Many first time gardeners make the mistake of picking up a packet of bean seeds without looking to see if they are bush or pole beans, with the intention of growing beans. While either can furnish you with plenty of green beans if they are grown properly, the two kinds of beans have distinctly different growing habits. Knowing the difference can mean having a superb crop while not knowing how one is different than the other can lead to disappointment.
As the name implies, this kind of green bean grows as a compact, bushy plant that normally isn’t very tall. When the beans start getting produced, there can be a large number of beans to harvest without having to move very far down the row to gather a potful.
The downside of bush beans is that they require quite a bit of room between the plants, for the heaviest harvest. This is because the plant grows outward in bushy fashion. The root structure often tends to grow in the same way, so if the plants are too close together or if the rows aren’t spaced far enough apart, they can end up competing with one another for nutrients, sunlight and water. Bush beans have the potential to produce a lot of beans on each plant, but if they are cramped for space, they might produce considerably fewer beans than they are capable of.
Pole beans are designed to grow up rather than out. The plants typically grow vines that reach upward. They can also produce a good crop of beans, but the gardener will often need to harvest along more of the row in order to pick enough beans for a potful. They also have the disadvantage of needing support. If they don’t get the support that they need, the vines can trail along the ground and end up taking up more space than even bush beans, while twisting around almost anything they encounter.
They have an advantage, though. Provided that they get support, more plants can be grown in a smaller space. In reasonably fertile soil, the plants can be grown just two or three inches apart and can still have a maximum harvest. The supports aren’t difficult to make, but it does take a little more effort. They can grow up a pole, thus the name, and they take to growing on a trellis or wire fence. You can also use tall stakes with twine or string running parallel to the ground in several lines so they have something to wrap around in the process of growing taller.
The vertical growth pattern can also be a disadvantage if the beans are allowed to continue to grow upward. It might become difficult to harvest beans from the top of the plant without a step stool. As an example, look closely at the picture, shown again below. To save money, I pushed willow switches into the ground so that the top of each was about five feet above the soil. Twine was then tied horizontally between the switches for the beans to pull themselves up on. The beans were planted. As willow is prone to doing, the switches took root and grew. The beans also grew and they grew well.
In the picture, the long, narrow leaves are on the willow. The upper left foreground willow leaves are nearly eight feet off the ground. The two red circles show pole bean vines that have decided to use the willow for support and each of these is about seven feet above the ground at the point where I drew the circles. The lower circle (it is only lower because the bean is closer to the camera, so both bean vines are actually the same height at those points) shows that the bean is trailing out of the picture frame to the right, just above center. Each of these vines is also twisted a number of times around the willow, so if it was straightened out and measured from the ground to the tip, the right hand vine would be about eight and a half feet long. It is still growing, too.
I stand six feet three and a half inches tall and if the bean was allowed to continue growing upward, even I would need a stool to reach the beans at the top. Thankfully, it has grown as high as it can, because there is nothing above the willow for it to grasp onto. Still, this could be a disadvantage for people who have trouble reaching up that high. Of course the other beans that are now twisted firmly around the twine won’t be an issue for harvesting, but this shows just how long the vines can get under fairly good conditions. It would be easy for me to believe that some beans could grow vines in excess of 15 feet, since this location doesn’t have the best soil or perfect growing conditions.
The entire point is that when you grow beans, you should check to see if they are bush or pole beans and plant accordingly. Pole beans require plenty of support while bush beans don’t, but bush beans need plenty of space and pole beans don’t. Both can produce a great crop of tasty green beans, so it is entirely up to you, which you would prefer to grow.