I think most gardeners try their hand at growing cornfield beans at some point. I can remember trying to grow beans on corn when I was only 10 or 11 years old. It was a miserable flop! I didn’t understand the basics and had no one to teach me.
The Joy of Three Sisters Gardening mentions the basics for growing beans on corn.
There are three main factors to consider for growing beans on corn.
1. Varieties matter.
It matters what both what variety of corn and what variety of bean is planted. Even the combination of bean and corn varieties matter. Corns come in all sizes and degrees of vigor. Some varieties barely reach 4′ in height before producing a crop and drying down. Others may go as high as 18′! Some have such sturdy stalks that in certain applications they can be used like wood. Others are, well… weak and easy to break. Sweet corn typically has spindly, weak stalks. 4
Sandhill Preservation Center has a wonderful array of corn varieties.
Beans come in everything from true bush (no climbing at all) to 20′ trailing monsters which never stop reaching for the sky. My personal preference is a sturdy corn, which reaches between 8 and 12′ in height and a bean which can produce on a 3′ support, but will climb to 10 or 12′ if given the support. Most beans with “cornfield” in their name fit this description.
Tarahumara Pink Green Bean is the most vigorous bean I’ve grown.
If you’re not sure, start out with a combination of varieties which has been proven by others.
I’ve successfully grown the following bean varieties on Mesquakie Indian and Cherokee Squaw (both sold by Sandhill Preservation Center). Without having tried it personally, I’m pretty sure that Hickery King or Hickory Cane, would be good for most cornfield beans. Here are some of the beans I’ve successfully grown on corn:
- Tennessee Cutshort
- Frank Barnett
- Cherokee Striped Cornhill
- Kentucky Red (cowpea)
- Penny Rile (Cowpea)
- Coopers Running Snap
- Old Timey Long Cut Greasy Bean
I’m pretty sure that most of the climbing Appalachian varieties, sold by Sustainable Mountain Agriculture will grow on corn. I’ve heard accounts of both success and failure using Kentucky Wonder Pole Beans. Most likely the difference is in timing of when the beans have been planted on the corn. Also keep in mind that “cornfield bean” only indicates how it’s supported, not how it’s eaten.
2. For growing beans on corn, timing is very important.
Most who experience failure in this endeavor fail in one of two areas. First, they try to use sweet corn and a vigorous climbing bean. The other is just about as bad. They plant the beans at the wrong time, usually too soon. If one plants the beans too early they can overrun the corn, destroying it. In most cases I wait until the corn has reached about a foot in height before planting beans at its base. This also gives me a chance to hill the corn before planting beans. The corn needs a head start. I’ve had success, planting fairly vigorous varieties of beans on corn that is almost ready to tassel, but for this to work, I have to plant on the outside edge of the corn patch, and not on the North side.
3. Spacing is important.
Most gardeners tend to plant climbing beans too thickly, even on a trellis. On corn they need to be planted even farther apart. Suppose I have corn plants every 18″ in rows four foot apart: I’ll probably plant two beans every six or seven feet along the row. If I want to plant beans inside the corn patch, and not just along the outer edge, then I probably need to increase the distance between rows to around 6.’ No matter how much I hear of beans which tolerate shade, I’m not convinced they actually produce when planted in really thick corn. If in doubt, plant both corn and beans further apart. After you’ve had success you can make adjustments.
Offhand, I can think of four reasons one would grow beans on corn.
- One might take this approach on account of a scarcity of other forms of support. Using corn is a way of growing your own supports. Along this line, if one is already growing a decent amount of corn, it can’t hurt to tuck some beans in there, at least on the edge.
- Growing beans on corn is a low maintenance method of gardening. A three sisters garden often looks like a “jungle” because it is, but it’s a productive jungle! When I’m struggling to keep up on my gardens I usually end up browsing through my three sisters garden. It’s the only one that looks like it’s supposed to look, and, it will produce just fine!
- Growing beans on corn is a matter of tradition. This is how the two were grown for ages and it’s nice both to know how to do it and to see first hand what it looks like. And finally…
- This method of growing beans has a beauty all its own. I never tire of poking around the three sisters garden and seeing how these plants interact, finding hidden harvest and gleaning. Years ago our family lived in Central Mexico for over a decade. We have many special friends living in rural areas, growing food this way. We’ve walked on trails through acres of this kind of planting. Having my own is like “a little piece of home.”