Home-grown lima beans are a summer treat! This is an easy to grow vegetable that yields a heavy crop of buttery beans that can be enjoyed as fresh shell beans or as dried beans. If lima beans are on your list of crops to grow in your vegetable garden, I’ve got plenty of lima beans planting and growing tips to help you be successful. Keep reading to learn more.
What are lima beans?
Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus) are a heat-loving vegetable grown between the frost dates of spring and autumn. This crop does best in a temperature range of 70 to 80 F (21 to 27 C) and won’t yield well in regions with cool summers.
They’re an easy to grow crop, similar to snap beans, but unlike snap beans it’s not the pods of lima beans which are eaten, but the interior seeds. Those seeds range from small to very large, depending on the variety and have a buttery, meaty texture. Nutrient-rich lima beans are packed with protein and enjoyed as summer shell beans or dried beans, but they must be cooked before you eat them. Raw lima beans contain a cyanide compound which is destroyed in the cooking process.
There are several types of lima beans and many varieties. Some have white seeds, while others have pale green, brown, black, red, and even speckled seeds. Lima bean pods have a curved, flat appearance and range in length from 3 to 8 inches.
Types of lima beans
Lima beans are grouped into two categories: bush beans and vining beans. The plants of bush lima beans, also called butter beans, grow about 20 inches tall and yield an early crop of small-sized seeds. Vining plants, also known as pole varieties, have plants that can grow 10 to 12 feet long and take an additional month to mature their medium to large sized seeds. These are also called potato limas, Madagascar beans, or Burma beans.
Lima beans planting time
As a warm weather crop, don’t rush lima beans into the garden too early. Plant them a week or two after the risk of frost has passed. Because that can be hard to predict, I go by soil temperature and use a soil thermometer to monitor the temperature. Sow seeds when the soil has warmed to 75 F (24 C). If the soil is cold or wet for an extended period of time, the seeds can rot. Gardeners who live in mild climates with long summers can succession plant a second crop a month after the first sowing.
Gardeners in short season areas can get a jump on lima beans planting by sowing the seeds indoors 3 to 4 weeks before the last frost date. Sow the seeds in soil blocks, 4 inch diameter pots, or biodegradable containers like a peat pot. Fill containers with a high quality seed starting mix. Place the containers beneath a grow light or in a sunny window. Harden off the seedlings and transplant them to the garden when the soil temperature warms to 75 F (24 C).
Should you use an inoculant?
Both types of lima beans benefit from the application of a legume inoculant to help boost plant growth. Inoculants are particularly useful when beans, like lima beans, are planted in a site where legumes haven’t been grown before. Inoculants contain naturally occurring Rhizobia bacteria which fix nitrogen in the soil. To apply an inoculant, place the seeds in a container. Dampen them with non-chlorinated water and sprinkle the inoculant on the seeds. Shake gently to evenly distribute the inoculant and plant immediately.
Lima beans planting site
When choosing a spot to plant lima bean seeds, look for one that offers full sun, at least 8 hours of direct light. Lima bean plants grow in lower light conditions but they produce fewer pods. You can plant lima beans in an in-ground garden, raised beds, or containers. It’s important to offer the plants well-draining soil that is moderately fertile. I work in several inches of compost or rotted manure prior to planting. The ideal soil pH range for lima beans is 6.0 to 6.8.
Bush lima beans planting tips
Like bush snap beans, bush lima beans are easy to grow. Sow the seeds in the prepared bed planting them 1 inch deep and 3 inches apart, and space each row 18 to 30 inches apart. Bush lima beans are also a good crop for containers, fabric planters, and window boxes. Select containers that have drainage holes and hold at least 10 gallons of growing medium. Plant the seeds 1 inch deep and 4 to 6 inches apart in pots. You can also grow vining lima beans in pots, but you’ll need to place the pot at the base of a trellis or insert a vertical structure for the plants to climb.
Pole lima beans planting tips
Before you sow seeds for vining types of lima beans, set up the support system. Waiting until the plants are actively growing can result in damaged seedlings. You can use a pole bean teepee, chain link fence, or trellis. After prepping the soil, direct sow the seeds. Plant them 1 to 1 1/2 inches deep and 6 inches apart at the base of the trellis. As for germination time, both bush and vining types of lima beans germinate in 8 to 12 days, depending on soil temperature.
Growing lima beans
Lima beans are a low maintenance crop and don’t require much fussing during the growing season. The main tasks are watering, weeding, fertilizing, and monitoring for pests and diseases.
Watering lima beans
A lightly moist soil is ideal for lima bean plants, so water deeply each week if there has been no rain. It’s particularly important to water consistently when the plants are blossoming and fruiting. Water stress at this stage of growth can result in lower pod development or dropped flowers. You can water by hand or use a soaker hose, and you may wish to mulch the plants with straw or shredded leaves to reduce watering.
