Bush variety, 2 feet tall; pole variety, 12 feet tall
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Moderately rich, well-draining
Soil pH 6.0 to 6.8; slightly acidic to neutral
Harvest Time Summer
Flower Color White or yellow
Hardiness Zones 2 to 11
Native Area Mesoamerica and South America

How to Grow Lima Beans

There are both bush and pole varieties of lima beans available. Like green beans, the bush types will begin setting pods sooner. Pole beans will need sturdy support. The vines can easily grow 10 feet or more and become heavy with pods. Plant 4 to 6 seeds on each side of a trellis or teepee. Bush types grow 2 to 3 feet tall and may need staking when they are covered in pods.

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 three to four weeks, you will be able to prolong the harvest season. Or, you can plant both bush and pole varieties; this way, you can start the season with the early maturing bush beans and continue harvesting throughout summer from the pole beans.

Light

You will 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.

Soil

As legumes, Lima beans do not need overly rich soil. 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 do not like to sit in wet soil. Soil pH should be in the neutral range of 6.0 to 6.8.

Water

Keep the soil moist until germination, then make sure the plants receive at least 1 inch of water per week. In hot, dry weather, water more frequently and mulch around the roots to keep the ground cool. Pay extra attention once the plants are in flower and start setting pods; they will drop them if they experience drought at this point.

Temperature and Humidity

Lima beans can be a bit temperamental about temperature. They do not like extremes and grow best in climates that stay around 70 degrees F. for several months. However, they can handle warm temperatures better than a prolonged cool temperature. Lima beans plants are not frost-hardy.

Fertilizer

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 slow-releasing sources of nutrients will help the plants continue for the rest of the season.

Growing From Seeds

Lima beans have big seeds, and they can be direct sown 1 to 2 inches deep. Space bush varieties about 4 to 6 inches apart, although you can also scatter the seeds in a wide row and thin them, if necessary.

If you have a short season and want to grow pole limas, consider starting the seed indoors 3 to 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, then direct sow the seeds with some protection around the seedlings, such as a row cover or a windbreak of plastic or straw bales. The soil needs to be at least 65 degrees F. for good germination. If you are not pre-warming the soil, wait for two to three weeks after your last frost date to direct-seed.

Being Grown in Containers

Bush lima beans can be grown in containers, but you may need several containers for a practical harvest. Beans will grow well in 8-inch containers.

Harvesting

There is wide fluctuation in the length of season needed to grow lima beans. Some bush varieties, such as Fordhook, might begin producing in 60 days. The heat-loving pole beans, such as Christmas lima, will not start setting pods until about 90 days. If you live in a short season area, these might not be the best choices for your garden. But you can always experiment and try starting the seeds indoors.

Begin harvesting when the pods feel full. They will not 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.

Varieties of Lima Bean

Breeders are continually working to improve yields and come up with shorter- season varieties. Some varieties are better for long, warm-season climates and others excel in more temperate zones. There are many heirloom varieties still being offered and perform as well as the newer varieties.

  • Christmas: These are large, burgundy and white beans have a potato-like texture. They are an heirloom variety and take 90 days to mature.
  • Jackson Wonder butter bean: These buff-colored beans have burgundy speckles. They handle heat well as well as a shorter season and take about 66 days to grow.
  • King of the gardens: The most commonly grown variety, this one has large white beans that are produced over a long season (88 days).
  • Henderson’s bush: This is a very old and reliable variety with small white beans. It keeps producing for weeks and grows to maturity in about 65 days.
  • Fordhook 242: A heavy producer of medium-sized beans, this variety is a good choice for cooler climates. It takes about 72 days to grow to maturity.

Common Pests/ Disease

All the usual bean pests will seek out your Lima beans plants. Heading the list are bean beetles and aphids. Keep watch and tackle any problems while they are small. Many four-footed pests also love tender, young bean seedlings. Fencing is recommended. Groundhogs can defoliate entire bean 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 during this period.