The Lima Bean Plant — How To Grow Lima Beans

Last Updated on December 8, 2021 by Grow with Bovees

One of the first childhood memories most of us share was reading the story of Jack and The Beanstalk.

It might therefore come as a surprise to you that not all beans grow on vines, including some varieties of the Lima Bean plant.

Not only is growing them effortless, but they are also healthy and highly nutritious, containing high levels of iron, fiber, minerals, and protein. 

What is a Lima Bean?

Representing a significant portion of the total dry bean agriculture, Lima beans aka Butter Beans, are a major bean crop of California, grown primarily for the dried edible white bean.

The bean itself is usually between 1cm and 3 cms in length and is an oval shape.

The pods which contain the beans are generally around 5 – 6 inches long.

A lot of people get confused, and as a result, there are many inquiries as to the difference between growing butter beans vs lima beans.

However, essentially they are one in the same thing, but come in different varieties of sizes and colors, hence the confusion.

In some areas, the term ‘butter bean’ is used to describe the smaller seeded varieties.

Generally, lima beans are divided into two market classes, small limas – young (baby) beans, and large limas. Both classes can come from vine types and bush types.

Where do Lima Beans Come From? – A Short History

Originally Lima beans were named after the capital city of Peru (Lima) where they have been grown for centuries in the optimal warm soil temperature of the region.

The lima bean gene pool as we know it, (aka bush beans), were ‘domesticated’ into valuable crops in Peru and North America centuries ago, but their popularity diminished, until recently that is, when they became, and still are, an important part of most vegetarian diets.

It is due to this reason, along with the general health benefits of Lima beans, that there are now various delicious recipes for; vegans, vegetarians and non-vegetarians, alike, in which they feature.

What Conditions Do Lima Beans Grow Best In

Originating in Peru, it is no surprise that this annual warm-season bean plant thrives in; hot weather, loose soil, and a ground temperature not lower than 65 degrees Fahrenheit, in order to activate the germination process.

While the pole bean variety is highly valued and popular, bush-type varieties tend to be the better performers in the average person’s garden space. 

While lima and snap beans are similar in many aspects, lima beans do have the specific weather requirements of hotter seasons and longer summers.

Yields will vary considerably when exposed to cooler temperatures, the danger of frost, wet weather and lack of air circulation, performing poorly during a cooler-than-normal summer or during the frost in spring. 

For gardeners who love the buttery taste and want to plant lima beans, it’s worth consulting seed catalogs, or seeking out a garden center with a wide seed selection, to find the best varieties for the climate of your particular garden.

Variety Selection of Lima Beans

Bushy varieties (also referred to as butter beans), have smaller seeds and reach about 2 feet in height, while vining types & pole lima beans, have larger seeds and can reach up to 10 to 12 feet tall.

Resistant variety seed selection is continually evaluated for increased yield projection to improve seed quality, pest, and disease resistance.

Of the many types of lima beans available, the single difference between wax beans, (also known as yellow beans) and green beans is that wax beans do not contain chlorophyll.

Primarily Lima beans grow as a single summer crop.

When practicing crop cultivation alternate pole lima beans with bush lima beans, or sow a succession of bush lima beans every two weeks to allow a continuous crop rotation for not longer than three years at a time.

Select seeds for your bean patch with good plant growth and high yield potential.

Bush Lima Beans vs Pole Beans

A lima bush bean variety, “Hendersons Bush”, is a small white bean variety with essential disease-resistant qualities to grow for the purpose of dried beans.

Of the two main lima perennial beans, the bush type is usually regarded as an annual even in warm climates and dry weather.

Visually pole beans have a larger seed and maintain a longer growing season compared to bush-types lima beans, which, in clean well-prepared soil can be treated as a perennial for 2 or 3 seasons, is usually defined as pole ima.

The bush types –which are the small-seeded limas have several other names and are also known as sieva beans, butter beans, Carolina beans, Madagascar beans, Burma beans, and Chad beans to name a few.

All You Need To Know About Cultivars To Select

When planting it is suggested to grow lima beans from seed and to follow bush lima beans (Burpee Fordhook 242) with pole beans (King of the Garden).

