This week, Brian and I harvested our first ever crop of lima beans. This is the third year that we've tried to grow them: in 2012 we got only one plant, and last year we tried planting them along the fence behind our cherries and got none at all. But this year, we bought a fresh packet and set aside a whole half trellis for them, and they have positively swarmed over it, even jumping the gap to spread their tendrils to the next trellis over as well. I'm not sure what we did right this time that we didn't do before; maybe the seeds in our old packet were just duds, or maybe it was the cooler weather we had this summer that made the difference. Whatever the reason, I'm not about to look a gift bean in the pod.
Since it's our first time growing them, we weren't sure exactly how to tell when they were ripe. We thought maybe we could just leave them all on the vine and harvest them all at once right before frost, but eventually the pods turned brown and started to split open, and we thought maybe it would be better to pick them rather than risk damage to the beans. At first glance, it looked like our plants had produced quite a bounty already, as the pods we picked completely filled our 2-quart kitchen colander. However, it turns out that, when shelled, two quarts of pods produce a much smaller volume of edible beans—and a much larger volume of empty shells. Once they've been split open, they take up twice as much room, so we filled the colander twice with the empties.
Moreover, some of the beans we removed from the pods didn't look quite normal. They were starting to split open and slip out of their skins. We're not sure whether these mutant-looking beans are okay to eat; I think they probably wouldn't hurt us, but I suspect they won't taste the same as normal beans or cook at the same rate. I'm wondering whether the best use for them might be to set them aside for planting next year, since it looks like they've got a head start on sprouting already. Alternatively, maybe we could sprout them and eat them that way, as a poster called "grainlady" suggests on the GardenWeb cooking forum.
So, out of our original two quarts of lima bean pods, we ended up with about 7 ounces of intact beans, plus about two ounces of the split ones. On top of that, there are still lots of green pods left out on the vines waiting to be picked. And once we've harvested the lot, they'll still need to be dried, a process that's apparently a bit more complicated than I thought. According to this article I found on WikiHow, you can't just put them in a jar and let them sit there until you're ready to use them; if you want them to dry evenly, you have to either spread them out in the sun, string thread through them and hang them up, or bake them on cookie sheets in the oven.
Once all the beans are gathered in and dried, it's not clear whether our actual yield will be more than a pound—about the equivalent of a $1.20 bag from the grocery store, and just enough for one good batch of butter beans with bacon. So all in all, I'm having my doubts about whether growing lima beans is a good use of our limited garden space. We might be better off just buying our limas at the store and using the extra trellis place for more butternut squash, since the three we planted this year have only produced a total of six squash.
Between the limas, the butternuts, and the brussels sprouts that so far have no sign of sprouts on them, it's shaping up to be a pretty disappointing fall harvest for 2014. Our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness may end up being a lot more misty than fruitful.