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How to Grow Lima Beans

Climbing lima bean vines in a garden.
Climbing lima beans
Climbing lima bean vines in a garden.

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°F (18°C) 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 (.6m) 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 (3-3.6m) 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 (7-10cm) long to 5 to 8 inches (12-20cm) long depending upon the 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.

Bush lima beans
Bush lima beans when flowers begin to blossom

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 (15-21°C). 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°F (18°C) 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 (26°C) 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  (4-5cm) deep. Plant bush lima beans 3 to 6 inches (7-15cm) apart; set rows 24 to 30 inches (61-76cm) apart. Plant pole lima beans 6 to 10 inches (15-25cm) apart; set rows 30 to 36 inches (76-91cm) 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 (101cm) apart. Thin strong seedlings from 4 to 6 inches (10-15cm) 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 (16°C), 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 the 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

 

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69 Comments

  1. When do I know to give up and pull out lima bean plants in my garden. They still have flat pods and flowers. Are they still gonna make me some beans now that it’s mid-September?

  2. Lima beans–also known as butter beans–are grown for their immature seeds which are shelled out of the pod. Lima beans are best harvested when they are plump in the pod and the pod is still bright green. Harvest usually comes about 70 days after sowing for bush lima beans and 80 days after sowing for pole lima beans. Check the days to maturity of the variety you planted and do the quick math to estimate when their harvest is due. You can harvest lima beans a bit earlier than their expected maturity–young beans are more tender eating. Lima beans are very sensitive to frost and cold soil–so if you expect frost soon then it may be time to plan the harvest. If weather is not a factor and getting plants out of the garden is not a factor, let your lima beans grow on for a late harvest.

  3. wow this helped me so much with my science fair project. the only problem was that they grew very tall and i had no where to put them! i have a question. do beans like plant food because every time i put plant food in wit them they would instantly die. any advice on my project? my projects question is “how does the type of soil effect the plants growth?”

  4. Hi Anna: You have a very interesting project. If you can understand the relationship between plants and soil, you will understand the very basics of gardening and agriculture. The best analogy is: soil is the home where plants live. Just like you and I, a plant will thrive in a good home. You might take a look at one of my past posts on soil: http://www.harvestwizard.com/2008/04/your_soil_making_the_kitchen_g_1.html
    In short, soil has a very important effect on a plant’s growth: soil is where the nutrients and water a plant needs for life and growth are stored. If the proper nutrients and moisture are not in the soil, a plant will not thrive. How nutrients become available to plants has much to do with the structure and texture of the soil–sand, clay, and loam. You are probably discovering this in your project.
    As for beans and fertilizers: All plants will have a reaction to the plant food you give them–perhaps good, perhaps bad. Plant food or fertilizer usually has three main elements: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and a host of minor or trace elements. Read up on plant nutrients here: http://www.harvestwizard.com/2009/05/symptoms_of_nutrient_deficienc.html
    The food you gave the means may have been too rich in one of the nutrients or the beans may have reacted to the way the food was delivered. Often, a fertilizer too rich in nitrogen will burn plant roots and cause plants to die.
    Keep up the good work at school!

  5. It would help a very great deal, if you would post pictures, because I am not certain if I am growing Lima Beans, pole beans, runner beans, or?

  6. Thank you for your suggestion. Not a picture, but here are a few words on the growing habits of beans:
    -Bush beans are generally self-supporting; they do not require a pole or trellis.
    -Pole beans have twining vines–they will twine up a stake, string, wire,or trellis.
    -Runner beans are similar to pole beans (they require support) but they require cooler weather.
    -Half-runner beans are between pole and bush beans, a short tomato cage might help.
    -Lima beans can be bush or pole type; limas do not like cool weather.
    When you purchase your bean seeds or starts check to see if they are bush, pole, or runner, or half-runner and then give them the support if needed.

  7. I have 3 raised beds and am trying to rotate crops so as to not grow plants that are susceptible to the same diseases and pests in the same bed 2 yrs running.
    Do you know where I can find information listing plants that are affected by the same diseases and pests?

  8. Crop Rotation: Diseases and pests often attack the same vegetable plant families. If you avoid planting crops from the same family in the same spot two years running, you will reduce the risk for pests and diseases. Check the Topic index on the front page of this site and go to Crop Rotation to find a suggested rotation for the crops you are growing. As well you can look at the posts under Pests and Diseases to see the pest and disease problems that visit specific crop families.

  9. I’m doing a reaserch project for school on the effects of cotyledon removal on lima bean seedling growth by logging the daily growth of each plant and finding the daily growth average of each of the three groups (one that I remove one cotyledon, one that I remove both cotyledons, and one that is the control–no cotyledon removal).
    In addition, I am also collecting and averageing the fresh mass of the mature plants. The project is due in about one month and my plants have been above soil for about 20 days. Is it ok to take the mass of plants that are only 50-55 days old? They are dwarf Thorogreen Bush variety.

  10. When temperatures are high, expect your vegetable crops to slow in growth. Keep crops shaded when temperatures are greater than 95F, keep plants thoroughly watered–don’t let the soil dry, and mulch to slow soil moisture evaporation. Check the Topics Index to see the articles on Hot Weather Gardening.