King of the Garden is a long maturing pole lima bean variety that produces very large white beans on 8-10 vines and is considered the best freezing bean variety and produces a good heavy yield.

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This vigorous, vine-type pole lima bean grips well to poles and does not require staking to grow. The delicious fresh pods ripen form from the bottom of the vine and you’ll be able to harvest lima beans until or before the last frost season.

Growing Tips

When you plant lima beans, Fordhook is a popular heat-tolerant cultivar and considered one of the best lima beans available with large greenish-white seeds and grows larger, fuller beans. 

These lima beans bush-type plants produce successful heavy yields of pods with 3-5 bright-green seeds per pod. 

These bush upright varieties plants grow 20 inches tall and require no trellising. 

Due to their shape and size, the pole lima beans are also called potato limas, can grow or vine up to 12 feet high and are often sold as kidney beans.

Planting Potato Limas

Lima beans or baby limas are is the term for the flat, kidney‐shaped bean, smaller ones are sometime referred to as butter limas.

While in the UK they are mostly referred to as butter beans or for the larger lima bean seeds, as potato limas.

Large lima beans have an earthy flavor whereas baby limas are considered milder and less starchy.

More Lima Bean Varieties

Other popular pole varieties include Christmas, Sieva, and Big Mama. Jackson Wonder Bush Beans is another good quality bush type and has a larger seed variety.

Henderson Bush’ Beans is an early maturing cultivar, known for its small white seed and is popular for being an extremely productive cultivar.

Depending on the type, when you harvest lima beans the lima beans generally have pale green pods that can range from three to eight inches tall.

Where Lima Bean Varieties Grow Best

Part of the legume family, the bean plants have adapted to living in many climates around the world.

Keep soil moist during lima bean plant care, avoid stony fields and clay matter or areas with a history of high weed populations, especially quackgrass.

Pole lima beans can be planted with other crops like scarlet runner beans, summer savory,  corn, and even sunflower.

Do not plant beans together with onions or beets nor should the pods be consumed.

Like green beans, the butter bean also grow in a pod and can be more accurately called shell beans because of their fibrous and inedible pod that has to be removed.

Lima Varieties To Try

Scarlet runner beans grow at higher elevations compared to other beans and are a tender plant native to the mountains of Mexico and Central America.

Besides growing as a plant food in your vegetable garden, more recently it is mostly grown as an ornamental for its showy sprays of colored flowers.

About two months after sowing, plants produce scarlet red and occasionally white flowers and the vines can get up to 15 feet in length climbing on trellis support.

Scarlet runners can be eaten fresh as young pods, or steamed, roasted, and can be frozen. Once the beans mature it can be used in cooking stews and many other recipes. 

Bean Plant Care and Maintenance

Predominately everyday beans grow best in well-drained clay loam, in other words, soil that allows water to drain at a modest rate and without water causing puddling.

This is almost sandy soil with a coarser texture that does not drain too quickly or too slowly which is key to an abundant harvest.

Any organic production of bean crops requires manures and slow-releasing materials to be added into the soil in advance of planting.

Soil tests prior to planting lima beans will allow for the development of nutrient management plans, applying several types of animal or poultry manure several months in advance.

In most cases, it is often all the nutrient requirements their shallow roots will need.

Plant Behaviour

Although a large percentage of the plant’s nitrogen is found in the seed up to 50 percent of the total requirement of nitrogen needed for a lima bean plant will come from the nitrogen-fixing nodules on the plant roots while the rest has to be supplied by other sources of nitrogen.

In well-draining soil, limas have the ability to get nitrogen from the air.

To ensure sufficient access to nitrogen, nitrogen-rich fertilizer is often added to ensure the plant receives the correct balance of nitrogen to promote rapid growth and high yields, especially during hot weather periods when nitrogen fixation is an everyday occurrence.

Bean plants require relatively few pesticides and are also an important rotation crop for farmers because the plants repair and replace levels of nitrogen and add biomass to the soil.

Land Selection For Growing Lima Beans

Because of their origin from Central America, lima beans need a 2 – 3 months long warm growing season and are sensitive to cold temperatures and frost.

