Bill Best, who helped organize the Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Inc. in Berea, wrote in the January 1998 Appalachian Heritage Magazine that Big John Beans originated in Letcher County. (The article has been reprinted with his permission on the website www.heirlooms.org/heirloom-beans.html.)
As with other types of beans, Big John Bean seeds can be planted as early in the spring as the season allows, and Big John Beans can be planted throughout the summer until the first of August. Seeds planted as late as August 10 might produce eating beans if it does not frost until late in October. Planting a short row, say 10 to 20 feet long, of Big John Beans every two to three weeks will give a continuous supply of fresh beans from early July through early to mid-October. The gardener can expect to pick eating beans 70 days after planting.
Big John Beans grow a lot of vines and they do not produce as well in a lot of shade, even if that shade is created by their own leaves. Therefore, it is advisable to plant Big John Bean hills farther apart than the distance between hills of smaller bean. It is also advisable to thin each hill to only two plants, three at the most, of Big John Beans.
Big John Bean vines need to be trellised. Four-feet-high fence wire held up with 6½- feet high T-posts works nicely. Stakes driven solidly into the ground about 8 to 10 feet apart will hold up the vines. Hang the top of the fence wire as high on the stakes as you can comfortably reach to pick beans. You may want to allow the fence wire to extend 4 or 5 inches above the top of the stakes. The long vines will grow above the top of the fence wire, fall back down, and then grow back up the wire. If the young bean vines can’t reach the bottom of the wire, then push small sticks in the ground and lean the tops of the sticks against the bottom of the fence wire. The bean vines will grow up the sticks and onto the wire.
Most ready-to-pick Big John Beans are 6 to 7 inches long and most pods contain 7 or 8 bean seeds. Since the hull remains tender, the gardener can wait until the Big John pods are filled out before picking. As the pod passes its prime picking time, the pods change their light green color to a light yellow or pinkish color. These past prime pods are not as pretty as previously picked beans when cooked, but they taste just as good.
Like a lot of white bean seeds, Big John Beans are susceptible to Anthracnose (Black Spot), other leaf spots, rusts, blights, mildews, and other diseases caused by fungi. Letcher County Extension Agent Shad Baker said that a fungicide containing the active ingredient Chlorothalonil will help control many of these diseases. Chlorothalonil is the active ingredient in the brand named fungicide Daconil which is sold at most farm and gardening stores. According to the instructions with the Daconil bottle, the gardener should apply about 1 tablespoon of Daconil per gallon of water every 7 to 10 days. It is recommended that the gardener wait 7 days after spraying with Daconil before picking beans to eat.
Soap Shield with its active ingredient copper octanoate also helps control these diseases. Soap Shield can be ordered from Gardens Alive! For best control, begin treatment about 2 weeks before the disease normally appears or whenever weather forecasters predict a long period of wet weather. Spray using about 1 tablespoon of Soap Shield per gallon of water. Otherwise, begin spraying with about 2 tablespoons per gallon when the disease first appears and repeat the application on a 7-to- 10 day interval for as long as needed. I did not find a recommended time interval between spraying and harvesting in the information that came with the Soap Shield bottle.
Some gardeners mix both Daconil and Soap Shield together in the same spraying of the beans.
Aphids and Mexican Bean Beetle like the taste of Big John Bean leaves. Spraying the bean leaves with Sevin with its active ingredient carbaryl will kill most types of insects that eat the bean leaves. Since most bean bugs and their larva are on the bottom side of bean leaves, be sure to spray underneath the leaves.
Unfortunately, Sevin will also kill pollinators hunting nectar on the bean bloom. The prudent gardener times his/her spraying to just before the beans begin blooming or just as the beans begin to bloom. That way, the spray will linger on the leaves for several days, but will not be on the bloom that had not yet opened when the spraying occurred. If it becomes necessary to spray the bean vines with Sevin while the beans are in bloom, then spray late in the day to reduce the harm to the pollinators of your bean blooms. Also, pick your beans just before spraying. It is recommended that the gardener wait 3 days after spraying beans with Sevin before harvesting beans to eat.
After the beans have quit producing, strip the leaves and vines from the wire to prevent these older vines from becoming a harbor for bean bugs and diseases that may spread to your younger crop of beans. It is not necessary to take down the wire and stakes. Leave them standing in your garden for use next growing season.
However, leaving the fence wire standing in the garden interferes with the long held mountain tradition of plowing the entire garden each fall and/or spring and then plowing and hoeing while the beans are little. Tilling the ground close to each side of the fence wire can replace the plowing of the entire garden. Plant the bean seeds in the edge of the tilled strip next to the fence wire. Mulching the row of beans with leaves or with grass clippings caught by a lawn mower can replace the hoeing. Appropriate mulching will prevent weeds, conserve moisture, and add organic material to the soil.
If you want to try your hand at raising this Letcher County native bean, then ask a longtime gardener for enough Big John Bean seeds to get started. Or order the seed online from Sustainable Mountain Agriculture Center, Inc. (www.heirlooms.org/heirloombeans. html. Scroll down their Seed Catalog for Big John Bean seeds in column 3 on page 1 and for Old Fashion Big John Bean seeds in column 1 on page 5.). They sell a package of approximately 100 Big John Bean seeds for $6 per package plus $4 flat rate for S&H, unless your order totals at least $50, in which case the shipping is free.
If you do not have access to the Internet, simply send them the number of packages of Big John Bean seeds that you want. Mail your order along with payment (check or money order) to the address: SMAC, 1033 Pilot Knob Cemetery Rd., Berea, KY 40403.
You don’t have to have a large garden plot to grow enough beans for fresh eating throughout the summer. Dig up a sunny corner of your yard and have at it. You may even want to try a tomato plant or two.
Tony Blair is a retired schoolteacher living in the Jeremiah area.