  11. Have never succeeded with beans. But tried again just now. Beans sprout, bugs destroy them in short order.

    How can I help the young bean plants survive the bug onslaught?

    • If the beans are destroyed shortly after they sprout, a cutworm may be at work. See my post on controlling cutworms; go to the topic page and find cutworms. If the bean leaves have large holes or are skeletonized then flea beetles, bean leaf beetles, Mexican bean beetles, or Japanese beetles may be the problem. Early in the season, exclude these pests from your beans by placing light poly row covers over the seedlings and sealing the edges so they can’t get in. Later, check your garden every day for these pests and handpick and destroy them. A heavy infestation can be put down or controlled with a spray of insecticidal soap or neem oil–be sure to spray both sides of the leaves.

  12. I have successfully managed to grow a gorgous crop of large limas..my question is..how do i go about drying them so i can store them? Would hate for them to go to waste..thanks for any info that might help

    • The outer skin of the lima bean will lengthen the drying time and rehydration process–and lower the quality of the rehydrated limas.
      Use dark green, plump pods that are well filled. Wash, shell, and wash again. Pre-treatment: Water blanch for 3 to 5 minutes or steam blanch 2 to 4 minutes. Drying Temperature: Dry at 140F (60C) for 2 to 3 minutes or steam blanch 2 to 4 minutes. Limas should be hard and brittle after drying. Use rehydrated beans in soups or stews.

    • It will take the fava bean plant about 4 months to produce a crop. Harvest pods that are filled out. The harvest time of one plant could extend over a month. If you want a continuous harvest, stagger the planting of your crop. Allow two weeks between each planting then you will extend the harvest.

  13. I just started a bunch of seeds, all different kinds. After reading this I think I started my lima beans too early. Its been 4 days and already they have sprouted and are huge. I wasn’t expecting that. Think I am going to have to transplant them a few times to different sized pots until I can plant them outside. Its almost 2 months until the last frost. I hope they can last under the heat lamp durning the night for that long!!

    • A simple answer is to apply a vegetable crop fertilizer that includes calcium. Vegetable crops want a fertilizer higher in phosphorus and potassium than nitrogen. You will find several organic fertilizers at your garden center that will do the job. Then just follow the directions. One tip: it’s best to slightly under-fertilize than over-fertilize.

  14. I have been looking allover the internet for a website which would tell me one simple thing how much to water the quickest growing lima bean sprout breed, but every single website (including this one) I have looked on has said “just enough so that it is not too wet” or “not too much so the soil is moist but not too moist” I am trying to find out how much you should water a lima bean sprout. Please, If anyone can help me I am begging for your service.
    Sincerely, Anonymous

    • How much to water a plant depends on soil texture and the temperature of the soil and of the air. That is why you are not finding a formula. Every garden has different soil texture and soil moisture holding capacity. And soil and air temperatures are constantly in flux. You can use your finger to determine if the soil is too wet or too dry. If the soil is too dry no soil particles will stick to your finger when you plunge it into the soil and remove it. If the soil is too wet, your finger will be glistening with moisture when you remove it from the soil. Just right soil moisture will leave your finger with particles of soil clinging to your finger.

    • That’s what I’ve been wondering but I can’t find it anywhere! I begging somebody to help me. I need to know how much water to feed lima beans.

      • When growing soy beans, keep the soil just moist–do not allow the soil to totally dry out but do not let the roots sit in overly wet or mucky soil. To do this your water application will vary over the course of the growing season. Early on when roots are shallow, less water is required–but you will likely need to water more often to keep the soil moist (and prevent total solar evaporation of soil moisture), as roots grow deeper you will not need to water as often but you will need to water deeper–that is deep enough that moisture is always available to roots. The delivery of nearly all nutrients is via the uptake of soil moisture into the plant. Stem, leaf, and pod development all depend upon consistent moisture. You can measure soil moisture by simply sticking your finger in the soil to determine if it is dry, moist, or wet. Just moist is your best course. Soil rich in aged compost will hold soil moisture without being overly wet.

    • I suggest you not try to can the already dried lima beans. You can save the already dry seeds for sowing next season.

      There is a process for drying lima beans for later use but it involves washing and blanching the plump bean before drying. Your beans have already passed the mark for such preparation.

      If the beans are hard and brittle, you can soak them to rehydrate them. The quality of dry lima beans after rehydration is far less than if the beans had been canned fresh. Rehydrated lima beans can be used in soups and stews.

    • Baby lima beans are dwarf lima beans (lima beans come in dwarf, small, and large). Baby lima or dwarf lima beans may also be called sieva beans or Caroline beans. Two varieties you can grow are Baby Thorogreen and Henderson’s Baby Lima Beans–look online to find the seeds.

    • There is no anecdotal or research evidence that comfrey is a suitable companion for lima beans. However, that does not mean that comfrey is not a suitable companion. Comfrey roots accumulates calcium, phosphorous, and potassium. Those nutrients are beneficial to fruiting vegetables.