Bush beans develop vigorous and extensive root systems, thrive in medium to light, loamy soils which are well supplied with organic matter that is able to absorb and hold moisture.

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Saturated soils or soil evenly moist are important for bean growth because water replaces oxygen between soil particles, it is, therefore, important to select fields that have overall fertility, loose soil, slope, and efficient drainage.

Evenly moist and rotate crops to prevent root rot diseases. Avoid fields that previously had crops where with white mold. 

Excess water can cause scalding damage as a result of high-temperature injury during the rainy season or flooding.

Soil And Site Preparation

As a general rule, lima beans grow in the optimum soil pH range between 6.5 –and 7.5 in fields with no recent history of previous pole bean production.

Compost, green manure, or any similar aged garden compost has to be added into less fertile soils to produce sufficient vegetative growth for higher yields, especially when growing pole lima beans.

Depending on the bean variety, in good soil conditions, the pole-type lima bean produces dense green foliage cover of leaves and vines and therefore needs strong support.

A strong, solid fence with a treated pole framework is ideal for this purpose.

It can be constructed for beds in advance, particularly as it is usually placed on the edge of the vegetable garden where the beans will not cause partial shade on other neighboring crops.

How To Plant Lima Beans

As a green manure crop, lima beans require evenly moist aged garden compost to be worked into the beds in advance.

To grow lima beans the rows in your vegetable garden should be spaced 2 feet apart, the seeds spaced 2 to 4 inches from each other within the row at a soil depth of 1 – 1 1/2 inches.

After germination, leave the two strongest plants to grow on to maturity. Remove the weaker seedling and thin beds in advance to 4 to 6 inches between plants.  

In doing so you encourage the plants to develop fully and promote suitable soil moisture.

All lima beans grow from seeds in advance which is usually sown directly into the area of wet soil where the plants are to mature or until they are ready for harvest.

Early plantings of pole-type lima beans can however be started under protection in a peat pot, Jiffy 7s or Jiffy Pots.

Best Planting Time for Sowing Lima Bean Seeds

The seed for dwarf cultivars can be sown when all danger from the last frost has passed, and for continuous harvest, sowings can continue until early summer.

The crescent oval-shaped seeds of the pole variety usually are large, and the seed pods, when fresh, are white with a maroon spot at one end.

Depending on soil moisture and weather conditions by end of spring or the last frost date to early summer is the most favorable period for sowing in most areas.

This allows for the crop to be harvested before cold weather or even frost comes along to before you need to cut back the tops.

The young limas require plants to grow a strong root system before these hostile conditions stop growth.

They also need 1 inch of water per week during blossoming and pod development to be supplied by either rain or irrigation.

Approximately 65 to 75 days after planting Bush-type lima beans should be ready to harvest although during hot, dry conditions blossoming may be affected and cause many of the flowers to drop off without setting pods.

Pest and Disease 

Just like green beans, the most common pests that affect beans are summer worms, bean leaf beetles, and spider mites. 

Insecticide applications should be avoided where possible because they may be harmful to other beneficial insects and pollinators.

Monitor bean beetles and bug populations on bean plants weekly and should your lima beans require intervention, in less severe cases a simple blast of water or soapy water on affected areas will control infestations.

Bean rust is one of the most common diseases found in South America and the first symptoms may appear on leaf surfaces as small yellow or white spots.

These “rust” areas enlarge and become more raised and grow up to form 1/8 in diameter rust-colored spots.

Lima beans of both types are considerably more attractive to aphids, usually grey in colour, than green beans, and severe infestations can build up within a few days during hot, dry weather.

Malathion in the form of a spray will give good control provided that a wetting agent is used and provided that another application is given after 5-7 days.

Control Pest and Disease In Lima Bean Plants

Except for a single layer of mulch, keep your garden area clean from debris and dead leaves.

Several serious pests and diseases may affect your bean yield. the most common seed-borne diseases are a bacterial blight and a mosaic virus, generally spread into the crop which is then spread by aphids.

Invest in certified disease-free seed to prevent the spreading of the bean mosaic virus.