Weeding and mulching
Using two to three inches of straw or shredded leaf mulch to hold soil moisture also has the added effect of preventing weed growth. If you don’t use a mulch, pull weeds as they appear so they don’t compete with your lima bean plants for light, water, and nutrients.
Moderately fertile soil is fine for lima beans, but since the plants are in the garden for 2 1/2 to 4 months, depending on whether you’re growing bush or pole lima beans, it’s a good idea to give them a mid-season application of a liquid organic vegetable fertilizer.
Monitoring for pests and diseases
As you tend your garden keep an eye out for pests and plant diseases. Disease issues of lima beans include bacterial blight, mosaic virus, and anthracnose, a fungal disease. Common pests include aphids, bean beetles, flea beetles, spider mites, and larger pests like rabbits and deer. To help reduce future problems, clean up the garden bed at the end of the growing season. Add spent plant debris to your compost bin. Leaving dead plants in the garden provides an overwintering opportunity for various bean diseases as well as adult insects or eggs.
When to harvest lima beans
Lima beans can be eaten as a summer shell bean or as a dried bean. Again, they must be cooked before you consume them. The first cue to harvesting fresh limas comes from the ‘days to maturity’ information listed on the seed packet. As that date nears check the pods to see if they have matured. They will be 4 to 8 inches long, depending on the variety, and have 3 to 5 seeds per pod. The pods are ready to pick when they are plump and firm. Harvesting lima bean pods as they mature can prompt the plant to keep producing more, extending the season. When harvesting, don’t tug the pods from the plant, but instead use one hand to hold the vine and one to pick the pod. You can also use garden snips to pick the pods.
Fresh lima beans can be blanched and frozen for up to 3 months. For dried beans, let the pods dry on the plant and then shell or thresh the beans out. Store dried beans in an air tight container in a dry spot like a cupboard. They will maintain their quality for one year.
Lima bean varieties
There are numerous varieties of lime beans available from seed catalogs. Some are vining plants and others have bushy growth. Be sure to read the variety descriptions carefully so you select the type that best suits your garden.
Bush lima bean varieties
- Fordhook 242 (80 days) – This is an heirloom lima bush variety and is also an All-America Selections winner. The bushy plants grow 16 to 20 inches tall and are early and productive. Expect a heavy crop of 3 1/2 to 4 inch long pods with 3 to 4 beans per pod. Fordhook 242 is heat-resistant and sets pods even in high temperatures.
- Early Thorogreen (70 days) – This is a great variety for small spaces or containers because the compact plants don’t need staking and grow 18 to 20 inches tall. By mid-summer 3 1/2 to 4 inch long pods are produced near the tops of the bushy foliage. This is considered a ‘baby lima’ variety and the interior beans aren’t as plump as a variety like Fordhook 242. That said, they have an excellent flavor.
- Henderson’s Bush (70 days) – Henderson’s Bush is a dwarf variety with early maturing plants that grow about 18 to 20 inches tall. The pods are about 3 to 3 1/2 inches long and contain 3 to 4 small, buttery seeds.
- Jackson Wonder (70 days) – Jackson Wonder is early to yield its crop of small tender beans. The fresh shell beans have a greyish color, but the dried beans are brown or buff colored with black streaks and specks. Very striking! A good variety for short season gardens.
Pole lima bean varieties
- King of the Garden (90 days) – This popular vining lima bean variety is a standout with vigorous vines that grow 10 or more feet tall. They’re ideal for planting at the base of a fence or trellis. King of the Garden yields large 4 to 6 inch long pods with jumbo-sized seeds.
- Big Mama (85 days) – Big Mama is an open-pollinated lima with vines that grow 8 to 10 feet long. Expect a generous harvest of 7 to 8 inch long pods filled with massive, plump beans.
- Christmas (85 days) – This heirloom variety has been grown by gardeners for over 150 years, adored for its harvest of large pods and seeds. Those seeds are also eye-catching, with burgundy streaks and spots over top a white base. Support the 10 foot tall plants with strong trellising.
- Sieva (82 days) – Sieva beans is an heirloom variety and was grown at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in the 1700’s. The robust vines climb 9 to 10 feet and produce 4 inch long pods with 3 to 4 seeds each. The medium-sized seeds are creamy when cooked.
For more on growing legumes in the garden, please check out these articles:
- Growing black beans in a vegetable garden
- How to grow green beans – snap and pole
- Growing pole beans on tunnels
- Learn how to grow edamame in a home garden
Do you have any tips on lima beans planting and growing in a home garden?
andy batch says
I grow beautiful vines every year with lots of flowers. Not a lot of pods with very small beans. I fertilize, water, and weed. What am I doing wrong?
Niki Jabbour says
Hi, I’d suggest a soil test to see if your soil is deficient of any major nutrients. It could also be due to high temps which often reduce pollination, as well as drought-stress. If plants are thirsty, they don’t set pods well.
Norma Tyndall says
How can you prevent colored butter beans from turning brown in the pod
What should I use on my Lima beans to get rid of aphids?