  15. I just started my Lima bean plant like two days ago and I noticed one has small roots already, when do I know it’s time to put them in the soil? What will it look like when it’s ready to be in the soil?

    • Lima beans started indoors should not be planted out into the garden until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed to 60°F (16°C). The optimal soil temperature for growing lima beans is 70°F to 80°F (16-18°C). Once the soil temperature is warm enough and nighttime temperatures stay above 65F, you can safely transplant out beans. A bean seedling should be 4 to 6 inches tall at the time of transplanting.

  16. My lima beans are dry and cracked even though I water them. I have been growing them for three days, but I am worried that they won’t grow at all.

    • Lima bean seeds should be covered by a half inch of soil at planting time. The soil should be kept evenly moist until germination and then until the plant is about 12 inches tall and the roots are established. You can cut back slightly on watering once the plant is established.

    • You can eat beans after a frost if the frost was light and not extended. A heavy or deep frost could leave the pods cold-burnt and a bit leathery–a freeze can suck moisture out of plant cells. If the beans don’t look frost bitten, they should be good to eat.

  17. My lima beans have leaves are turning yellow and have Brown spots i had white powdery mildew so I sprayed soap and baking soda in water mixture but that has not helped anything else you can suggest..?

  18. I have a bunch of Lima beans growing. I’m not sure how to make sure they’re prepared properly so that they are safe to eat. People have told me that they contain cyanide which is freaking me out because they are one of the only vegetables my daughter will eat. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Prepare green, freshly shelled lima beans by steaming or simmering in a little water or broth until they are tender. (1 pound of fresh Lima beans will be tender in about an hour when simmered.) If the Lima beans are dry soak them for about 8 hours in water–to soften the shell–then put 2 cups water and a half teaspoon of salt (for 2 pounds of Lima beans) in a medium saucepan and add the beans. Cook the beans until tender, about 30 minutes. Drain the liquid and add butter. Raw lima beans contain linamarin, which when consumed decomposes into the toxic chemical hydrogen cyanide. Whenever in doubt cook Lima beans for at least 10 minutes and they will be safe–cooking Lima beans until tender will almost always take more than 10 minutes.

  19. What kind of beans grow on the ground and bloom out in pods? Opened a few and they were little green beans of some kind. Does the pods open on their own, or is it okay to open and take the bean out? How do I preserve them for later use? Thanks

    • Any number of beans can grow along the ground. Pollinated flowers develop into pods; you may see some flowers and pods on the same plant. Bean seeds in pods mature, ripen, and in time the pod will break open and drop the mature bean seed. You can allow the pod and beans inside to mature, ripen, and the pods to dry then you can save the seed for planting next year. To identify the bean plant you have, take leaves, flowers, and pods to the nearby Cooperative Extension Service or Master Gardener group or to a nearby nursery–a plant expert will likely be able to identify the variety of bean you have.

  20. Very good article. Although here in tropical Australia we grow the perennial, indeterminate type of lima beans, it being early winter now, mid-June, I am trying the bush annual type. Since it isn’t grown here there is no available information. Is the 80°F=27°C limit to pod setting you quote absolute? Variety is unknown but they are largish, white and flat dry. It will probably reach that temperature about 60-70 days from now. Thanks.

    • Lima beans are self-pollinating–and bees can help. If the weather is very hot, the pollen may be dying or drying up before it can reach the pistil (the female part of the flower). If the weather is hot, then pollination should occur when the temperatures come down–into the 80sF. Flowers will also not set fruit if they are stressed–too much or too little water, too much nitrogen in the soil. When flowers open you can give the flowers (or the plant) a gentle shake, this will help the pollen to fall. Feed the plant a dilute solution of fish emulsion or kelp meal to keep it healthy in the meantime.

  21. My pole Lima’s areup 10 feet and some drape back to the ground should I break off the ends at a certain length? The growth is so thick it’s hard to get to the middle

    • When the plant reaches the height you want or the top of the support, then begin nipping off new growth. This will allow the plant to put its energy into fruit production rather than leafy growth. Use a prune to make sharp cuts.

    • Check the days to maturity for the variety you are growing. If you have several weeks left before maturity, wait. If the plant is at or past the days to maturity, it is likely the seeds in the pods failed to mature. There are several possible reasons: temperatures too hot, not enough moisture, or other environmental stress. Feed the plants a dilute solution of fish emulsion; this may speed up the maturation of the seeds.

  22. can you please help me by talking about the ratio of clay to soil i should keep while growing my plant. i need this for my science clas to write down my conclusions. thank you!

  23. When my Ford hook Lima beans come through the earth and split in the middle and leaves start to grow up, a lot of times the bean parts on either side will spot brown and rot or dry brown and then fall off. Does this effect the growing or any part of the bean growing process. The middle part is growing green and appears to be fine? I’m not sure if this always happens or not…..but I have noticed this and limas are my favorite, but hard to grow sometimes! I have never seen this question, so thank you in advance!

    • It is natural for the bean seed coat to dry and fall away; sometimes they stick to the newly forming leaf for some time. This will not affect the plant’s growth or maturation.

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