The lima bean is a tender annual. Sow lima beans in the garden 3 to 4 weeks after the average date of the last frost in spring when the soil temperature has warmed to 65° or more for at least 5 days and daytime temperatures are consistently warm. Start lima beans indoors as early as 2 to 3 weeks before the average last frost date in spring for transplanting into the garden. Lima beans require 60 to more than 90 warm, frost-free days to reach harvest depending upon type and variety.
Description. Lima beans are tender annuals grown for their flat, crescent-oval-shaped seeds. There are two types of lima beans: bush and pole or vine varieties. Bush types grow to about 2 feet tall and tend to have smaller seeds; they bear more quickly than pole lima bean varieties. Pole lima beans have large seeds and can grow 10 to 12 feet high. Small-seeded limas, usually bush types, are also called butter beans, sieva beans, Burma beans, Madagascar beans, Carolina beans, and “baby limas.” Large-seeded lima beans are sometimes called potato limas. Large-seeded limas are often sold as dry beans. Lima beans have pale green pods that vary from 3 to 4 inches long to 5 to 8 inches long depending upon variety. Lima bean seeds are eaten, not the pods. Leaves are commonly composed of three leaflets and the flowers are white. Bush lima bean varieties are ready for harvest from 60 to 80 days from sowing; pole bean varieties are ready for harvest in 85 to 90 days.
Yield. Grow 4 to 8 lima bean plants per each household member.
Planting Lima Beans
Site. Grow lima beans in full sun; they will grow in partial shade but the harvest will not be full. Lima beans prefer loose, well-drained soil rich in organic matter. Beans prefer a soil pH of 6.0 to 6.8. Prepare planting beds in advance by working in plenty of aged compost. Avoid planting beans where soil nitrogen is high or where green manure crops have just grown; these beans will produce green foliage but few beans.
Planting time. Lima beans are a tender annual that grows best in air temperatures between 60° and 70°F. Sow lima beans in the garden 3 to 4 weeks after the average date of the last frost in spring when the soil temperature has warmed to 65° or more for at least 5 days. Start beans indoors as early as 2 or 3 weeks before the average last frost date in spring for transplanting into the garden 3 or 4 weeks after the last frost. Start beans indoors in a biodegradable peat or paper pot that can be set whole into the garden so as not to disturb plant roots. For continuous harvest through the growing season, sow succession crop bush lima beans every two weeks or follow bush lima beans with long-maturing pole lima beans. Beans can continue in the garden until the first frost in fall. Pole lima beans require a long growing period and are not a good choice where the season is short. Lima beans will not set pods in temperatures above 80°F or in cold or wet weather. Time your plantings to avoid hot weather. In mild-winter regions, lima beans can be sown in autumn for winter harvest.
Planting and spacing. Sow lima beans 1½ to 2 inches deep. Plant bush lima beans 3 to 6 inches apart; set rows 24 to 30 inches apart. Plant pole lima beans 6 to 10 inches apart; set rows 30 to 36 inches apart. Set poles, stakes, or supports in place at planting time. Pole beans also can be planted in inverted hills–5 or 6 seeds to a hill; space hills 40 inches apart. Thin strong seedlings from 4 to 6 inches apart. Remove weaker seedlings by cutting them off at soil level with scissors being careful not to disturb the roots of other seedlings. Bean can be crowded; they will use each other for support.
Companion plants. Bush beans: cucumbers, corn, cucumbers, celery, potatoes, summer savory. Pole beans: corn, scarlet runner beans, summer savory, sunflowers. Do not plant beans with onions, beets, or kohlrabi.
Container growing. Bush lima beans can be grown in containers, but you may need several containers for a practical harvest. Beans will grow in 8-inch containers.
Lima Bean Care
Water and feeding. Grow lima beans in soil that is evenly moist and well-drained. Bean seeds may crack and germinate poorly if the soil moisture is too high at sowing. Do not soak seeds in advance of planting or they may crack; do not over-water after sowing. Keep the soil evenly moist during flowering and pod formation. Rain or overhead irrigation during flowering can cause flowers and small pods to fall off. Once the soil temperature averages greater than 60°F, mulch to conserve moisture.
Beans are best fertilized with aged garden compost; they do not require extra nitrogen. Beans set up a mutual exchange with soil microorganisms called nitrogen-fixing bacteria that produce the soil nitrogen beans require. Avoid using green manures or nitrogen-rich fertilizers.
Care. Large lima bean seed may have trouble pushing through soil that has not been well worked; at sowing, cover the seeds with sand, vermiculite, or a peat moss-vermiculite mix instead. Cultivate around beans carefully to avoid disturbing the shallow root system. Do not handle beans when they are wet; this may spread fungus spores. Set poles, stakes, or trellises in place before planting pole beans. Select supports that are tall enough for the variety being grown. Rotate beans to plots where lettuce, squash, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, or collards have grown in the past year or two.
Pests. Beans can be attacked by aphids, bean beetles, flea beetles, leafhoppers and mites. Aphids, leafhoppers, and mites can be sprayed away with a blast of water from the hose or controlled with insecticidal soap. Look for eggs and infestations and crush them between your fingers and thumb. Pinch out and remove large infestations. Aphids can spread bean mosaic virus. Keep the garden clean and free of debris so that pests can not harbor or over-winter in the garden.
Diseases. Beans are susceptible to blight, mosaic, and anthracnose. Plant disease-resistant varieties. Keep the garden clean and free of debris. Avoid handling plants when they are wet so as not to spread fungal spores. Removed diseased plants; put them in a paper bag and throw them away. Beans are susceptible to many soil-borne diseases; rotating beans so that they do not grow in the same location more than every three years will reduce soil-borne diseases.
Harvesting and Storing Lima Beans
Harvest. Bush lima beans will be ready for harvest 60 to 80 after sowing; pole beans will be ready for harvest 85 to 90 days after sowing seed. Pick lima beans when pods are plump and firm. Continue to pick pods as soon as they become plump to extend flowering and the production of new pods. When seeds mature, the plant will die. Pods left too long will result in seeds that are tough and mealy. Bush lima beans should produce 2 or 3 pickings in a season.
Storing and preserving. Unshelled lima beans will keep in the refrigerator for one week. Shelled lima beans can be blanched and frozen for up to 3 months. Dried shelled limas can be stored in a cool, dry place for 10 to 12 months.
Lima Bean Varieties to Grow
- Pole lima beans: ‘Aubrey Deane' (87 days); ‘Carolina' (79 days); ‘Christmas' (88 days); ‘Florida Butter' (85 days); ‘Illinois Giant' (86 days); ‘King of the Garden' (90 days); ‘Prizetaker' (90 days).
- Bush lima beans (plump seeded): ‘Excel Northern Fresh' (72 days); ‘Fordhook Improved' (75 days); ‘Potato Lima' (75 days).
- Bush lima beans (small-seeded): ‘Baby Bush' (67 days); ‘Henderson Bush' (65 days); ‘Jackson Wonder' (65 days), ‘Willow-Leaf White' (86 days).
Common name. Bean, lima bean, butter bean, sieva bean
Botanical name. Phaseolus lunatus
Origin. South Mexico, Central America