Soilborne seedling diseases include Fusarium root or dry rot or white mold and spread by fungal spore.

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Keep your garden clean from Mexican bean beetles and diseased plants.

Further Tips on How To Grow Lima Beans

Throughout growth pole lima beans require fertile and nematode-free soil, plant seeds 1 inch deep and roughly 10 inches apart.

Regularly remove the dead tops and occasionally thin out the plant if vegetative growth becomes too thick, especially in mature plants.

Excessive nitrogen-rich fertilization promotes lush green foliage growth, but may also prevent or hinder pod formation.

Avoid planting the beans in soil that is not rich in nitrogen or where green manure crops have finished growing, as these depleted conditions will produce green foliage with fewer beans.

They also grow much faster than most beans. Kidney beans which is on of the larger varieties need more growing space and take longer to mature.

When are Bean Plants Ready for Harvest?

It’s always time to harvest fresh lima beans when the crop of pods is fully formed and bright green.

Usually, Dwarf bush beans are ready for the pot 1/2 month after sowing, whereas pole lima bean varieties normally need about a month longer to mature.

The bean pods should be harvested frequently from the lima bean plants when seeds are fully grown but before the lima bean pods turn yellow.

Your bush lima bean variety is ready for harvest when the pod of lima beans turns to a light green color stage.

The seeds should still be succulent when harvesting and are shelled more easily if the pods are allowed to wilt for a day or two after picking.

Only the seeds of the lima bean pods are edible, not the pods, in the case of both pole cultivars and bush lima bean varieties because of the tough and fibrous texture of the bean pods.

The seeds, when young, are delicious and surpass, to my mind, even the finest broad beans in both texture and flavor.

How to Harvest Lima Beans

Like most other legumes, dried lima beans are a good source of dietary fiber and are low in fat with high-quality protein. 

There is no specific time to harvest lima beans because not all pods mature at the same pace.  

These flats bean are mainly green or light green and is used only for the seed. 

The two main bean plants varieties, a climbing or pole variety and a dwarf or bush variety (which is used in commercial canning).

When the lima bean pods are matured to give the maximum number of medium and small size beans are harvested like peas by cutting the vines close to the ground.

Phaseolus lunatus, or more widely known as the beans lima plants produce, is a shell bush bean type plant that has small flat edible seeds grown primarily for its edible seed (dried beans).

More Tips When Harvesting for Dried Beans

growing butter beans vs lima beans like these

The harvest yield of lima bean plants is largely determined by weather conditions and grows best when temperatures are between 70 and 80 F.

Lima beans can be shelled out or allowed to mature and dry. It has a somewhat longer growing season than common beans, requires warm soils and warm weather conditions.

Since they perform better in some areas, many gardeners have turned to vegetable soybeans or shelled beans as a replacement for fresh limas,

when you notice that the seed color has changed from pale green pods to cream or white, and the pods are starting to bulge into the familiar shape of the seed it is time to harvest 

If your aim is for dry lima beans or otherwise known as dried limas, allow the lima bean pod to dry completely, before you need to thresh as you would regular beans. 

Health and Process 

When you get to this point in the process it means you’ve had a successful harvest 

Raw lima beans, along with the plant roots are toxic to both humans and animals and contain a compound called linamarin, which turns into cyanide when consumed.

Lima beans have a higher protein content than other beans, so you can use them as an alternative for soybeans or other legumes if you want more protein.

Like pole beans, raw lima beans are toxic if not boiled for at least 10 minutes. 

When cooking all types of lima beans it removes any traces on the fresh beans that may contain small amounts of toxic glucosides. Cooking destroys the enzymes that would release the cyanide.

Dry Beans For Storage

Mature lima beans have the same versatility as dry beans can be used in stews, soups, and many more healthy dishes.

When you have more lima beans than you can manage, you store the dry beans for many months.

Unshelled lima beans can be stored for periods of time at 32 F in an airtight container, while excess beans can be shelled, frozen, or preserved (canned).  

You’ll become spoiled with the quick access to your homegrown, fresh-shelled frozen beans ready for cooking and you won’t be buying butter beans any time soon!

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